A Honourable Fond Farewell to The Last of The Long Shadows.
Sir Christopher Frank Carandini Lee, CBE, CStJ
27th May 1922 – 7th June 2015
“To be a legend, you’ve either got to be dead or excessively old!” – Christopher Lee.
Before we continue onward with TCMR’s valedictory to the late and great Christopher Lee we must clarify what was to be the objective of this vast mission. The first point to make is that this piece would not quite start at the beginning but at the commencement of when the great man entered a period in my own personal space and time and my further acknowledgement of his film star quality and its actual effect on me thereafter. To start at his acting humble beginnings to what was throughout a long an illustrious career would be a step to far for someone of my meagre ability, though mention of his earlier career will doubtless appear during this farewell, it’s inevitable really. So for the sake of sanity and to make life selfishly easier in order for me to move forward – I will simply concentrate on what I understand of the man and his intellect, myth, charisma and his acting legend. Secondly, I will not attempt to go into greater depths but merely border or mention in passing what we already know of this fascinating person, including certain noted aspects of his full and astonishing life both as the actor we came to love but also certain aspects beyond his film star persona as we move along. Neither I’m afraid will I be able to chronologically establish the order in which I mention the films that meant a great deal of importance upon me personally, for again that may also be a task to far but I will do my best to achieve some kind of reasonable order. Why? Well consider this fact when noting this proposition, for it is known that Lee appeared in more than 250+ (278?) films throughout his unbelievable career longevity, so basic attempts at written syncopation of his extensive résumé is again – bound to failure. The fact is that over the last several months or so, everything that can be posthumously concluded regarding Christopher Lee has already been acknowledged and previous to his passing we already knew much regarding his illustrious career which through the many decades of our lives, we as fans are now re-engaged in looking back at, sadly in memoriam. Many of the latest summations, clear stated notions, memories, thoughts and opinions regarding Lee have come from those better placed to actually know the actor on a personalised level, i.e. family, friends, work colleagues and those fortunate to have had him perform in their cinematic, television or musical output, therefore I would strongly suggest that these associated individuals can say more about this extraordinary person than I ever could in my capacity as a film fan blogger. What I am doing here is to merely add my voice of appreciation as said fanboy to a man who participated in acting out characters that gifted me worlds of horror, fantasy, adventure, sci-fi, thrillers, comedy and historical participation. He appeared in realms and character situations largely incomprehensible to the day-to-day mundane. He performed in an eclectic career of acting performances of one type or another despite being often typecast throughout the most part of his vast career, in particular during the course of his lengthy association with a certain established British film institution that everybody regular to this site will know of its significance and association with my extensive, overblown bow to the late, wonderful Peter Cushing. He was most often cast as a cinematic bad boy but don’t let this situation fool you, for when Lee played unsavoury characters they were often much more sophisticated than mere hothead parts. His villainous escapades often chilled with thoughtful commentary rather than brazen acts of violence, he merely hinted at what his characters could achieve which was often enough in justifying his character profile, knowing he could quite easily carry out the threats offered forward. When Lee unravelled as film Bad Guys, you also knew that he would most often dictate the result and its consequences often with trademark aplomb. For people of my age his association with Hammer Films would be the point where many of us would begin the ride with this outstanding and gifted acting presence no doubt. Finally, I would like to bid a personal farewell to someone whom though opposite of many of my own personal held beliefs, thoughts and opinions, politically (what remains of that!) or otherwise, he will always be acknowledged as a considered master of his art, and most certainly an integral part of my personal growth and strangely has always been an established reoccurring personality of note in regard of the sheer enjoyment I have taken from what Christopher Lee did in his day job. I just hope I can do justice with this personal thank you to someone I consider a true acting legend.
When a true giant of a specified area of film performance, those special individuals that imbue cinema as one of the most engrossing and compelling forms of cultural entertainment pass away, we also start to recognise this recent increasing trend that saddens the heart with a greater pace and most certainly leaves an exponential gap, something that seems to be happening on a more regular occurrence as many of the renowned acting legends of my earlier lifetime pass on to acting immortality. Such moments as these also offer a perspective of our own real personal mortality in regard of the fact that certain film stars like it or not where and will always remain an integral and important part of our lives without initially or consciously noting this bizarre long term relationship until they sadly leave us behind and we then immediately begin to reminisce, contemplate their passing and surmise that we most often simply and figuratively took these acting stalwarts for granted as we happily and unassumingly welcomed them into our front rooms and let them get on with their on screen job description. These stars of screen and television created performances that often provide a comfort zone in which to head toward in differing states of daily life and routine. We looked forward to the prospect of sitting down in order to watch and simply enjoy their visual companionship. This outward situation also hints heavily toward the fact that everyone we note in these memorable film created time capsule moments will also grow older despite the fact that many of these legendary stars the like of Christopher Lee have often defied time due to the continued recycled occasions we got to view them doing their special thing in their earlier based – back catalogue features; all these moments set in a time before their own personal mortality finally started to show the physical signs of their very own ageing processes, a situation that unfortunately catches up to us all come the final breath of life. In Regard to Christopher Lee, it was very easy to grow up seeing a tall, strangely mysterious, handsome, almost unique looking gentlemen with a physical command, a polished air and grace and a sophistication always formulated by his very presence and visual demeanour, a feature of his character that often hinted at a slight pomposity which I imagine most certainly stemmed from his inner confidence to perform at his own highest personal maintained level, assimilated doubtless through his years of private education and all that system entailed. These established mannerisms became standard traits during early British cinema and often typified a conceived Britishness that by its very nature was what most of the world at that time perceived of our diverse isle. His deep cut glass voice, his perfect diction and his 6”feet 5”inch stature could most certainly impose and shake foundations, yet by the same token he could so easily be comfortable when engaging his visual appeal with moments of great acting calmness and an astonishing connective interaction, all this happening within the blink of an observant eye. Another part of his considerable performance make-up would be his unique and impeccable vocal skills which alone would surely have offered an alternate career, often did as it would transpire! Visually, Lee was most often able to portray an intensely dark imposing manifestation that may have hinted at a slight cathartic process based upon factual moments captured through his earlier life experiences while serving the nation during WWII. Just watch these perfect character attributes shine ominously, in one particular and clear case in point with his fuelled to capacity achievement while he played James Bond’s nemesis Francisco Scaramanga, an extremely cool, calculating, eccentric assassin who becomes 007’s assignment in The Man With The Golden Gun (1974). Not only is this still one of the finest Bond outings ever but Lee’s wonderful uncompromising interpretation of this sophisticated socio-path/psychopath is most certainly one of the finest villains ever to appear and confront James Bond in any version of the franchise. Screw the critical panning this 007 effort received in some quarters! This Bond film is still highly engaging and rewarding to fans of the series. As usual it is also enjoyable to watch in all aspects of what makes the earlier ‘Moore’ Bond movies that something quite unique and special. The release of a Bond film always remained an event to look forward to personally, so on this particular occasion it was a double bonus purely by Lee’s presence. Again I must also add my biased disposition also kicks in here, simply because Roger Moore still remains my favourite of all those who have played James Bond. Christopher Lee as Scaramanga is superb… end of silly conversation!
Christopher Lee as Scaramanga.
The significance of the first real demystifying of who Christopher Lee was as a visual, physical specimen came in one particular moment when he was finally allowed to leave behind the monstrous façade of his earlier iconic horror incarnation as Adam aka The Creature in Terence Fisher’s magnificent, The Curse of Frankenstein (1957).
Christopher Lee in The Curse of Frankenstein, 1957.
