Star Wars reviews: The Clone Wars Season 7

Presenting a really late entry in the latest round of Super Blog Team-Up, looking at Expanded Universes. Everyone else got their contributions up around June 24th. Oh, well, maybe that’s actually appropriate, since I’m looking at the much-delayed conclusion to The Clone Wars.

The long-awaited seventh and final season of the Star Wars animated series The Clone Wars was released earlier this year thru the online streaming service Disney+.

My initial experience with The Clone Wars was underwhelming.  In the three year period between Attack of the Clones (2002) and Revenge of the Sith (2005) there had already been numerous stories set during the Clone Wars presented in Dark Horse’s Star Wars comic books, in various novels, and the original Genndy Tartakovsky animated series.  So when the computer animated movie The Clone Wars was released in 2008, followed by the ongoing series on Cartoon Network, my initial reaction was basically “Why do we need more of this?”

There were a couple of other reasons.  I actually read Karen Traviss’ excellent novelization of The Clone Wars before I saw the movie.  Traviss gave the characters some very complex, subtle motivations, and explored the ambiguity of the conflict.  None of that was present in the actual movie, leaving me disappointed.

And then there was the character of Ahsoka Tano, the teenage Jedi padawan introduced as Anakin Skywalker’s student in The Clone Wars movie, created by George Lucas & Dave Filoni and voiced by Ashley Eckstein.  I’m going to quote Wikipedia here…

“Although initially disliked by both fans and critics, Ahsoka developed into a well-rounded, complex character who received positive reactions from both groups. Serving as a foil for Anakin Skywalker, she has been highlighted as a strong female character of the franchise.”

Yes, that sounds very accurate, and it was basically my experience with Ahsoka Tano.  At first I did not like her, and I thought she was a pointless addition to the Star Wars mythos.  I never followed the ongoing television series, only catching an episode here or there, so this impression lingered for a while.

However, over the next several years The Clone Wars developed a huge following of younger viewers.  For these new fans, this was their Star Wars, and Ahsoka Tano was their Jedi hero, just as Luke Skywalker had been mine growing up in the early 1980s.  I did catch a few of the later episodes, and read some summaries of the others.  I realized that the overall writing on the series had improved tremendously, and Ahsoka had developed into an interesting, three-dimensional character.

Season Six came out in 2014, meaning there’s been a six year wait for the series’ conclusion.  In that time another animated series, Star Wars: Rebels came out, in which we learned Ahsoka Tano and clone trooper Captain Rex both survived the war.  I’m sure this must have left a lot of regular viewers with plenty of burning questions about what had actually happened.  So now we finally have the conclusion, and the answers.

Season Seven is 12 episodes long, divided into a trio of four-episode storylines:

The first four sees Captain Rex (Dee Bradley Baker) working with a misfit group of clone troopers known as the “Bad Batch” to go behind enemy lines in order to discover how the Separatist armies are seemingly anticipating all of the Republic’s battlefield plans, and to find out if Rex’s comrade, the missing and presumed dead clone trooper Echo, is actually still alive. (A spin-off animated series featuring the Bad Batch was just announced by Lucasfilm.)

The second storyline features Ahsoka, who has left the Jedi Order due to the hypocrisy and politics she saw the Jedi Council practicing.  Ahsoka’s speeder bike breaks down in the undercity of Coruscant, and she meets teenage sisters Trace and Rafa Martez (Brigitte Kali and Elizabeth Rodriguez).  Trace is a brilliant, idealistic mechanic, and Rafa is a more cynical figure who believes that breaking the law only way the two of them will ever escape poverty.  Ahsoka initially sympathizes with Trace, but she comes to realize that Rafa has a legitimate point, that the sisters’ socioeconomic circumstances have left them with very few paths.  When the sisters’ involvement in a spice-smuggling operation goes pear-shaped, Ahsoka helps them escape from the ruthless Pyke Syndicate.

