Sir John Hurt: The Elephant in the Room

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O B I T U A R Y – S I R  J O H N  H U R T

Shudipto Dip

The industrial revolution was an era of strained paradigm shift. It was a time when people started drawing the line between barbarism and empathy to treat the outcast and the untouchables. Fear of the unknown, no matter how harmless, was more in fashion than modern times. Now imagine being (treated as) a mindless beast, no less of an ogre—and not the green beans like Shrek—having to survive off of your most despised attribute in the thriving metropolis of Victorian London. Imagine not being able to rest on your back for the deformity you did not ask for, yet still be subjected to physical abuse. Imagine being the source of amusement for drunk masochists. This is (at best half) the story of Joseph Merrick, alias The Elephant Man.

Copiously advertised for its daily eight-hour-long makeup sessions, The Elephant Man became an instant cult classic upon release in 1980. Director David Lynch spared no expense at immortalising the historical figure, neither did the prolific actor who walked around in 15 layers of prostheticsSir John Vincent Hurt. What makes the film so entrancing and elevates it from just being a curious case study is the profound reasoning of morality. The elephant man lived off his beastiality, or rather his partner lived off of him. Exploiting his lack of speech orientation, the partner became the master, making him the whipped pet.

We follow the story of surgeon Frederick Treveswho risks his job to pull Merrick out of his troglodytic trait. We admire his objectivity, as he questions his own actionsif he is turning Merrick from a freak show to a sardonically similar sympathy show. We appreciate the little efforts of the nurses who put up with his putrid smell or the hospital chairman who confronts the board to accommodate him despite the incurability. An actress introducing Merrick to art, or Merrick disproving social stigma in the high societyall these soul-stirring moments are equally balanced by the heart wrenching scenes of nomads in the urbanising populace. We get to ask about their unfathomably disturbing nature, just as we get skeptical about the coercion to civilise, and a probable hypocrisy among the elites who welcomed him.

In its essence, the story of Joseph Merrick is the story of being a human. A steady transformation of the mind to a riveting personalitythe film is the peak example of character development. And cinematography-wise, it’s a monochromatic magnificence. 

Playing the titular character, Sir John Hurt was evidently immersed in his persona of a disfigured myriad of flesh with an astute voice acting. While he played a faceless role in the film, we often seem to overlook his appearance in major blockbusters. Take, for example, another film about a faceless protagonistV for Vendetta, where he played a vexed High Chancellor. Be it spitting orders as a fascist Londonese overlord, or taking orders from a fascist Polynesian onehe aces them both, as he played the lead in 1984an adaptation of the most acclaimed dystopian fiction of all time.

With a career spanning over five decades, his contribution in and clearly not limited to stage plays is prodigious. His role as Caligula in the historical drama I, Claudius, or roles in fictional drama like Crime and Punishment and King Lear implies an impressive television history. Confronting homosexuality in The Naked Civil Servant earned him an instant fame. Fighting death as a rabbit in the malevolent Watership Down or fighting orcs as Aragorn in The Lord of the Rings (1978)he spread out to spread joy in animation as well. 

Knighted in 2015, this luxuriant actor is commemorated by sci-fi lovers for his role in Ridley Scott’s pietaAlien (1979) and one of his last roles as The War Doctor in Doctor Who. His portrayal of the leader of the suppressed in Bong Joon-Ho’s criminally underrated masterpiece Snowpiercer is particularly compelling. As is his role as Hellboy’s adoptive father in the first two films. David Lynch addressed him as “the greatest actor in the world”. And, if you don’t recognise him by now, Sir Garrick Ollivander will hand you a faulty wand next time Harry Potter takes you to Diagon Alley. Or, he might not, considering Hurt’s commendable contributions for children’s welfare. 

Sir John Hurt was born on 22 January 1940 and died on this day, aged 77.


Shudipto is a replicant with the emotional range of a labradoodle.


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