His real star quality reveal finally came in the summer of 1958 when again he fought against his on screen opposition in the form of the formidable Peter Cushing as Abraham Van Helsing in Terence Fisher’s stunning Hammer production of Dracula. We should also note in passing that from his time on ‘Curse’ to his cloak wearing turn as the Count, within that year; in between these two iconic roles, he had worked on no less than eight more projects, from voice over work, to television and film. The highlight amongst this flow of continued employment was undoubtedly his appearance in the TV series Ivanhoe (1958) in which he played the role of a character known as Sir Otto from the Rhine. Workaholic simply doesn’t cut it. I would imagine the anticipation of his eventual star in the making unravelling would be more appealing to those who had recognised Lee in the earlier part of his career – minus the spectacular make up effects and greasepaint applications of the great Phil Leaky who gave Lee his glorious though unidentifiable monster imagery in ‘Curse’ – the film that alerted people of the name Christopher Lee in physical frame only. From the moment Lee calmly welcomed John Van Eyssen as Jonathan Harker into castle Dracula it was clear that this was a piece of cinema history being made right here! Not content with viewing this suave tall figure hiding away the true monster of his character, we did not have long to wait before Valerie Gaunt as one of the Counts vampiric concubine attempts to lure the hapless Jonathan Harker into false pretence before eventually drawing Hammer films vampiric first blood. Such displeasure and audacity quickly gains the wrath of her master and Lee in a full blood curdling hiss, his eyes completely blood shot red, his fangs revealed and tipped with blood as from each corner of his mouth, lines of fresh blood drip down toward each side of his chin. After the disobedient melee that follows, Lee scoops up Gaunt and withdraws from the scene, leaving Harker consigned to what will inevitably be much dread and fear. Despite the Jimmy Sangster twists of tale based on Bram Stoker’s original concept, this became the moment that Dracula as a filmic recreation forever changed one of the gothic period character incarnations into a truly supernatural force to be reckoned with. Though Bela Lugosi had played Dracula in 1931 and was splendid and legendary in the part, his black and white showmanship in all truth did not – could surely not compare to Lee’s terrifying scarlet introduction? A true moment of horror iconography that surely surpassed even Lugosi’s famed vampiric version.
Christopher Lee as Count Dracula, 1958.
This very notable and commanding presence that we all came to know as Christopher Lee was now well on the road to becoming a dominant filmic figurehead, despite the facial make up effects of ‘Curse’ or his less hidden incarnation as Count Dracula, in Terence Fisher’s first two noted major masterpieces which would finally make Lee the household name we associate to this date. Whatever his earlier genre guises, these two significant moments bring to issue those enthralling memories of both early childhood in which Hammer production values took their hold, this trend though considered mild by the standards set today still became something to marvel at and Hammer films would remain the reissued favourite with many genre fans, perhaps even a secret love that would most certainly still hold great sway into youthful teen years in which my own personal horror realms began to expand into a period not self reliant on TV schedules but the age of video cassette tape nirvana and the eventual so called ‘alleged’ state of mind set toward future adulthood, a time in which I can now truly appreciate and collect these beautiful pieces of work that form part of an ever expanding platoon of soldiers standing to DVD and Blu-ray attention.
That is really no way to treat a close personal friend?
Remembering these earlier years of engendered liberation, brings to mind those visual fantastical teasing moments that ultimately delighted the senses, made ones jaw drop – made we/I scarily and emotionally tick, such things becoming a new filmic experience that added to the internal mechanics of personal growth. The visual Technicolor vibrancy of the Hammer films and what largely appealed was at times all consuming and quickly had an effective appeal on those once innocent senses of childhood which suddenly became tested during those regular one-half hour outings of horror movie magic that most often included the stand-out majestic duo of Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee as they appeared on screen together, often exchanging enemy blows. These were always moments to savour when with regularity they appeared as a perfect combination that was truly special, unquantifiable. When allowed to finally discover the wonder of genre films and those actors that stood out and took you on some uncertain journey of horror inspiration, these traits would inevitably follow many of us throughout life. For the most part their influence was always going to automatically re-assimilate their fans to type as they added an overwhelming enjoyment factor to the stimulative memory bank we first obtained in those moments of childlike innocence, that time in which we gained a very excitable sense of fear and emotion, once regularly achieved and even today often still tenant, though these terse feelings do become much harder to replicate in adult conditioning. Despite the drain of adulthood we must still appreciate the importance of such ceremony and their permanence in our original horror cinematic induction. To this day it is always the case in point that within fleeting seconds of catching an unscheduled glimpse of background television and witnessing Cushing or Lee dominate the screen with their omnipresent occupation; suddenly and without question it becomes easy to be once more transfixed and gain back some of those forgotten feelings, that spirit of appeal and adventure that originally formulated all the summoned characteristics that made watching these convincing actors a genuine joy to behold, this despite seeing these roles repeated many times before. A sudden glimpse of Lee as Frankenstein’s monster in reveal or once again being enthused by his dominant Count Dracula standing at the foot of the stairs hissing and staring at you with those terrifying eyes, recertifies the wonder of Hammer films and Christopher Lee’s immediate though disturbing appeal and impact, something deeply embedded in our excitable geeky kink. Despite everything, these character portrayals still remain that little something you tend to put to one side; “you know… keep for yourself.”
Christopher Lee in two of his finest villainous roles.
In the case of those whom regularly shone brightly as the glowing acting beacons of light, Christopher Lee was of that high standard and vintage. He was constantly there in full view and when allowed to, he could often be seen lurking somewhere in the background in some form of televisual prime time; either seen playing celebrity golf, or being interviewed on a chat show or on the set of his latest film. On one noted occasion I remember Lee being rightly honoured on the show, This Is Your Life. His particular big red book moment came in 1974 soon after completing shooting of the first of the back to back Musketeer films. Eamonn Andrews before he pounces upon the unsuspecting Lee is seen hovering in the background of a film set while Lee works out extensively with William Hobbs. The practising combatant sword fencing witnessed is extremely intense, both men having no fear in not withholding their strong and strident athleticism. This sweat induced battle ceases only when Andrews finally interrupts the set-up and Lee is genuinely shocked when he sees Andrews cautiously approach the intensity of the moment with his famous book.
Christopher Lee’s Red Book moment.
Whatever the scenario that brought Christopher Lee to our immediate attention, he was ever present. From playing the iconic obvious horror symbolism to performing in parts which today would undoubtedly be often considered PC unfriendly, ‘then’ often stereotypical interpretations; based upon the likes of an exampled fictional Chinese criminal character wanting to dominate the world! “The world will here from me again?” which happened in a series of (Dr) Fu Manchu based film franchise or he often turning up in typically noted interpretative adaptations of bad guy foreigners and in time honoured career fashion went on to portray Frenchmen, Spaniards, Greeks, Poles, the above noted Chinese villain, Indians, Italians, Romans, Germans, Arabs, Gypsies, Russians, Egyptians, Wallachians and the obviously fictional noted son of Transylvania? Before we condemn this cinematic behaviour, think before haste warrants dismissal of the facts? Is that not the whole process of being an actor, a person who may have to perform outside comfort zones, if that’s what this sort of role interprets with all ethnic worlds and character portrayals etc. Granted until as late as the 1980’s this sort of trend remained and still on the odd occasion is not uncommon for 21st century cinema to indulge in what many may consider lazily formed caricature. Lee being a consummate professional played all villains and other character forms despite ethnicity, religious leaning or endemic madness and did so with his usual stated high calibre performances. It was not about creating an endemic form of racism, though on occasion such behaviour was distinctly dodgy in how cinema often promoted peoples ethnicity mainly by film production companies who cared little regarding such agendas, though many actors were seen not to have social concern also. This trend was construed as prevalent of its era but perhaps is more about a period in the then world climate of film making that took their own moral interpretation of what should or should not work in regard of these sometime (cringe-worthy) matters. Actors were simply there in order to do their job and play the part presented before them, Lee simply played the part provided and nothing more. It also has to be highlighted that despite this delicate subject and not wishing to ignore such noted historical references, we must add that Lee would in his prime mature acting years go on to play an important historical figure lead role in the biography of Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan, during the time of partition, in Jamil Dehlavi’s, Jinnah (1998).