I did think this four part segment was a bit padded out.  It reminded me of a Doctor Who serial from the Jon Pertwee era, with Ahsoka and the Martez Sisters getting captured, locked up, escaping, running around, getting recaptured, locked up again, escaping again, running around again… you get the idea.  Nevertheless, it was still a fun and thoughtful story.  It also leads into the next segment, as Ahsoka learns that Darth Maul (Sam Witwer) is working with the Pykes.

The final four-parter chronicles the Siege of Mandalore.  Ahsoka has joined forces with a group of Mandalorians led by Bo-Katan (Katee Sackhoff) who want to liberate their planet from Maul’s control.  Realizing they don’t have the numbers to stage an assault, Ahsoka goes to Obi-Wan Kenobi and Anakin Sywalker, who she has not seen since she left the Jedi.

Unfortunately the Separatists have launched an attack on Coruscant and kidnapped Chancellor Palpatine, and Obi-Wan (James Arnold Taylor) has orders to return there immediately.  Ahsoka accuses the Jedi of once again playing politics, of prioritizing the Chancellor over the people of Mandalore.  Anakin (Matt Lanter) agrees to split up his clone forces, giving Ahsoka and Rex half of them to take to Mandalore.  Ahsoka, Rex, Bo-Katan and the clone army arrive, and there is a huge, stunning battle against the Mandalorian commandos allied with Maul.

Ever since the introduction of Boba Fett waaaay back in the animated sequence from the Star Wars Holiday Special and The Empire Strikes Back, there has been a lot of speculation about Fett and the other occupants of Mandalore.  Due to the technical limitations of the early 1980s, as well as Fett actually being a fairly minor character in the original trilogy, very little of this was ever explored on-screen.

I think part of the appeal of this storyline is that we finally get to see the mythical Mandalorians in combat.  The same goes for the live-action series The Mandalorian, also on Disney+.

Initially I thought bringing Darth Maul back from the dead was a bit ridiculous, but it is another area that worked out well in the long run.  Maul is a lot like Boba Fett, a visually interesting character who was ultimately underused in the movies.  Maul in The Phantom Menace was basically Darth Sidious’ attack dog, nothing more.  Maul, resurrected in The Clone Wars, and then later seen in Rebels, is a cunning, dangerous agent of chaos who seeks to carve out his own power base and undermine the plans of Sidious.

There are definite parallels to Ahsoka and Maul at this point.  Both of them have become disenchanted with their previous beliefs.  Ahsoka has lost faith in the Jedi Order, and Maul wants revenge on Sidious for casting him aside.  Maul makes a pitch to Ahsoka to join forces with him, and we can see that she is definitely tempted.  In the end, though, she rejects the offer, and the two come to blows.  Ahsoka, with the aid of Bo-Katan and Rex, eventually defeats the former Sith.

And then everything goes to Hell.  Anyone who has seen Revenge of the Sith knew this moment was coming, but it nevertheless remains a wrenching experience.

I really thought The Clone Wars would end before the events of Revenge of the Sith, because I just could not imagine the series actually showing Order 66.  But they went full-in.  Palpatine / Sidious orders the elimination of the Jedi.  Ahsoka, just like all of her former comrades, finds the clone troopers turning against her.

A good development introduced in The Clone Wars was the idea that the clone troopers had control chips implanted in their brains, chips that when activated would make them follow Sidious’ commands without question.  This enabled the clones to be loyal, courageous, honorable soldiers throughout the series, and explain why they so quickly turned on the Jedi.  In the end the clones were also victims of Sidious, robbed of their free will, reduced to mindless assassins, forced to murder their own generals.

Ahsoka discovers the existence of the chips and is able to extract the one in Rex, freeing him from Sidious’ control, but she is unable to save the rest of her troops.  The final scene of Ahsoka and Rex standing before the graves of the clone troopers is genuinely haunting.

Someone on Twitter recently commented “The last four episodes of Clone Wars was some of the best written, acted and directed Star Wars ever created.”  That’s a sentiment with which I definitely agree.  Those final four episodes are exciting and moving and heartbreaking.  Dave Filoni’s scripts were incredible.  The voice acting by Eckstein, Baker, Witwer and everyone else was superb.

