With John Hurt receiving a knighthood in the Queen’s new year honours, Top 10 Films revisits one of the acclaimed English actor’s most memorable moments: the dinner table scene in Alien
In “Her Majesty’s” new year honours, John Hurt joined an illustrious list of great actors to have had their services to drama celebrated by the award of a knighthood. Historically only given to those whose achievements have come through military service, the contemporary knighthood recognises contributions to national life. Those to receive one of the highest “honours” an individual can attain in the United Kingdom include business leaders, teachers, scientists as well as actors, entertainers and musicians. Some of the most famous celebrities to be knighted include Elton John, Paul McCartney, Laurence Olivier and Michael Caine. Once knighted, recipients become a “Sir”.
In 2015, one of my favourite British actors John Hurt received his knighthood. This got me thinking about his long and varied career which began in 1962 with Ralph Thomas’ The Wild and the Willing. In 1971 he began to get the attention his talent warranted when he received a BAFTA nomination for his role as the doomed Timothy John Evans in Richard Fleischer’s chilling 10 Rillington Place. However, it wasn’t until 1978 when he appeared as Max in Midnight Express (which he gained BAFTA and Golden Globe awards, and an Oscar nomination for) that his notoriety rose dramatically. In the next four years he would appear in Ridley Scott’s Alien, have a voice role in Watership Down, and astonish the world with his convincing, beautiful and tragic turn as Joseph Merrick, also known as The Elephant Man, in David Lynch’s 1980 film.
Yet, it’s Alien that I want to talk about here. Hurt has a comparatively small role in Scott’s 1979 classic science-fiction horror but it is not only pivotal to the development of the film’s plot but arguably the most important performance in the film (aside from Sigourney Weaver’s as the film’s female protagonist). Without wanting to spoil the film for anyone who hasn’t seen it, given that it came out several decades ago I’m going to assume most reading this will have either witnessed Hurt’s character Kane’s demise or heard about it as one of the greatest scenes in horror cinema.
Yes, Hurt dies; not at the end of the film, but in its extended first act. It’s unexpected, it’s emotionally devastating; and it sends shockwaves through the viewer because we are suddenly faced with a difficult proposition: if John Hurt’s Kane can die, then anyone can (a plot device which becomes even more potent when our willingness to seek a hero turns to Tom Skerritt’s equally doomed Captain Dallas).
In this classic scene, the crew members of the Nostromo sit down for a final meal before they re-enter stasis in order to journey back to earth. They had earlier been awakened by a distress signal from a planet their ship was passing. On investigating, Hurt’s character Kane was attacked by an alien organism that attached itself to his face. After a few hours the creature appears to release Kane and die. Kane seems in good health and good spirits. As the crew sit down for their meal, he jokes about the quality of the food and they all laugh. But suddenly he begins to choke and then convulse. The crew believe he is choking but the shocking realisation that something is breaking out of his chest becomes clear when blood pierces his white shirt.
Kane’s fellow crewmembers try to stabilise him but his body contorts dramatically, his erratic motions kicking the dinner table’s various items onto the floor with a plastic “crack”. The blood on his shirt grows a deeper shade of red.
Then there’s movement. His shirt breaks open with an eruption of entrails, the pale walls of the spaceship’s interior are splattered with red, and the ship’s navigator Lambert recoils with muted scream and a bloody face.
From within appears the head of a creature, its small mouth filled with razor-sharp, metallic teeth. It lets out an infant’s cry having been birthed by Kane and tears further flesh from its “mother’s” body as it scurries away from the open-mouthed crew to hide in the Nostromo’s air duct system.
Director Ridley Scott brilliantly ends the scene with a brief but important pause on the carnage. The vacant reactions of the witnesses are haunting but there’s an eerie, unwelcome silence that really gets under the skin.
Hurt’s performance in Alien is especially good for two reasons. The first, and most obvious, is his violent death. The threat is from within – a frightening proposition in itself – but Hurt makes it so devastatingly affecting because of his physical reaction to it. His writhing body shows he has lost control of himself which alludes to the forthcoming events of the film where the ship, in its entirety, loses control to this dangerous and mysterious alien creature. We see his pain manifest through his contortions while our reaction is painted on the faces of the crew that try to help him. Like them, he is helpless, as our we, to the horror that emerges.
What makes this scene even more powerful is Hurt’s part in the story leading up to it. As Executive Officer, he is one of the ship’s senior members. Only the Captain is above him. In early scenes he shows a fascination with discovering what might have emitted the distress signal. In some respects, you could say his ego drives his courage, perhaps putting himself and the crew in danger in order to serve his own curiosity. But importantly he shows courage as well as a high degree of intelligence. That all disappears after the dinner scene leaving the crew exposed without one of their leaders. It also heaps pressure on Captain Dallas who loses his right hand man, and someone you’d expect him to bounce ideas off. Without Kane, Dallas is also exposed, as are we the audience, to the horrifying threat that quietly grows in the Nostromo’s shadowy corridors.
Written by Daniel Stephens
Read more from our Classic Scenes series by clicking here