Christopher Lee as Muhammad Ali Jinnah, 1998.
This film was also noted for being Lee’s own personal favourite performance, a serious and noted role! This favouritism toward this particular performance and Lee’s staunch opinion regarding its importance says all that needs to be said regarding this matter and also clearly defined this distinction when we note that director Dehlavi personally picked and directed Lee for this specific important historical interpretation. It is most certainly a worthy companion to Sir Richard Attenborough’s, Gandhi (1982). Take from this exampled cultural performance what you will and let us now move on. Despite what we may feel of these kind of rolls or the modern mindset and has to the right or wrong of the whole process of portraying established foreign guises, it was an issue of its time but we should also note that despite the theory behind past casting, Lee always remained a consummate character actor who was willing to play parts other than those we now except with admiration, whether that be as Hammer’s pin-up boy or in his later roles expanding beyond type (to a point) and just being a dominant presence even in the lesser impressive work he occasionally took in order to make a continued living. Whatever he featured in, Christopher Lee became so recognisable and saleable that many of his fans would watch virtually anything he appeared in, even if the schlock orientated material often seemed beneath him at times. It should also be noted that Christopher Lee was one of the few actors that worked in European cinema specifically because of his multilingual capabilities, something that many other actors of his generation were unable to do. Lee on the subject of appearing in bad films was once quoted about this very subject by stating in his own refined manner; “Every actor has to make terrible films from time to time, but the trick is never to be terrible in them”.
Regarding his more distinguished roles, TCMR will start with what during the early part of the 1970’s and while still contracted to making Hammer films, Lee for a time threw a number of allegorical acting curve balls toward cinemagoers with some far reaching, iconic, outstanding performances which amongst this plethora came my personal favourite role of Lee that to this date I still find totally frightening, even unnervingly disturbing to the point of stunning. We will get to this soon? One of his many captivating stand-out performances came firstly in the form of his character Lord Summerisle in the extraordinary and unique Robin Hardy cult masterpiece, The Wicker Man (1973). I need not go into greater detail regarding this amazing film, for everything that has been bestowed in critical acclaim and fan favouritism is obvious public knowledge and Lee who in the most part is often fleetingly visible throughout; he playing an Island dignitary whom is both accommodating and charming, though come the twist within this deeply dark tale shows a character reveal that has a dubious ulterior motive. Lee is disturbingly refined and very powerful to the last. In the films terrifying climax we see Lee’s very distinguishable presence become absurdly spellbinding as he along with the Isle folk lure Edward Woodward’s character, police Sergeant Howie, under false pretence to the ultimate alter of sacrifice in this landmark epic piece of cinematic glory.
Christopher Lee as Lord Summerisle in The Wicker Man, 1973.
With this glaring performance highlighting Christopher Lee’s true acting greatness I would now like to venture off the radar slightly and concentrate on three performances that make Lee a true acting great who could also find understated parts that though true fans of the man will recognise with immediate ease, sometimes a courteous reminder can often nudge most of what main stream audiences often missed or may I suggest, even forgot in performance. The first of these glaring treats was Lee as the imperious villain Comte de Rochefort in Richard Lester’s reinterpretation of Alexandre Dumas inspired, The Three Musketeers (1973) and the subsequent The Four Musketeers (1974). He again appeared (from the dead?) though fleetingly to nod his head and say farewell to his character in Return of The Musketeers (1989). We should note here the reasons behind why we may have missed this wonderful performance. This is simply because of the massive cast – talent pool at the directors disposal, in these renowned adventures, which is an acting maelstrom amongst which we have the like of established champions such as Charlton Heston, Frank Finlay, Oliver Reed, Geraldine Chaplin, Jean-Pierre Cassel, Georges Wilson. Then there were the many other up and coming and established international flavours of the day such as Richard Chamberlain, Michael York, Simon Ward, Faye Dunaway, Rachel Welch, Roy Kinnear, Michael Gothard and even the appearance of the legendary Spike Milligan. In this massive cast list it was both Faye Dunaway as Femme Fatale, Milady De Winter and Christopher Lee as Rochefort who not only stand prominent but also visually we note Lee’s performance easily justifies his massive ability to be memorably villainous and perform with great ease amongst the vast wealth of noted cast members appearing in this whose-who ensemble.
Faye Dunaway and Christopher Lee in The Four Musketeers, 1974.
Here as earlier mentioned he shows his physical prowess and additional willingness to perform in the more dramatic and violent showdowns in which he was always commanding, in this case in the many beautifully choreographed sword fight scenes often under the guidance of the legendary William Hobbs (Captain Kronos) and heavily highlighted here. Such traditional combatant swordsmanship would also become a regular film trait on many occasions throughout Lee’s career both previous and much later into his career. It is suggested in many circles that during his lifetime Lee had become an accomplished World Champion Fencer? It is believed that he perhaps became a junior fencing champion while studying at Wellington College, Berkshire but in what context: be that as Area – Regional, County, British, European or a World Champion is undetermined? What is clear is, that if William Hobbs trained you in the art of using such deadly weaponry, then you had to be competent or you would be found wanting. During the shooting of one such sparring scene in the first Musketeer film Lee sustained a knee injury that would plague him in bouts of physical pain for the remainder of his working life. It is also common knowledge that while filming a sword fight on the set of the swashbuckling, The Dark Avenger (1955) it is said that a slightly inebriated Errol Flynn struck Lee’s hand, resulting in Lee sustaining a wound and carried the scar as a conversational reminder. His little finger on his right hand could not straighten as the resulting after effect of this very incident. These two noted situations also became an acknowledgement that Lee was even willing to suffer injury for his art. In between playing Rochefort, Lee appeared in a guest star capacity in Gary Sherman’s glorious and often overlooked horror film “and yes… I will state my allegiance here – masterpiece”, Death Line aka Raw Meat (1973).
MI5’s secret, secret civil servant, Stratton-Villiers.
Though this part lasts all of several brief moments, Lee’s very secret-secret civil servant hierarchy interpretation of MI5’s Stratton-Villiers is both delightfully intriguing and undoubtedly unnerving in alignment. The back-and-forth between Donald Pleasence in his fabulous performance as Inspector Calhoun and Lee’s bowler hatted Stratton-Villiers is a definitive moment of pure acting genius as these two imperious acting figures with their wonderfully scripted banter define a class hatred and a obvious passing social acknowledgement of each others positioning within the status quo, as the often seedy worlds of their official duty classifications temporarily collide and both make clear their positions in the tangled web and intrigue that briefly brings them together. Lee like no other was one of the greats in his guest appearance roles and none are highlighted better than his threatening and chilling Stratton-Villiers in Sherman’s cult classic.
Lee, Pleasence and Rossington in Death Line, 1973.
After his second stint on the Musketeer follow up Lee’s next performance would be as the earlier mentioned Francisco Scaramanga in Guy Hamilton’s fourth helmed Bond film, The Man With The Golden Gun (1974). At this point and if you didn’t already know this fact; Lee was the Step-Cousin of Ian Fleming, creator and writer of the James Bond books. With Lee’s interpretation of assassin Scaramanga placed in the 007 pantheon, his character portrayal is most certainly and permanently assured to be amongst the true elite of all Bond villains.