The animation on this final season was absolutely stunning.  There were moments when I forgot that this wasn’t live action, that’s how good it was.  I realize that there is a large group of people involved in creating the animation for this project, and the majority of them unfortunately do not get the recognition they deserve.  My compliments to everyone involved in literally bringing all of these characters and all of these action sequences to life.  Job well done!

I recognize that some of the Star Wars movies released under Disney have been underwhelming.  This final season of The Clone Wars, as well as the first season of The Mandalorian, are refreshing reminders that there is still a tremendous amount of potential to the franchise, that there are many more fun, exciting, interesting stories that can be told within this fictional universe.

Here are links to all of the other #SBTU contributors. We had a lot on entries this time. Please check them all out. Thank you.

Star Wars reviews: Jedi Aayla Secura

I’m continuing the countdown to the debut of The Force Awakens in December with another look at entries in the Star Wars Expanded Universe.  Today’s post spotlights Star Wars: Jedi – Aayla Secura published by Dark Horse in August 2003.  It was written by John Ostrander, drawn by Jan Duursema & Dan Parsons, and colored by Brad Anderson.

SW Jedi Aayla Secura cover signed

Several months have passed since the Battle of Geonosis.  The Clone Wars, the war between the Republic and the Confederacy, has spread throughout the entire galaxy.  Republic supply convoys are being ambushed in space by Confederacy raiders.  The Jedi T’ra Saa receives a holocomm message from Senator Elsah Sai Moro from the planet Devaron.  Elsah informs T’ra that the raiders are operating from Devaron and are being assisted by a member of the government.  Before the Senator can name the culprit, she is assassinated on-camera.

Soon after a trio of Jedi arrive on Devaron undercover: Aayla Secura, Tholme, and the mysterious Dark Woman.  Unfortunately the Dark Woman is recognized by Elsah’s killer, Aurra Sing.  Years before, the Dark Woman was Aurra’s teacher, but the young Jedi-in-training was kidnapped by space pirates, and she turned to the Dark Side.  Now a bounty hunter and assassin, Aurra hates the Jedi with a burning passion.  Aurra informs her employer, Senator Sai’Malloc, that the three visitors to Devaron are Jedi and that she intends to kill them.

Sai’Malloc does not want more murders on her hands and reluctantly admits her collaboration to Aayla.  By this time, however, Tholme and the Dark Woman have already fallen into a trap laid by Aurra.  To save her fellow Jedi, Aayla is forced to fight the deadly bounty hunter.

SW Jedi Aayla Secura pg 8

As I’ve mentioned before, one of my favorite writers on the Star Wars comic books from Dark Horse was John Ostrander.  The penciler he most frequently worked with on these stories was Jan Duursema.  Having previously penciled issue #92 of the original Marvel Comics series in late 1984, Duursema became a regular contributor to the Dark Horse titles a decade and a half later, making her one of only a handful of creators to have worked on both SW runs.

Ostrander and Duursema were quickly paired up at Dark Horse and became an effective team.  One of their first collaborations was “Twilight” in Star Wars #19-22.  It introduced Quinlan Vos, an amnesiac Jedi tempted by the Dark Side, and his Twi’lek apprentice Aayla Secura.  Over the next several years Ostrander & Duursema did excellent work developing the characters of Quinlan and Aayla, as well as the brooding Tholme and the beautiful tree-like T’ra Saa.  Ostrander & Duursema examined the upheavals all four experienced as the Jedi were drawn into the conflicts and politics of the Clone Wars.

One of the threads Ostrander & Duursema wove in and out of the Republic monthly and the Jedi quarterly book was Quin’s continuing struggle with the temptations of the Dark Side.  By the time of Jedi – Aayla Secura, Quin had apparently defected to the Confederacy, falling under the sway of Count Dooku.  In fact Quin was working deep undercover as a double agent, so deep in fact that the handful of Jedi who knew the truth, as well as the readers, were constantly left questioning if Quin really had gone bad.

