Farewell Christopher Lee, Lord of Misrule

“Every actor has to make terrible films from time to time, but the trick is never to be terrible in them.”

“The thing I have always tried to do is surprise people: to present them with something they didn’t expect.”

Christopher Lee, literally the screen’s most prolific actor, passed away last week at the sprightly age of 93. He will, no doubt, be remembered chiefly for his work in the horror genre, particularly in the heyday of Hammer Productions’ Dracula series, in which he played the villainous count 7 times. But what these reminiscences obscure is the enormous versatility of which Lee was possessed. Apart from his supernatural roles as Hammer’s Dracula, Mummy and Frankenstein Monster, his credits of evil include a Bond film, Star Wars, The Lord of the Rings and The Wicker Man. But lesser known are parts as both Sherlock and Mycroft Holmes (the latter for director Billy Wilder) as well as the mild-mannered Henry Baskerville, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the founder of modern Pakistan and roles in Shakespearean productions, to name but a handful of his more than 200 screen credits.

And this diversity reveals what was so indescribably wonderful about Christopher Lee – he was an actor who never judged a film, never thought he was above material, just brought integrity to whatever project he happened to take on with grace and a characteristic power. He combined a classical style and stature with an utterly modern attitude to cinema, and seemed equally at home in contemporary or period settings, ‘high’ or ‘low’ brow fare, a knack few, if any, possess so abundantly.

Lee, a cousin of Bond author Ian Fleming, as villain Francisco Scaramanga in The Man with the Golden Gun.

I first discovered Christopher Lee in my early teens, watching The Man with the Golden Gun. I remember being struck by how, single-handedly, he saved Roger Moore’s Bond from irredeemable silliness. The gravity and presence that suffused his every on-screen moment captivated me, the nobility and power he managed to radiate even while his character’s defining trait seemed to be a third nipple. It was only after that I realized this was the same man who had brought such evil to life as Saruman in the recently-released Fellowship of the Ring – reveling in his character’s debasement and corruption opposite Ian McKellen’s excessive nobility – and had again shown up to save an otherwise disastrous film in Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones. 

I subsequently devoured his work as Dracula, The Mummy and Frankenstein’s Monster. But then I saw The Wicker Man, Lee’s defining moment of remarkable power, dark humour and sinister grace (he himself considered it by far the greatest of his horror roles). Speechless at this work of brilliance, I immediately put my allowance to good use investing in his autobiography, which I would recommend to any, even casual, fan.

In many ways, looking back, the obsessive passion I quickly developed for Christopher Lee and his work was a pivotal moment in my lifelong love of film, a debt I will forever hold to his memory.

Perhaps Lee’s greatest role, as Lord Summerisle in The Wicker Man (arguably Britain’s greatest horror film).

For Christopher Lee was an actor who seemed naturally to inspire cult-like devotion among fans. The legions of geeks, cinephiles and collaborators that have paid tribute since his passing is testament enough to that. And reading his autobiography, which reads every bit as charming and full of majesty, wit and wonder as his famous parts, it is easy to understand.

What a life this man led. Like many of his generation he fought in WWII. He ran spying missions in North Africa (for a secret bureau colloquially known as The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare) that are still classified to this day and continued that service of His Majesty after the war on covert operations to hunt down escaped former Nazis. After which, aged just 25, he decided to give acting a whirl.

Less known is that he was present at the final public execution by guillotine in Paris, was descended through Italian nobility from Roman Emperor Charlemagne, spoke at least six languages fluently and according to him several others conversationally, met (among many others) Rasputin’s assassins – he later played the mad monk onscreen – and J.R.R. Tolkien, and recorded, between the ages of 89 and 92, three heavy metal albums.

At the age of 79, Lee played what will likely be his most-remembered part, the white wizard Saruman in The Lord of the Rings trilogy. Lee, the only member of the cast to have actually met Tolkien, read the books once a year for the last 50 years of his life.