Christopher Lee as Francisco Scaramanga and Roger Moore as James Bond, 007.
Lee began 1975 appearing in a French made film production directed by Jérôme Savary (a renowned theatre director) in Le boucher, la star et l’orpheline – The Butcher, The Star and The Orphan playing a character called Satanus/Van Krig. He next turned up on the smaller UK screens as a striking long silver haired character known as Captain Zandor in Gerry Anderson’s new cult TV Sci-Fi project, Space: 1999 – Season one, Episode 14 titled Earthbound. Following on from this popular television appearance Lee then featured in German backed Sidney Hayers directed whodunnit? Diagnosis: Murder (1975). Please also note that TCMR wishes to salute Sidney Hayers for his work in British television serialisations and film before the Americans pinched him for their own opportune purposes!
To The Devil a Daughter, 1976.
As we entered 1976, I entered my first decade on the planet and Christopher Lee appeared in the Telly Savalas led action adventure, The Diamond Mercenaries aka Killer Force. It was what came next that I personally find the greatest Lee moment of his illustrious career. This moment also signalled the end of Christopher Lee’s massive and long association with Hammer Films (as was) and was also Hammer’s final theatrically released horror film in original context. ‘To The Devil a Daughter’ was Co-produced in association with the famous – now defunct German production company, Terra Filmkunst. If I was to suggest that Christopher Lee’s – Father Michael Rayner is one of the most imperious, reprehensible horror characters ever to see light of day then you will be aware that this personal comment means that Lee’s interpretation of this Satan worshipping ex-communicated, heretic priest is the kind of full and engaging character I welcome and wish for in their full and wonderful genre glaring. Yes it’s clear to see faults within Peter Sykes’s interpretation of author Dennis Wheatley’s 1953 novel of the same title and with the subsequent falling out which followed between Wheatley and Hammer regarding the script discard of much of the author’s original concept and the fact that most of the meagre budget for this production went on Richard Widmark’s wages; if you place all this chaos to one side and look at this production purely on its filmic conception then for a Hammer piece its very raw and antagonistic, it was made in a period of association with the likes of other genre film comparison, the clear examples in point being William Friedkin’s, The Exorcist (1973) or Roman Polanski’s earlier Rosemary’s Baby (1968). This very underrated film leaves blatant Satanic imagery pouring out of the film. The depiction of believer sacrifice and the fall from grace of a man of the cloth is truly haunting. When Lee’s character Father Michael Rayner utters the now famous quote: “It is not heresy… and I will not recant!” in the confines of a church in the midst of ceremony, you knew that this character had no fear of showing his blatant allegiance and meant every single word uttered in contempt of his surroundings.
“It is not heresy… and I will not recant.”
To convince an audience that the evil within this dark art magician in his quest to resurrect the crowned prince of Hell, Astaroth, along with his enthusiasm to commit to black magic ancient rituals, backed up with a truly loyal group of committed to the cause Satanists acolytes is extremely bleak and genuinely disturbing. Rayner along with his dedicated followers go in search of a missing girl (Nun) they have groomed for purpose, Catherine Beddows – Nastassja Kinski, has been specifically chosen and designated as a sacrificial rite for the eventual earthly welcome of Astaroth. Add to this visual concept the very consistent ritual imagery which comes out of the screen with great menace and persevering presence throughout making this a truly defining Lee performance on any level you may wish to take this film. Forget his iconic incarnations as Gothic literatures cinematic awakenings! What we have in Lee’s interpretation of Father Michael Rayner, is a terrifying and dominant individual that consumes his screen time and portrays his character with a clear disturbing relish and precision that convinces us of the true essence of real evil incarnate. Christopher Lee in, ‘To The Devil a Daughter’ is and will always remain true acting magnificence and again – I truly mean every single complementary word uttered of this very dark and disturbing role; That word clearly defines, spine-chilling!
A young Nastassja Kinski and Christopher Lee
Resurrecting The Crown Prince of Hell, Astaroth.
Soon after completing this mesmeric performance Lee moved to the United States in order to allegedly broaden his acting horizons and hopefully leave behind his horror imagery as past tense. What happened as an immediate result of this decision was two further film ventures in Europe via Austria and France. (The irony?) During the next two decades Lee would work in countless television and film appearances, highlights being, Airport ’77, Return to Witch Mountain (1978). He also made two appearances in the James Arness led TV mini series, How The West Was Won (1977-78). In 1979 Lee featured in the interesting martial art film, Circle of Iron (1979).
Christopher Lee in Steven Spielberg’s 1941.
It was in 1979 Lee appeared in Steven Spielberg’s madcap WWII comedy extravaganza 1941. In this role Lee played Capt. Wolfgang von Kleinschmidt, a German Nazi observer on board an allied Imperial Japanese U-boat preparing to attack the coast of California shortly after the Pearl Harbour attack in Hawaii. Again Lee appears amongst a notable cast of stars. Lee is again exquisite and does building frustration brilliantly, his comic restraint when acquired amongst the mayhem makes him stand out from much of the over-the-top comedy overflow that on many occasions begin to overpower the senses, his own comedy timing when required is simply pitch perfect. May I add that this is not a criticism of 1941 just an observation based on the confused spirit behind the brashness of this epic looking filmic experience, a film I still genuinely enjoy. A year into the new decade Lee appeared in what would become a trend setting genre of cinema when he featured in the first of two Steve Carver, Chuck Norris based revenge thrillers, An Eye For An eye (1981). Chuck Norris, love him or loathe him became a very marketable cult figure in the UK inspired video entertainment period of the 1980’s, so for Lee to turn up in something as future trendy as this, in hindsight was quite something for those of us who enjoyed these martial art based action films. Yes, even I have a penchant for Chuck Norris films however quaint or flag waving they became. The 1980’s without an intake of a Chuck Norris orientated, skewed movie world would be unthinkable! Another topic for another time.
Christopher Lee as Morgan Canfield in An Eye for An Eye, 1981.
With his work ethic maintained and no shortage of performances to pass the years, it was in 1983 when Christopher Lee would star in a film that became poignant for many reasons, not least because it became the final appearance of long time acting associate Peter Cushing in which both shared celluloid time together. It would also star horror cinema greats, Vincent Price and John Carradine, all in one place also sharing the same screen time in a film directed by the influential auteur, Pete Walker. Walker’s work is a unique output, often considered in lazily formatted critical responses and bracketed as low budget material, categorised by those of elitist ignorance as mere horror/sexploitation cinema. Highlights: Die Screaming, Marianne (1971) starring Susan George. House of Whipcord (1974), this being the first of four collaborations with the often outspoken screenwriter David McGillivray. Other collaborative work included the fabulous Frightmare (1974). This duo also gave us House of Mortal Sin (1975) and Schizo (1976), a great title and an interesting, overall more ambitious film out of the four.
Christopher Lee, John Carradine, Peter Cushing and Vincent Price, 1983.
With his House of the Long Shadow (1983) Walker would direct these acting legends in a retelling of Earl Derr Biggers’s much used 1913 novel, Seven Keys to Baldpate. It’s a nice comfy fitting farewell of sorts and putting this to one side, ‘Long Shadows’ is indeed not without viewing benefit beside the obvious reasoning based behind this films mention in this particular case.
The Return of Captain Invincible, 1983.
Director Philippe Mora, Alan Arkin and Christopher Lee on the set of The Return of Captain Invincible.