Quin had previously saved Aayla from becoming a pawn to a Dark Jedi, and she now wishes to go after her old teacher to return the favor.  Tholme, one of few to know the truth of Quin’s scheme, forbids it.  Consequently throughout this issue Aayla finds her memories returning to her past instruction by Quin, and the bond of friendship they shared.

SW Jedi Aayla Secura pg 25

Ostrander compares and contrasts Aayla Secura and Aurra Sing.  Both of them were kidnapped and subsequently tempted by the Dark Side while they were still Padawan learners.  Quinlan refused to give up on his pupil, pursuing Aayla across the galaxy to locate her and bring her back to the light.  On the other hand, Aurra’s teacher was the Dark Woman, who was so fanatical about observing the Jedi’s code of avoiding attachments that she even gave up her real name.  When Aurra was abducted, the Dark Woman simply resigned herself to her student’s loss since she never allowed herself to develop any sort of emotional attachment to her.  Aurra’s subsequent corruption, her transformation into a sadistic killer-for-hire, is at least partially due to the Dark Woman’s negligence.

An interesting bit of characterization by Ostrander is Senator Sai’Malloc.  Like many politicians, she is not genuinely evil, merely weak and greedy.  She had only intended to line her pockets with Confederacy money, and to gain favor with them, so that if they emerged as the victors of the War she would be in a position to use them as allies.  But as Sai’Malloc’s involvement with the Confederacy grew, her crimes snowballed out of control.  Eventually, in order to keep her role a secret, she resorts to murder.  It is a very believable, realistic depiction of how corruption gradually eats away at a person.

SW Jedi Aayla Secura pg 29

The pencils by Duursema are incredible.  She draws some amazing action sequences.  The fight between Aayla and Aurra is absolutely dynamic, a ballet of violence.  Duursema also excels at the quieter scenes of characterization.  The flashbacks to young Aayla being taught by and developing a friendship with Quinlan are very effective.

I really like Dan Parsons inking Duursema’s pencils.  They began working together with Republic #50 and have been an art team ever since.  I had previously enjoyed Parsons’ work writing & drawing his creator-owned series Aetos the Eagle and Harpy.  His detailed inking has a very dark tone to it, simultaneously very slick & polished and rough & gritty.  Parsons’ early art reminded me somewhat of Michael Bair.  Parsons’ inking gave Duursema’s pencils an atmosphere that was appropriate for the grim, moody tales of war and espionage that Ostrander was writing in the Star Wars comics.

The coloring by Brad Anderson is also very effective.  It is vibrant yet subdued, somber when necessary without becoming muddy.  Again, it works well at creating an atmosphere in these stories.

Aayla Secura Attack of the Clones

Aayla Secura has the distinction of originating in the Expanded Universe and then appearing in the actual movies.  George Lucas, while he was in the middle of making Attack of the Clones, saw Dark Horse artwork featuring Aayla and, struck by her appearance, added her to the movie.  She was portrayed by ILM production assistant and actress Amy Allen.

Aayla subsequently appeared in Revenge of the Sith where she was one of the numerous Jedi killed by the Clone Troopers during Order 66.  Between the comic books by Ostrander & Duursema and the movies, Aayla had definitely became a fan favorite, and many, myself included, were upset at her demise.

I wonder if Aayla’s popularity and the reaction to her death helped inspire Lucas to create Ahsoka Tano, another female teenage alien Jedi.  She also became popular among Star Wars fans and, unlike Aayla, survived the events of the Clone Wars.

The majority of the Dark Horse material is apparently now non-canonical, but don’t let that dissuade you.  If you cannot find this one via back issues or the now out-of-print trade paperbacks, I’m sure that Disney-owned Marvel will eventually be repackaging it.  All of the issues by Ostrander & Duursema are well worth reading.  They are among the best entries in the entire Expanded Universe.

This review is dedicated to Jan Duursema’s daughter Sian, who convinced John Ostrander not to kill off Aayla at the end of “Twilight,” therefore leading to many more wonderful stories featuring the character.

