Veteran actor Christopher Lee passed away on June 7th at the age of 93. Judging by the numerous comments and posts that have appeared online in the week since then, Lee had a legion of fans, many of whom grew up watching the movies in which he appeared. And, yes, I am definitely one of them.
Lee led such a long, interesting, full life that entire books could be written about him; I am sure that at least a few already have. There is no way that I could do his life & career justice by attempting to cover them in a single blog post. So I am merely going to share my thoughts on him, and on the performances I found most memorable.
One of Lee’s famous early roles was in Dracula, released in the UK in 1958 by Hammer Studios (titled Horror of Dracula in the States). Lee portrayed what some would argue is the most iconic depiction of the vampire lord. In the role of Count Dracula, Lee was suave, cultured, and sensual, yet also savage and frightening.
Playing opposite Lee in Dracula was Peter Cushing as Professor Van Helsing. Lee and Cushing co-starred in a number of films, and they were also very close friends.
The next Dracula movie, Dracula: Prince of Darkness, was not released by Hammer until 1965, with several more sequels following in rapid succession. Lee reprised his role of the vampire in most of these, albeit very reluctantly. In later years he commented that he found the dialogue written for him to be atrocious and begged Hammer to utilize some of the lines from the original Bram Stoker novel. When they refused to acquiesce Lee instead played Dracula mostly dialogue-free.
Lee’s final two performances as Dracula were in movies that I consider quite odd even by Hammer standards. Dracula A.D. 1972 opens in the late 19th Century, with the vampire and Van Helsing, reprised by Cushing for the first time since 1958, in what appears to be their final battle. Van Helsing once again manages to slay his undead adversary, only to succumb to his own wounds. The movie then jumps ahead a century to present day London, where Dracula’s disciples revive him. Opposing him is Lorrimer Van Helsing, a descendant of Dracula’s adversary portrayed, naturally enough, by Cushing.
The modern day storyline wrapped up a year later in The Satanic Rites of Dracula. The movie cast Dracula in the role of an apocalyptic super-villain who plotted to wipe out humanity with a mutated strain of the bubonic plague.
By now Lee’s dissatisfaction with having to play Dracula was palpable. In what appears to be an interesting piece of method acting, Lee as Dracula, contemplating the total eradication of humanity, displays a tangible ennui, and it can simultaneously be read as the vampire’s weariness at his endless cycle of destruction & resurrection and Lee’s frustration at feeling imprisoned in the role.
In any case, this was his final outing as Dracula. The next year Lee went on record, stating…
“I will not play that character anymore. I no longer wish to do it, I no longer have to do it and I no longer intend to do it. It is now a part of my professional past, just one of the roles I have played in a total of 124 films.”
Despite his despondency as having to repeatedly reprise Dracula for Hammer, Lee nevertheless acted in numerous other movies made by the studio. A part of that was obviously due to his desire for steady work, but he also appeared to have a real fondness, if not for the studio’s management, then for his fellow actors, and for the people working behind the cameras.
In his 1997 foreword to The Hammer Story, a look at the history of Hammer Studios by Marcus Hearn and Alan Barnes, Lee wrote…
“Hammer inspired some superb work from a talented group of technicians and actors. Even our canteen, run by Mrs Thompson, was the best in the country. I know this has become a cliché, but, for a while, we really were a family.”
Certainly some of the Hammer movies that Lee appeared in were quite good. One of my all-time favorites is The Devil Rides Out (1968). In one of his all too rare turns as a hero, Lee portrayed the Duc de Richleau, an expert in the occult who uses his knowledge & abilities to fight against the forces of darkness. The movie was adapted from Dennis Wheatley’s novel of the same name by another talented writer, Richard Matheson. Lee knew Wheatley personally, and one gets the impression that the actor was keen to ensure the adaptation of his friend’s work turned out as well as possible. Without a doubt The Devil Rides Out is an amazing movie, and it was one of the few that, decades later, Lee would look back upon with genuine satisfaction.
Lee worked on numerous other movies outside of Hammer’s output. That aforementioned desire for steady work meant that Lee would accept nearly any job offer. And he certainly was offered a great many, as he was a very talented actor. As noted by the website TV Tropes, “Christopher Lee made a career out of doing any role at a reasonable price without excessive prima-donnaism. In other words, if you could fork up the cash, you’d get a classy talent who’d play any role.”
Of course, this inevitably resulted in Lee appearing in some really bad movies. Sturgeon’s Law states that “ninety percent of everything is crap.” Well, Lee undoubtedly appeared in a lot of crap. It definitely speaks to his talent and professionalism, though, that he was almost inevitably the best thing in most of those awful movies. Often his presence in an otherwise-execrable production would be the one thing preventing it from being a total disaster.
Regarding some of the less-than-noteworthy movies that he appeared in, Lee philosophically observed…
“Every actor has to make terrible films from time to time, but the trick is never to be terrible in them.”
All of this comes to mind with Lee’s performance in the James Bond movie The Man with the Golden Gun (1974). Lee was related to author Ian Fleming, who unsuccessfully attempted to have him cast as Dr. No in the very first Bond film. It’s regrettable that did not come to pass, although twelve years later Lee finally had an opportunity to play a Bond villain in The Man with the Golden Gun. Unfortunately it is one of the campiest entries ever in the Bond film series. The highlight of the movie is undoubtedly Lee’s portrayal of Scaramanga, the world’s most dangerous assassin.
Actually, the cinematic version of Scaramanga is a definite improvement over the literary one. In the novel, Scaramanga was a crude, sadistic thug whose only distinguishing quality was his incredible prowess with a gun. In contrast, Lee’s Scaramanga was cultured, sophisticated and chilling in his casually ruthless actions. It was a memorable performance in a somewhat mediocre movie.