1983 also saw Lee turn up in the very underrated out-there? mishmash that is Philippe Mora’s, musical, fantasy/comedy parody, ‘The Return of Captain Invincible’. Starring the marvellous Alan Arkin as said Ex-superhero – ‘The Caped Contender?’ A film not without an internal irony and an underlying – scathing political commentary based on the McCarthy – communist based purge of 1950’s America. This film must be considered a pre-cursor and inspiration (my opinion only) for what became the (more serious) Alan Moore inspired Watchmen characters of the later DC universe? ‘Invincible’ contains impressive performances by both the imperious Lee and the fascinating Arkin, again this feature has an almost replica appeal similar to that of Spielberg’s earlier mentioned ‘1941’, in which similar chaos ensues. When a possible new shift of Nazi propagation rears up its ugly head in the form of Invincible’s former wartime nemesis Mr Midnight – Lee, who now plans to cause a new and great upheaval for the American public by firstly stealing a highly developed secret weapon of mass destruction (hypno-ray), which can split continents and also allow Midnight to formulate a plan which will proceed with a little ethnic cleansing in the process. This obvious debunking of what would otherwise be seen as difficult subject matter to poke humour toward often makes for an unusual plot synopsis. There is more to this tale but within the frequent confusion you forget most of its storyline and frankly who really cares? With some bizarre moments and some brilliantly scripted repartee and grains of comedy gold throughout which both hit and misses there noted observational targets, this film is also backed up by some inspiring and thoroughly fabulous musical numbers containing the wondrous earthy, observational humour of Richard O’Brien inspired lyrics backed up by Richard Hartley musical compositions. They of (Rocky Horror (picture) Show) collaboration… “as if you needed to be told that?” Lee’s, “Name Your Poison” number about alcoholism and specifically aimed at his superhero enemy is joyous and must be watched to be appreciated to its full extent.
“Name your poison.”
A silly but often enjoyable film of great under appreciation. In 1985 Christopher Lee would once again work with Philippe Mora in his sequel to Joe Dante’s, established classic, The Howling (1981). Mora’s, Howling II: Stirba – Werewolf Bitch is both lacklustre and empty of anything that Dante worked hard to achieve with his own lycanthrope interpretation of the genre. It’s watchable at best and Lee plays Stefan Crosscoe with his usual fervour and commitment.
In 1984 the Americans burgeoning fascination with the age of the British Empire became the first inspiration for HBO’s first venture into mini television series territory with their expensive multi million dollar budgeted three part adaptation of Mary Margaret (Mollie) Kaye aka M.M. Kaye’s, 1978 international best selling novel, The Far Pavilions (1984). Starring Ben Cross and Amy Irvine. This romantic drama is set during the backdrop of 19th century colonial India during the time of the British Raj. During this period many of these type of dramas were becoming very popular not just with UK audiences but the US absolutely adored this sort of historical drama. In this period piece Christopher Lee played Kaka-ji Rao the uncle of Irvine’s, Anjuli. The series was very well received and yet again Lee could play opposite of what throughout his career people had come to expect of his acting capabilities. The 1980’s as in other decades was again a busy time for Lee with frequent film and TV work, the result being you would be hard pressed not to see him turning up on television, video cassette or in the cinema on some double bill feature. Remember them?
Christopher Lee as Kaka-ji Rao in The Far Pavilions, 1984.
1990 started much like the previous decades and after his turn in a television movie based on Robert Louis Stevenson’s, Treasure Island (1990). Directed by Fraser Clarke Heston the son of the star of this latest adaptation. Someone called Charlton I believe? After working in Italy on L’ avaro – The Miser (1990) Lee turned up in Joe Dante’s, Gremlins 2: The New Batch (1990). In this second outing Dante’s end vision was to make this version of the franchise more comedic in nature and certainly not as dark and moody as the original. We must also note that Dante had originally turned down a number of previous opportunities to make a follow up to his massive worldwide success Gremlins (1984) , a film which had been made for 11 million dollars and returned a box-office of over 150 million dollars. Despite these incredible numbers and a number of declines from Dante after the original, perhaps the eventual large budget of 50 million dollars for the second instalment would allow the director to expand the horizons of his story, even allow him to indulge in more extravagant set-pieces in a New York City backdrop. Though most of the film is set in a new state-of-the-art Manhattan building and uses the then current culture of famous Billionaire owners and the advanced corporation climate surrounding this new social scenario, ‘Gremlins 2’, though still engaging and brimming with some new ideas while incorporating many nods to the original, in hindsight has neither the personality nor the fabulous build of the first outing. Despite the re-introduction of many of the main characters from the original we see the return of the wonderful Mogwai creature – Gizmo and with some more outlandish Gremlins that populate this version, it is as Dante predicted, perhaps a sequel to far and too late between the two versions to have the impact of the first. If we take Gremlins 2 on its own merits then we can consider it a decent effort and as sequels go it’s better than most and tries very hard to facilitate those who saw the original at the time of its release and its transparent aim to feed a new audience with that sense of strength and creative beginning that made Gremlins one of the defining event films of the 1980’s. Joe Dante as was the case with many of the creative directors of that time – where themselves fans of actors the like of Christopher Lee. It would be fair to suggest that Dante was genuinely stoked when Lee played Doctor Catheter in his sequel. Despite the films box-office failings I would strongly suggest that Gremlins 2 is a very clever idea that mimics not just its Gremlin culture but significantly caricatures those famous people who had come to represent greed and power and laughs at the obvious crassness of this kind of culture in both a subtle and uncouth manner. Lee’s – Catheter (note the spelling and its medical connotation?) is again a character that gets under the skin as the scientific researcher with no moral compass nor understanding of what he ultimately has to deal with. Again as in much of the film, is this art portraying a hidden reality through humour that perhaps mirrors man and his exploitation of things he does not truly understand? Whatever your viewpoint regarding Gremlins 2 and despite Dante’s personal concerns of making a sequel, personally I like this film and what it tried to achieve in its updated satire of a so-called progressive society. We should also note Joe Dante’s fanboy aspirations to include one of his childhood acting heroes in one of his own films, would later become a trend that would expand beyond this effort and allow Christopher Lee to get roles by directors that had grown up watching him in performance.
Christopher Lee as Dr Catheter in Gremlins 2, 1990.
For the rest of the 1990’s Lee worked harder than ever and retirement was clearly out of the question for an actor in his early 70’s by this time. As earlier mentioned in 1998 Lee played the title role in Jinnah, his favoured role of his extensive career – a biography piece based on Muhammad Ali Jinnah the 1st Governor-General of Pakistan from 1947 – 1948. Just over a year into his time in office Jinnah died on 11th September 1948 as a direct result of a long battle with Tuberculosis and the combined result of suspected lung cancer and pneumonia brought on by his deteriorating health. The film treatment works in flashback almost like, ‘A Christmas Carol’ by Charles Dickens. The elder Jinnah (Lee) is dying in the back of an ambulance that is taking him to Karachi for treatment of his poor health and condition. This is a film in which we see a young man become an elder statesman who wishes to lead the Muslim’s of India to a independent nation – Pakistan. The intricacy of the political consequences of all this forms the basis for the films imagery of a man who made choices that cost lives, a man who had to achieve much by informing the British that this could be the only way toward a Muslim independence, his reputation much depending on success. The films flashback of Jinnah’s early life into his last days tells of a complicated and on occasion a life regrettable in its cost to millions of people in order to achieve the goal of those who fought hard for this independence, at great cost. As historical dramas go, it refuses to hide the truth of the matter and deals head on with regard to this turbulent era in this region, that at the time was still under British rule. It is understandable why Lee was so passionate about this film and his part in it.