Star Wars reviews: Republic #61

The new Star Wars movie The Force Awakens comes out in December.  Although I haven’t written much about it on this blog, I’ve been a big Star Wars fan since I was a kid.  At first I was thinking of re-watching and reviewing the previous six movies on this blog as a sort of lead-in to The Force Awakens.  But I realized that so many others have written about them already.  Besides, I just couldn’t decide what order to review them in!

Then it occurred to me to look at some of the tie-ins that have been published over the past 38 years, the comic books and novels.  Most of those have never been examined in-depth.

I know that many people were disappointed in George Lucas’ prequel trilogy.  While I readily acknowledge that those films were flawed, I still enjoyed them.  And they opened up a whole new world of possibilities for the so-called “expanded universe.”  Dark Horse, which had the rights to publish Star Wars comic books from 1991 to 2014, released many excellent stories set during the prequel era.

My favorite writer to work on the Dark Horse comics was John Ostrander.  He has always been incredibly adept at crafting stories that combine action, drama and political intrigue.  This made him particularly well suited to examining the events of the prequel era.

Star Wars: Republic #61 is written by Ostrander, with artwork by Brandon Badeaux & Armando Durruthy and a cover by Brian Ching.  It was published in January 2004.

Star Wars Republic 61 cover signed

Sixteen months after the Battle of Geonosis the Clone Wars are raging across the galaxy.  Senator Bail Organa is en-route from his home planet of Alderaan to the capital on Coruscant when his ship is attacked by space pirates.  Fortunately the Jedi arrive to drive off the raiders.

Landing on Coruscant, Organa is greeted by Senator Mon Mothma.  She is unsettled by the Senate’s willingness to leave oversight of the war to Supreme Chancellor Palpatine.  Organa acknowledges he is perplexed the Senate hasn’t discussed the Republic’s recent catastrophic defeat on Jabim.

That evening Organa is secretly visited by Finis Valorum, the previous Chancellor who resigned in disgrace after a vote of no confidence.  Valorum is aghast at the Senate granting Palpatine more and more power.  Organa rationalizes that this is “temporary,” to which Valorum fires back…

“The Senate barters away the fundamental rights upon which the Republic was built! You trust that the tyrant you are creating will give them back to you when the crisis is over? Palpatine will give back nothing! No one who seeks power the way that he does ever surrenders it willingly!”

Valorum informs Organa that Palpatine is using the assault on the Senator’s ship to reintroduce the Security and Enforcement Act.  Organa is alarmed by this news.  As their meeting ends the two are unknowingly observed by a cleaning droid equipped with a camera.

The next day Organa has an audience with Palpatine.  The Senator questions the lack of debate on Jabim.  Palpatine waves this away, arguing that if the facts of the Republic’s defeat were on the record it would serve to alarm those whose loyalty is wavering.  Organa then informs the Chancellor that he resents the space pirate attack being used as an excuse to reintroduce the Security and Enforcement Act, and that he will be opposing it.  An unperturbed Palpatine simply replies:

“You must, of course, do as you think best. Might I give you a small warning? It would not be wise for you to see Finis Valorum again. Dirt rubs off so easily, and can tarnish those who would otherwise seem clean.”

Of course Organa detects the implied threats beneath Palpatine’s seemingly polite words, and he begins to ponder if Valorum is correct.  Soon after he and Mon Mothma meet with Valorum, who is preparing to depart Coruscant.  Organa says he is starting to share Valorum’s  suspicions concerning Palpatine.  Valorum boards his ship, which takes off… and then, to Organa and Mon Mothma’s horror, the vessel explodes above the spaceport.

The following day in the Senate, the destruction of the ship by an act of “terrorism” is offered as a further argument for the necessity of the Security and Enforcement Act.  Organa addresses his colleagues, voicing his opposition.  He passionately argues of the dangers that occur when too much power is held by a single individual:

“This chamber is a place of reason, invested with certain powers and authorities! When power is invested in many, it cannot be seized by one! That was the plan and the purpose when the Republic was formed!

“The powers that this Act seeks to invest in the Supreme Chancellor belong to the Senate! They are our responsibilities and given to us in trust…

“We fight for the Republic. But what is the Republic, if not the principles on which it is based? To cast aside those principles would make even a clear-cut victory in this war pointless.”