Though he took on an astonishing number of roles (appearing in, with two exceptions, at least one film a year since 1948), Lee was no mercenary. His battles with Hammer over the direction of their Dracula films are testament to that. After vowing to do no more, he returned when convinced of the fact that a whole division of Hammer staff would be laid off if another film was not made. Upon reading the script, he agreed to do the film but to say none of the dialogue, which he felt was awful. And so Dracula: Prince of Darkness features a speechless, hissing Lee as villain – Hammer, a company that routinely recast roles, decided they’d rather have a mute Lee than none at all.

This sort of silent physicality personified him as a performer. He once said, “I don’t play long parts. They must be short parts, but they’ve got to be parts that mean something, that matter, where people will notice when I’m on the screen, and people will remember the character after they’ve seen the film.” Well, we certainly remember them.

Lee, in a rare role as hero rather than villain. He battled a satanic cult as the Duc de Richelieu in Hammer’s The Devil Rides Out. Near the end, he even smiles.

For evidence of versatility, contrast his interpretation of Frankenstein’s Monster, for instance, with his other Hammer roles as Dracula and the Duc de Richelieu. As the Monster, gone is the aching Miltonian tragedy of Karloff. Lee’s performance is pure physicality, pure presence. Emptied of all emotion and humanity, Lee distills his craft into something altogether more primal, connecting with the audience’s basest fears as a mirror into which we can project whatever it is that truly scares us.

And yet, it is with an abundance rather than absence of inflection, in his other famous role as Count Dracula that Lee rewrites Bela Lugosi’s creepy posturing and Max Schreck’s abject horror. His Count seethes with sexual power – you believe (for once) that an unsuspecting visitor might really be taken in by his haughty smile, his measured cadence, his stature.

I would recommend The Devil Rides Out to all, for a glimpse of Lee as the hero of the story for a change. His skill as an actor is on show as he toys with the audience’s foreknowledge of him as a variety of villains by playing that familiar sinister edge against an unshakable faith in the forces of good and light.

This is just one of many performances that showcase his incredibly modern take on acting style, incorporating his cultivated relationship with fandom and the outside world into the fabric of the film. He always seemed at once to be a part of the movie world and simultaneously talking right to you, sat in your seat in the cinema.

Four titans of horror: (clockwise from top left) Christopher Lee, Vincent Price, Peter Cushing and John Carradine on the set of House of the Long Shadows. It was Lee’s final film of 22 with Cushing, his best friend.

“One should try anything he can in his career, except folk dance and incest.” So said Sir Christopher once upon a time, and it can hardly be said that he didn’t try just about everything.

But he also said this: “We don’t always get the kind of work we want, but we always have a choice of whether to do it with good grace or not.” And if there is a defining characteristic to his attitude across the nearly-70 years that separate his first film appearance and his last, it is a grace, an effortless elegance and respect for both his fans and material, no matter what it might be.

Knighted at the age of 87 and awarded a BAFTA Fellowship at 89, it is clear that it took some time for Christopher Lee to be afforded the place he deserves in the pantheon of popular cinema. If we can carry a legacy forward in his name, let it be his balancing act of never judging a film as being beneath him (so long as it was crafted with integrity) and yet always taking care to do his part to the best of his considerable ability.

This is what captivated and thrilled me as a youngster, still does every time I see his name in the credits of a film (many of which I have watched purely for his brief appearances) and I’m sure did and does the same to all across the world who love him and his work.

“What’s really important for me is, as an old man, I’m known by my own generation and the next generation know me, too.” One hopes that in his final days he rested assured that there truly is no danger of his ever being forgotten.

Few actors will likely ever have the sort of longevity in the cinema that Christopher Lee had. Fewer still will inspire the fervent devotion of all those who loved him and relished his every screen role. And, I think it’s safe to say, there will never be any screen presence or career quite like Sir Christopher Lee’s again.

Christopher Lee 1922-2015

“Making films has never just been a job to me, it is my life. I have some interests outside of acting – I sing and I’ve written books, for instance – but acting is what keeps me going, it’s what I do, it gives life purpose.”

– posted by Dave