When we entered 1999 and reached the cusp of the 21st century, Lee had reached the age of 77 and was about to appear in another film directed by a long time fan of his work. It seems not only was Joe Dante a closet Anglophile but so were so many other American directors, including Tim Burton who was never shy in admitting his admiration for not just genre legends but established British acting greats also. Again Lee fitted this bill perfectly and would go on to become a regular in further Burton output. In Sleepy Hollow, Lee plays a New York Burgomaster (Mayor) who sends the stories main character Ichabod Crane – Johnny Depp to a New York Hamlet known as Sleepy Hollow, a County now in the grip of a bizarre treble homicide. The early exchanges between Lee and Depp are impeccably timed, darkly amusing and energise the films considered and thoughtful dialogue. Lee was a true master of vocal conveyance, there were none better and those comparable are in the minority.
Christopher Lee in Sleepy Hollow, 1999.
In the new millennium rather than ease off the throttle slightly, Lee chose to do the opposite and accelerated straight into the 2000’s with his unbelievable work ethic which would also establish Christopher Lee as a much in demand actor who was about to feature in what many have considered a momentous continuation of his best work since his breakthrough in the heyday of his earlier appeal under the Hammer Film banner. It wasn’t long before the British public saw Lee return to our living rooms in the BBC’s 4-part adaptation of Mervyn Peake’s, Gormenghast in which he played Lord Sepulchrave Groan’s – Ian Richardson’s personal servant Mr Flay a man who at times seemed brutal but very loyal to the establishment of the Gormenghast dynasty and future protector of Titus, heir to the throne of the House of Groan and his sister Fuchsia, children of Lord and Countess Groan. This was a gothic tale that was spectacularly recreated with a cast that matched its ambition. Lee’s presence seemed apt within the unusual climate created by this production, it was an image of Lee that would become almost familiar in visual tone because of his long grey hair, a feature that would reappear in a future project? Lee was the only cast member of Gormenghast to have actually met Mervyn Peake in life. His very complementary response to meeting the creator of this otherworld was nothing other than positive and it seems Lee was clearly a fan of the man. Lee once said of Peake: “He was a charming, delightful man, very quiet, reserved with beautiful blue eyes, good-looking, very gentle, obviously an extraordinary man. He invented a world and a language and almost a race of his own.”
This strange meeting would also be in a similar serendipitous vain to when Lee would also meet two further noted authors during his lifetime whose important work Lee would read as a fan of their literature prior to working on adaptations of their work. In one case Lee would appear in an adapted for television series in which he would actually play the character of one of these two established authors and in the second case the work of the author would become an important and continued staple for much of the 2000’s to as recent as 2014. Its saga would become a massive worldwide box-office success in terms of its cinematic legacy.
During 2000 Lee would be seen in the Kevin Connor directed Biblical made for television film ‘In the Beginning’ in which he played Rameses I. Again the cast for this effort was very impressive. It was what came next that many British fans appreciated in their droves. In the late 1960’s and early 1970’s a strange Christmas tradition began allied with the BBC. From Yuletide Eve onward we Brits began to grow accustomed to seeing some truly stunning traditional classic ghost stories being re-accounted in mainly half hour doses of Montague Rhodes James – M. R. James inspired plays. This wonderful concept had originally began its Genesis in 1968 when the series Omnibus adapted an early B&W version of the idea. The Jonathan Miller directed, ‘Whistle and I’ll Come to You’ starring British acting legend Michael Hordern as Professor Parkin was a massive hit and even to this day has a very excitable and appreciative following. Ask any television fan worth their salt about the original influence of Miller’s piece and I am sure the response will be wholeheartedly favourable to those who enjoy this type of refined, even restrained type of television to send us to our bedtime with a touch of nervousness in our disposition. Over the years that followed not only did the kids go to bed excited about the thought of the man in scarlet turning up with lots of goodies under the Christmas tree but the warped sensibility of the UK was offered an additional dimension to add to the anticipation of a tiring day ahead as sleep deprivation came care of either Santa or M.R. James. During both the seventies and early eighties in one title form or another, these ghostly tales would become a regular occurrence in the Xmas schedules, much like Victor Fleming’s, The Wizard of Oz (1939) or John Sturges’s, The Great Escape (1963). After a hiatus of several years the BBC in their wise wisdom (not a word always associated with Auntie these days… Again, the irony?) did something to be celebrated and during the Chrimbo period of 2000 they employed Christopher Lee to narrate four half hour episodes of James’s work. In these little performances Lee would actually play the author who while seated in a room of guests/we, he would begin his tales of ghostly shenanigans which included the tales, “The Stalls of Barchester Cathedral”, “The Ash-tree”, “Number 13” and “A Warning to the Curious”.
Christopher Lee as Montague Rhodes James, 2000.
Not only did this offer a new generation of people an insight into some of the fine earlier based 20th century genre literature but those of us whom had grown up on these M.R. James inspired adaptations became grinning adult conscripts once more. Sometime during the early part of the 1930’s Christopher Lee would meet James while being interviewed for an Eton scholarship. At the time of this meeting James was acting in his capacity as Provost, (pro-vice-chancellor) 1918 – 1936. Previous to this James had been given the same position at King’s College, Cambridge, 1905 –1918. It may have been rejection for the young Lee but he would never forget his meeting with a man considered modern literature royalty. James died in June of 1936 while still in his post.
In 2001, the hard working actor would begin his considerable association with two of the biggest cinematic franchise ever known. To get to the first of these epic mega-saga’s he firstly turned up in one 10 minute based portmanteau of an unusual 13 episode French comedy fantasy television series called Les Redoutables – The Formidable. In his episode 2 turn he appeared in the René Manzor titled “Confession” in which he played La Mort/ Death aka The Grim Reaper opposite Ticky Holgado as Le curé – The Priest. His voice is expressed in perfect French which sounded just as impressive as his perfect English vocal dulcet tones. Being fluent in several languages had allowed Lee a lot of success in much of European cinema over many decades simply because he knew the language, often impeccably. Lee spoke fluent English, Italian, French, Spanish and German, and was proficient in Swedish, Russian and Greek.
Christopher Lee as Saruman in The Lord of The Rings.
When we reach the franchise period of Lee’s re-adapted fame and fortune. The next 13 years would see him take two reoccurring roles. The first of these parts would be associated with Peter Jackson’s massively ambitious visual conception of J.R.R. Tolkien’s, The Lord of the Rings trilogy. In this fantasy world Lee would be unravelled for the first time in Fellowship of the Ring as Saruman The White. This major character role would see Lee in familiar territory as the protagonist, though initially his character hides a wizardly deceptiveness as we initially think that like Gandalf the Grey – Ian McKellen, Saruman is allied to his old friend but betrayal of his fellow Istari member leads to an eventual war for Middle Earth and a plan to destroy Gandalf after he learns of the existence of the one ring which is passed on from Bilbo to Frodo Baggins, in the hope that Frodo will take the quest bequeathed and finally destroy the ring in the only place possible, Mount Doom. This is basic routine synopsis for what is otherwise an epic story of grandeur and in 2001 became the first of a continued and simultaneous shooting schedule that literally lasted three long, gruelling years for many members of the cast, under the direction of Peter Jackson; yet another massive fan of Lee. We also know the humble beginnings of Jackson who had earlier in his career created two independent horror movies that became cult classics in their own right with his appropriately named horror début, Bad Taste (1987) followed by the insane, Braindead aka Dead Alive (1992).
Sir Ian Mckellen, Christopher Lee and Peter Jackson.
“Somebody once asked me how I found Peter Jackson, and I said: Well, I parted his hair and there he was.”