Despite Organa’s efforts, the Act is passed into law by the Senate.  Although he has lost this battle, Organa tells Mon Mothma he now recognizes the importance of fighting for the integrity of the Republic.

Star Wars Republic 61 pg 9

When Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith were released in 2002 and 2005, Lucas was asked if he was commenting upon George W. Bush’s “War on Terror,” the passage of the Patriot Act, and the formation of the Department of Homeland Security.  Lucas denied this, stating that both the original trilogy and the back story he utilized in the prequels were originally conceived in the early-to-mid 1970s.  If there was any influence, it was actually Richard Nixon and the Vietnam War.

Lucas went on to state that the prequels were an observation of the cyclical nature of human history.  Specifically he was commenting upon how democracies often give way to dictatorships as citizens willingly give up their rights & freedoms for the promise of security.

This is something that I’ve observed on this blog before, the seductive lure of the so-called “benevolent dictator” who will supposedly guide a nation through turbulent times with a firm hand, relieving the population of the burden of the messy, complicated business of democracy.

I went to see Attack of the Clones in the theater with my father. He didn’t regard the rise of the Separatists and the Battle of Geonosis being secretly orchestrated by Palpatine to enable himself to obtain “emergency powers” from the Senate as a reference to the War on Terror.   Instead my father was reminded of how in 1964 Lyndon Johnson convinced Congress to pass the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution in response to a supposed act of aggression by North Vietnam.  This gave the President the power to utilize military force in Southeast Asia to combat “Communist aggression” without a formal declaration of war from Congress.

Star Wars Republic 61 pg 12

In 2008 I met Karen Traviss, author of several novels set during the Clone Wars, at a book signing.  As with Lucas, she commented that her books were not inspired by the War on Terror per se, but on reoccurring motifs throughout history.  Traviss stated that just as people seeing the prequels in the early 21st Century might be reminded of Bush, so too would those born in the mid 20th Century recall Johnson and Nixon, and a Roman centurion watching the movies would see parallels to the rise of Julius Caesar.

Nevertheless, when I met John Ostrander at a comic convention in early 2005, he confirmed for me that Republic #61 was certainly his commentary on the War on Terror.

There were several scenes filmed by Lucas for Revenge of the Sith where Padme Amidala, Bail Organa and Mon Mothma, realizing that Palpatine does not intend to relinquish his extra powers once the war concludes, begin organizing the movement that would become the Rebel Alliance.  Unfortunately these ended up on the cutting room floor, although they were included in the extras on the DVD.  As these were omitted from the actual movie, I’m glad that at least in the comic books Ostrander was able to depict some of the events that placed Organa and Mon Mothma on the path to opposing Palpatine.

Ostrander is correct that “temporary” or “emergency” powers granted to heads of state are often anything but transitory and are seldom relinquished.  One only needs look at the transition from George W. Bush to Barack Obama.  I don’t know if Republicans honestly believed that the authorizations that they granted the Presidency in the aftermath of September 11th would simply vanish into thin air once Bush left office.  But they certainly appeared to be completely shocked when Obama utilized those same broad powers to authorize drone strikes and conduct warrantless surveillance on millions of American citizens.

Star Wars Republic 61 pg 21

This is one of the reasons why I am a huge science fiction fan.  Yes, sci-fi is fun with its robots and rockets and ray guns.  But the genre also allows writers to offer commentary on political and social issues via allegory and symbolism.  Often it is much easier to critically analyze these controversial topics by transposing them into the future or onto another planet, to address divisive questions in a setting less likely to arouse bitter partisanship.

Ostrander certainly did this in his work on the Star Wars comic books published by Dark Horse, crafting stories that were both entertaining and thought-provoking.

Christopher Lee: 1922 to 2015

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.

Christopher Lee

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.

Christopher Lee Dracula

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.

Christopher Lee The Devil Rides Out

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.

Christopher Lee Peter Cushing Horror Express

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.

Christopher Lee The Wicker Man

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.

Christopher Lee Count Dooku

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.”

Christopher Lee narrator

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.