Fortunately, amidst all the rubbish Lee appeared in were a number of quality films. In 1972 Lee was reunited with Cushing when they co-starred in Horror Express, a Spanish / British co-production about a monster stalking the passengers of the Trans-Siberian Express. Horror Express contains another of Lee’s infrequent turns as the protagonist. Despite its low budget, the movie’s intelligent script coupled with Lee and Cushing’s performances make it enjoyable. I just re-watched it about a week ago and it’s still entertaining.
Of course, when it comes to listing Lee’s greatest movies, mention must be made of The Wicker Man (1973). Written by Anthony Shaffer and directed by Robin Hardy, The Wicker Man featured Lee in the role of Lord Summerisle. On numerous occasions Lee cited it as one of his favorite performances.
I saw The Wicker Man in the mid-1990s when I was in college at Pace University. Rebecca Martin, who taught two of the literature classes that I took while I was a student there, screened the movie one evening as part of an informal series of films that members of the Lit/Com Department were presenting.
The Wicker Man is not a horror movie per se, but it is definitely horrifying. It is a film about religious fanaticism. Perhaps that is why I found Lee’s performance so riveting and creepy. Unlike so many of the other antagonists he portrayed over the decades, there actually are many individuals such as Summerisle in the real world, a charismatic man who regards himself as “good” but who exhorts others to commit terrible acts in the name of religion.
Lee’s career was on the wane in the 1980s and 90s, although he did pop up here and there. However, with the dawning of the 21st Century, Lee suddenly became very much in-demand, and was once again being offered numerous roles.
Lee was a longtime fan of The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien. He stated on several occasions that he re-read the trilogy once a year. One of his longtime ambitions was to appear as Gandalf in a cinematic adaptation of Tolkien’s works. The stars finally aligned in 2001 as Peter Jackson began filming his adaptation of the trilogy. By this time Lee was unfortunately too old to play Gandalf, but he was cast in the role of Saruman, the once-noble wizard who was corrupted by power and ambition.
I haven’t actually seen the three Lord of the Rings movies all the way through. Like Tolkien’s novels, they are loooooong! Actually, I never finished the original books either. One of these days I really need to, at the very least, obtain the DVDs and take the time to watch the trilogy. I’ve heard so many good things about them.
Lee’s old friend Peter Cushing had appeared in the original Star Wars, playing Governor Tarkin. It was therefore quite appropriate that George Lucas cast Lee himself in the second and third prequel films, Attack of the Clones (2002) and Revenge of the Sith (2005). Lee portrayed Count Dooku, a former Jedi who had turned to the Dark Side. He also voiced Dooku in the animated movie The Clone Wars (2008) which was set between those two films.
It was somewhat frustrating that Lucas’ scripts offered very little to explain Dooku’s fall from grace. Nevertheless, despite the limited development of the character, Lee memorably brought the Sith Lord to life, imbuing him with gravitas and menace.
(Thinking about it, I am left wondering if Lucas was influenced by Saruman when casting Lee as Dooku. There are definite similarities to the characters.)
Star Wars and The Lord of the Rings introduced Lee to an entirely new generation of viewers, and gained him many new fans. He was subsequently cast in various high-profile projects. After decades of toiling in low-budget movies, at long last he finally gained real prominence, as well as a decent paycheck.
Lee appeared in 206 films made over a 67 year period. However there were definitely many other aspects to his life. Lee was also an accomplished singer, recording a number of albums, including heavy metal. He spoke several languages fluently, and he was an expert fencer.
Lee was also a World War II veteran. This was an aspect of his life that he mostly kept to himself, offering sparse details. He was assigned to the Special Operations Executive, which was also known as the Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare… and what a very British name that is! Apparently Lee participated in a number of covert operations behind enemy lines. At the end of the war he was reportedly involved in hunting down Nazi war criminals. In regards to the specifics of his military service, Lee would only comment…
“I was attached to the SAS from time to time but we are forbidden – former, present, or future – to discuss any specific operations. Let’s just say I was in Special Forces and leave it at that. People can read into that what they like.”
Lee also had this to say about his experiences during the war…
“I’ve seen many men die right in front of me – so many in fact that I’ve become almost hardened to it. Having seen the worst that human beings can do to each other, the results of torture, mutilation and seeing someone blown to pieces by a bomb, you develop a kind of shell. But you had to. You had to. Otherwise we would never have won.”
It seems likely that during the war Lee not only witnessed but was also required to commit many deeply unpleasant acts. I imagine that his reluctance to discuss this was motivated by the fact that he did not regard himself as a hero, but merely as someone who did his duty to help keep his country safe.
I regret that I never had the opportunity to meet Christopher Lee. I’ve sometimes commented that he was the real life version of “the world’s most interesting man.”
A number of years ago one of his Hammer Studios movies, Scars of Dracula, was released on DVD. It is a rather unremarkable entry in the Dracula series. Nevertheless, I purchased it because it included a second bonus disk containing a documentary, The Many Faces of Christopher Lee. Indeed this nearly hour-long piece was infinitely more entertaining than the Dracula movie.
In the documentary, Lee speaks at length about his career and on of a variety of subjects, including his knowledge of fencing, his spirituality, and his great-grandmother, the English-born Marie Carandini who was an acclaimed opera singer in 19th Century Australia. Lee discussed his thoughts on roles in specific movies, and there were brief clips of these, among them The Devil Rides Out, Rasputin, Hannie Caulder, The Three Musketeers, The Wicker Man and his 1978 appearance on Saturday Night Live.
If you can find The Many Faces of Christopher Lee on DVD then I highly recommend getting it. It offers a fascinating glimpse of a multi-talented man who led an extraordinary life.