Christopher Lee was the only member of the ‘Rings’ cast that had actually had in providence met his literary hero J.R.R. Tolkien. This meeting happened while Lee was in Oxford. On entering a local pub, ‘The Eagle and Child’, he along with others noted one of the regulars, as none other than South African born, John Ronald Reuel Tolkien. In slight disbelief Lee eventually approached Tolkien and merely uttered, “how do you do?” Even someone as iconic as Lee – had at some stage previous to fame been humbled by a fanboy predisposition. Lee confessed that during most of his life he made a serious effort to read these Tolkien classics at least once a year.
One of Christopher Lee’s literary heroes J.R.R. Tolkien.
In 2002, Lee did what his old friend and acting colleague had done decades previous and joined the cast of the second prequel to George Lucas’s, Star Wars franchise. Peter Cushing had been cast as Grand Moff Tarkin, Governor of the Imperial Outland Regions in the original Star Wars (1977). Lee entered the galactic fray in the second instalment or Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones (2002). Again Lee would conspire to be a Jedi Knight eventually taken by the influence of the dark side? His treacherous Count Dooku later Darth Tyranus was in the similar vain as many other characters he’d played previous and again perhaps a considered modern equivalent to his turned or hidden character in the ‘Rings’ tales? Personally I am not a big fan of these prequels. Despite my subdued opinions regarding the prequels it was a genuinely pleasant stroke of genius to see Lee’s inclusion in the Star Wars saga especially when following in the footsteps laid down by Peter Cushing’s celebrated roll in the original classic.
Christopher Lee as Count Dooku.
With these two imperious cinematic pop-culture events now added to his formidable CV and tucked beneath his arm, he entered the back end of 2002 pretty much how he had begun the year with his inclusion and second contribution to the ‘Rings’ trilogy in which Lee reprised his role as Saruman in Peter Jackson’s, The Two Towers. What this period in Lee’s career also managed to achieve and again in direct connection to both Star Wars and The Lord of the Rings was his continued supply of voice work on an assortment of video games based on the ‘Rings’ franchise and eventually other video game voice work also. In the case of Star Wars there was the addition of future animated voice work in Star Wars: The Clone Wars (2008) once again performing as the fallen lightsaber waving Count Dooku.
In 2003 Lee was seen in his reprised role as Saruman in the final instalment of the ‘Rings’ trilogy, The Return of the King. After biding farewell to this incredibly complex and lengthy epic fantasy adventure which changed cinema in regard of what was possible to achieve on such a formidable grand scale. What the ‘Rings’ also managed to do was allow Lee to achieve a personal and important goal and actually play a character based on his favoured books. It is well documented that Lee had always wanted to play the character Gandalf but due to his age at the time Jackson finally took up the ambitious reins of a serious adaptation of Tolkien’s extensive tales Lee was an elder statesman in his 79th year. Ian McKellen who would go on to play Gandalf, despite the fact that by now even the great McKellen had also become a noted elder statesman of the acting world and by this time was 17 years younger than Lee.
Crimson Rivers II: Angels of The Apocalypse, 2004.
In 2004 Christopher Lee’s only film appearance came in the Jean Reno led, Crimson Rivers II: Angels of the Apocalypse, or known in its original title as Les Rivières pourpres II: Les anges de l’apocalypse. In this Olivier Dahan production Lee plays Heinrich von Garten, the sinister head of a German nationalist faction that wishes to return Europe to a white only sovereign state, Von Garten its hegemonic leader. Lee’s character defines himself as the minister delegate for cultural and religious affairs. This is again dark and villainous ground for Lee and unlike his earlier career comedic turn as Mr Midnight in ‘Captain Invisible’, This particular secretive Nazi conspirator has more association with previous cinematic equivalence to Maximilian Schell’s – deplorable Eduard Roschmann in Ronald Neame’s, The Odessa File (1974) or greater comparison to Gregory Peck’s terrifying Dr Josef Mengele in Franklin J. Schaffner’s, conspiracy thriller, The Boys from Brazil (1978). There is no trace of comedy in Lee’s interpretation of von Garten, just all out conspiracy theories and secret society propagators. Many have considered this one of Lee’s finest and more disturbing interpretations of old men attempting to reinvigorate old, perhaps nostalgic Fascistic traditions. This is a decent thriller tradition that works well and comes recommended, including Lee’s sinister performance as the aforementioned Nazi.
Christopher Lee as the sinister Heinrich von Garten.
The fact that 2004 had been in terms of appearances a singular event, his work load in 2005 was anything but quiet. His return as Count Dooku in Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith would be his lightsabre waving swansong and in time honoured tradition he would do battle with the Jedi knights.
He is finally struck down by the much confused Anakin Skywalker? He followed this up as the Lord Provost in yet another remake of the true tale of Greyfriars Bobby. Christopher Lee’s next two assignments where once again under the direction of long time admirer Tim Burton. The first would be an on screen appearance in Burton’s remake of the Roald Dahl classic ‘Charlie and the Chocolate Factory’. In this retelling Lee becomes a past though frequent family interloper (father) Dr Wonka (dentist) in Willy Wonka’s childhood memories as an occasional puritanical figure who does not wish for his son to become a chocolatier.
Christopher Lee as Dr Wonka (Dentist).
Burton’s brand and cinematic vision is clearly defined in this Dahl version and he uses Johnny Depp as Wonka in a way that though different than Gene Wilder’s 1971 epic performance, in many ways often seems like it’s trying to hard to compete with this original imperious performance which simply was going to be impossible. Though Burton was brave to take on this production and as an individual effort it is not without some nice and complementary moments in which to consider it something to watch and enjoy, what this 2005 bow doesn’t have is that thing… that unique ingredient that made Mel Stuart’s, (scrumdidilyumtious!) Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory a not to be repeated, cinematic one-of-a-kind experience! Everything I genuinely appreciate of Burton’s standing and importance came in his next effort that was the animated fantasy-musical ‘The Corpse Bride’, this coming a full 12 years on from Burton’s first ground-breaking animated classic, ‘The Nightmare Before Christmas, (1993). In ‘Corpse’ we get to hear Lee use his commanding and recognisable voice to transfer his character Pastor Galswells into this creative gothic classic tale of love. Lee finished 2005 in a made for television biographical drama based on the life of Karol Wojtyla, he better known to the religious world as Pope John Paul II. In this Lee would play the influential Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński, an important religious figure that featured heavily not just in the Catholic church but like Wojtyla also became an extremely noted figurehead for the people of Poland in which these two men had originated during a time of occupation under the Nazi regime of WWII and the subsequent rule of Communism that followed the end of the war.
Christopher Lee as The First High Councilor in The Golden Compass, 2007.
