How do you even start to do justice to Christopher Lee? His life, his career, and the scale of his personal and professional achievements are truly humbling. At six feet five inches, he was virtually a giant in physical terms; as an artist he was a literal one.
Christopher Frank Caradini Lee turned to acting after the Second World War, during which he served with Special Forces and, following the end of hostilities, was responsible for tracking down Nazi war criminals and bringing them to justice. Between 1947 and 1957 he appeared in thirty-eight films in minor roles before Hammer Studios cast him as the Creature in 1957’s Curse of Frankenstein, opposite his friend Peter Cushing. The following year marked his first appearance in the role that made him a star and with which he was ever after associated: Count Dracula. He played the role no less than a further six times for Hammer, often with little or no dialogue. Lee disliked the sequels, saying in later years that he was emotionally blackmailed into making them: Hammer’s president, Jimmy Carreras, would call up and beg him to think of all the people he’d put out of work if he refused to do the film.
Dracula established Lee as a major actor, with a particular affinity for urbanely malevolent characters, such as the arch-assassin Francisco Scaramanga in the James Bond film The Man With The Golden Gun (1974), Count Rochefort in Richard Lester’s The Four Musketeers (1974) and Return of the Musketeers (1989), to name but two. He played a different kind of villain in Hammer’s Rasputin, The Mad Monk (1966). Lee’s Rasputin is a brutal, rapacious figure, with none of Dracula’s suavity or patrician charm, but all the same, utterly convincing. Perhaps it helped that, as a child, he’d met two of the Mad Monk’s real-life assassins, Prince Yusupov and the Grand Duke Dmitri Pavlovich.
He was also, however, eminently capable of deploying his considerable gravitas in the service of good. There was Professor Meister in The Gorgon (1964), the great detective in Sherlock Holmes and the Deadly Necklace (1962) and his brother Mycroft in The Private Life Of Sherlock Holmes (1970.) And, of course, in one of Hammer’s finest productions – the Richard Matheson-scripted adaptation of Dennis Wheatley’s The Devil Rides Out (1968) – he pitted his wits, as the Duc de Richelieu, against Charles Grey’s supremely malevolent Black Magician Mocata.
The Devil Rides Out is a stone-cold masterpiece with superb atmosphere, pitch-perfect writing, first-class casting, and of course, Lee’s commanding presence at the heart of it all. Wheatley himself was so delighted with the film that he granted Hammer the rights to his other Black Magic novels free of charge. Sadly, Hammer’s only other Wheatley adaptation, To The Devil, A Daughter (1976) – again starring Lee, this time as a villain – was an altogether less successful affair, and led to Wheatley withdrawing his permission. By then, of course, Hammer’s horror glory days were almost at an end.
Additionally, Lee played Sax Rohmer’s Oriental arch-fiend Fu Manchu in five films between 1965 and 1969. From a modern viewpoint the character, born out of racist paranoia about the ‘Yellow Peril’ is pretty problematic – and we probably shouldn’t even get started on the politics of a white actor playing a decidedly Chinese role – but nonetheless Lee’s performance was unarguably as captivating as ever. There are still viewers who shiver to recall him intone the line: ‘The world shall hear from me again…’
Also controversial, even at the time, was Lee’s casting as Pakistan’s founder in the 1998 biopic Jinnah, which he regarded as his best performance. However, he considered his best film to be Robin Hardy’s The Wicker Man. Although a commercial failure on its initial release in 1973, the film has since become a cult classic, in which Lee gave one of his finest and most nuanced performances as Lord Summerisle, the laird and spiritual leader of a Scottish island community that has abandoned Christianity for the old pagan faith.
The film is as much a ribald black comedy as anything else, with another formidable actor, Edward Woodward, as Howie, the dour and devoutly Christian police sergeant who arrives on the island to investigate a young girl’s disappearance. The Wicker Man, and Lee’s portrayal of Lord Summerisle, merits an article all to itself (and has had one elsewhere!) but works as comedy, as horror and as a profound drama showing two equally devout belief systems, each wholly valid on its own terms, in collision. Lee’s Lord Summerisle is no aristocratic prince of darkness – although to the Christian Howie he may so appear – but a devoted follower of his faith, doing what must be done to safeguard his community.
Lee never fell into obscurity after the Hammer days; he kept on working, and if some of his films were of variable quality, he continued to bring his presence, professionalism and gravitas to every role he did. Then, at the turn of the new century, Lee’s film career enjoyed a renaissance. His friend, the director Tim Burton, regularly cast him in supporting roles, but it was two other directors, George Lucas and Peter Jackson, who brought him to the attention of a new generation of filmgoers. For Lucas he played Count Dooku in the Star Wars prequels Attack of the Clones (2002) and Revenge of the Sith (2005); by then in his 80s, he nonetheless performed the majority of his own sword-fights.
Jackson, meanwhile, cast him as Saruman in the New Zealander’s film adaptation of The Lord Of The Rings (2001-2003) – something of a labour of love for the actor, who religiously re-read the novel each year. Lee was also in the unique position among the film’s cast and crew of having actually known J.R.R. Tolkien personally. The two roles, as Lee acknowledged himself, meant he was now an actor known to every living generation of cinemagoers.
The man could also sing; operatically trained, he was able to hit some truly awe-inspiring low notes, as he proved in Philippe Mora’s 1982 The Return Of Captain Invincible, a musical superhero comedy with lyrics by Richard O’Brien in which Alan Arkin, as the titular hero, looks as though he were desperately wishing he were somewhere else, but in which Lee, as the Nazi supervillain Mr Midnight, is clearly having an absolute whale of a time. Simply search for ‘Christopher Lee Name Your Poison’ online to relish what may well be the film’s choicest musical gem. Captain Invincible is a bonkers minor classic and well deserving of your appreciation.
His vocal skills also led him to become the oldest heavy metal performer in the pantheon, recording two full-length concept albums based on the life of the ninth century Frankish emperor Charlemagne (from whom, incidentally, Lee claimed to be descended): Charlemagne: The Sword and the Cross (2010) and Charlemagne: The Omens of Death (2013.) In 2012 he released an EP of heavy metal Christmas songs (yes, you read that correctly.), and a single from the EP, Jingle Hell, charted at number 18, making Lee, by then 90, the oldest living performer to enter the charts.
Among numerous other honours, he was knighted for his services to drama and charity in 2009. In 2011 when presented with the BAFTA Fellowship Award – the highest honour the Academy could bestow.
When Sir Christopher Lee died on 7th June 2015, aged 93, he had appeared in over 200 films – more than any other British actor. He was, by all accounts, a true gentleman; as an actor, he was, quite simply, a legend. When his Hammer co-star Peter Cushing died, Lee paid tribute to his friend’s kind and gentle character, admitting that he doubted he’d be remembered with anything like such affection. If any remnant of his consciousness does persist, he’ll know he was wrong.
I still remember staying up late, as a boy, to watch the old Hammer movies on television; still remember being spellbound by him as Fu Manchu. The Wicker Man and The Devil Rides Out are among my favourite classic horror films. That’s just scratching the surface of my memories of the man’s work, and I don’t doubt that’s also true of many people reading this article.
It bears saying again: the man was a legend. Rest in peace, sir. We will miss you.
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