The 72-year-old, who featured in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, will be presented with his award at next month's film Baftas.
He said: "I know that film means a great deal to me but I had no idea that I meant so much to film. I feel very honoured."
Hurt - who recently starred in BBC1 family drama series Merlin - came to prominence with his award-winning portrayal of Quentin Crisp in TV film The Naked Civil Servant.
He went on to play a huge number of acclaimed roles, including performances in Midnight Express, Nineteen Eighty-Four and A Man For All Seasons.
But possibly his most unforgettable performance was as Kane in Ridley Scott's Alien where, in a harrowing scene, the creature bursts out of his chest.
Hurt will receive his award at the event - formally called the Orange British Academy Film Awards - at London's Royal Opera House on February 12.
Bafta chairman Tim Corrie said: "He has extraordinary screen presence and brings utter conviction to every role he undertakes."
Previous recipients have included luminaries such as Mike Leigh, Kenneth Branagh and Derek Jarman.