In 2006 Lee celebrated… wait for it… 60 years in the business by taking a slight hiatus from film roles and chose instead to work on voice-over material for several video games including another ‘Rings’ game in which he once again became, Saruman the White. With the popularity of fantasy films still holding a very strong and healthy place in the world of cinema on the back of the early 2000’s that started with Peter Jackson’s, Lord of the Rings trilogy, this subsequent momentum had also started a trend of exploiting both old and new forms of fantasy based literature as mainstream cinemagoers also began to appreciate the visual spectacle of these numerous epic tales expanding into cinematic sagas, across numerous episodic adventures originally written by the likes of Tolkien or the author who became his close friend Clive Staples Lewis – C.S. Lewis who amongst his work came the massively popular series of, ‘The Chronicles of Narnia’ novels. Three of the seven Chronicles have in the 2000’s become massive box-office draws in their own right starting in 2005 with Lewis’s most famous – The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, directed by another New Zealand director, Andrew Adamson. Amongst others that made a massive social and cultural impact in this phenomenally popular genre came a lady known as J.K. Rowling, whom I believe became responsible for something called the Harry Potter series of books that would soon become a cinematic franchise that like Tolkien’s work would quickly become not only a modern based equivalence but would also come to represent a massive cinematic worldwide box-office behemoth which began its journey in the first of two of Chris Columbus directed Potter themed adaptations of Rowling’s work in Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, (2001), his second effort was, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, (2002). Again as with the Peter Jackson ‘Rings’ material, most of the young cast would often work on a continued cycle, in this case over a full decade. We would also note that the child cast would grow up along side the release of these films and by the final outing in 2011, Daniel Radcliffe – Harry Potter, Rupert Grint – Ron Weasley and Emma Watson – Hermione Granger would no longer be the skinny baby face children of introduction, as they had been at the beginning of these eight movie instalments but come Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – Part 2 (2011) they had all finally become fully fledged adults entering their 20’s. Pretty amazing! On this continued carousal of fantasy based adventure Lee made a brief appearances as First High Councilor in another fantasy/adventure film based on Philip Pullman’s, Northern Lights, ‘His Dark Materials’ trilogy. The Golden Compass (2007), directed by Chris Weitz. In terms of its large budgetary outlay this film was a huge failure in box-office return. Staying on topic Lee would play the voice of Death in the Terry Pratchett based TV mini-series The Colour of Magic (2008).
Christopher Lee as The Voice of Death in The Colour of Magic, 2008.
Again this particular effort being the first part of Pratchett’s, popular and established eleven short stories based on his celebrated Discworld. Sir Terence David John “Terry” Pratchett, OBE (28thApril 1948 – 12th March 2015).
Terry Pratchett, RIP.
2009 was yet another busy year for Lee. He appeared in three films from the British made Gillian Anderson led comedy/drama, Boogie Woogie to civil war drama Shell Shocked – Triage. In ‘Triage’ Lee would again assimilate to type and play a character of great mistrust, a man with a colourful, though troubling past that creates great resentment to those family members, in this case his Granddaughter that know of his dubious history. In his role Lee plays a psychiatrist, Joaquin Morales, who had been a Franco supporter during the time of the Spanish Civil War – Guerra Civil Española. 1936 – 1939. His job during and directly after these events was to help noted Francisco Franco, Falangist soldiers to… “Come to terms?” with what many had committed in the form of terrible acts of violent atrocity upon Spanish Republicans during what would be a noted 36 year reign.
Christopher Lee as Joaquin Morales.
Again this was a fabulous piece of casting by Bosnian director Danis Tanović. For a man in his eighties and someone who would have noted this crude and harsh time in Spanish history and obviously being able to summon up his own wartime experiences in order to give this unpleasant character a form and dimension probably closer to the bone than many actors could envisage, this was indeed a role made for Christopher Lee, pure and simple. Lee finished this notable year with an appearance in Stephen Poliakoff’s, historical pre-war thriller drama, ‘Glorious 39’, in which he played yet another potential sinister character Walter Page.
Christopher Lee in Glorious 39.
This Poliakoff adaptation was made by BBC Films and featured a high end British cast of some considerable note, with some great performances by considered elder statesmen and much of the new British acting talent that many of us in recent times have familiarised ourselves with. From a cast including Bill Nighy, Corin Redgrave, Jenny Agutter and Julie Christie and those now establishing themselves as the new wave of British acting performers, including David Tennant who during this time was still playing the current time lord, Dr Who. Then we had more recent 2014 Oscar winner, Eddie Redmayne while we must not forget the outstanding talents of Romola Garai and Juno Temple. 2009 was also the year in which Christopher Lee finally became the knighted Sir Christopher for his services to Drama and his under the radar charity work which was never over publicised. His causes being Cinema For Peace and his continued private work and contribution to UNICEF.
The Knighted Sir Christopher Lee, 2009.
In 2010 Christopher Lee would enter his 88th year and Tim Burton would offer us a reinvigoration of the Lewis Carroll immortal classic, ‘Alice in Wonderland’. Again Lee’s dulcet tones would be used in the form of the legendary creature/beast the Jabberwocky, who did not originally appear in ‘Wonderland’ but in an earlier Carroll poem and then later became a mysteriously formed character in Carroll’s, ‘Alice’ sequel, ‘Through the Looking Glass and What Alice Found There’. Lee followed his latest Burton association with a role in ‘The Heavy’, a standard, run-of-the-mill British gangster effort! Following on from this Lee would next appear in John Landis’s, very underrated historically based dark comedy effort, ‘Burke and Hare’. Again both the new and established of British acting, including some comedy legends and modern day equivalence starred in this comic retelling of the infamous two William’s – renowned grave robbers of 19th Century Edinburgh. Unlike Robert Wise’s, ground-breaking 1945 horror classic, ‘The Body Snatcher’ starring the legendary Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi, or my personal favoured version of this infamous tale, John Gilling’s epic, The Flesh and the Fiend (1960), which starred Peter Cushing as the uncompromising Dr Robert Knox and also included the terrifying performances of both Donald Pleasence as Hare and George Rose as Burke. This particular Landis version goes for humour rather than all-out horror as the noted previous classics exquisitely portrayed. In this latest version we see Lee in a guest role capacity in which he plays drunkard barfly Old Joseph. His delivery of some wonderful retort one-liners is priceless and in keeping with Landis’s humourous vision of what is otherwise a noted seedy past world of cruel attitudes and murderous intent. This is an entertaining film throughout, and is a well thought-out, milder form of what was originally a very sinister tale indeed.
On Sunday 13th February 2011 the British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA) finally and may I suggest long overdue, presented Sir Christopher Lee with the honour of The Academy Fellowship. The award was given to him by film director and long standing fan of Lee’s, Tim Burton. With a standing ovation and a speech that matched his wit and his deeply felt appreciation on finally being recognised for his many decades of service to the moving picture, Lee was inducted into an elite membership of noted film industry director and actor icons, something most certainly appreciated by his fan base.
2011 saw Lee return to the genre that had made him a star of film and television many glorious decades previous with an associated film company which had a touch of significance as we will note shortly? ‘Season of the Witch’, an alleged? Fantasy/adventure starring Nicholas Cage, was nothing special other than the cameo appearance of Lee as Cardinal D’Ambroise who at the beginning of proceedings informs two knights who have returned from the past crusades, that they must now escort an alleged witch to a monastery in which a supposed curse may be then lifted by the monks that live within that community, thus allowing the land that is currently suffering from the spread of the black death to be freed by said curse? This is more a listless adventure than anything potentially ‘at all adventurous?’ and though it lacks anything intuitively exciting or interesting as the title may infer, it must be credited at the very least for attempting with some considered valiance to rediscover a confused genre-type conclusion that perhaps is slightly outmoded for mainstream audiences of today?
Christopher Lee in The Resident, 2011.
In 1976 Christopher Lee had bid farewell to Hammer Films with his brutal genre finale, ‘To the Devil a Daughter’, my personal favourite performance of Lee’s outstanding career. At the same time as this parting of the waves Hammer also ceased its productions and finally closed its doors for the last time? – leaving behind a massive back catalogue of wonderful cinema, of which Lee had been an important ingredient in what had made this company a mighty trademark name and an accomplished influence, in particular to the genres of horror, sci-fi and fantasy based cinema. From 1957 to 1976 Lee had either featured or starred in no fewer than twenty-two Hammer films in total and had eventually gained top billing in half of them. He worked on one Hammer film less than his friend and elder acting colleague Peter Cushing and Cushing topped the billing in a total of four of their joint working ventures all in. This came during the early Terence Fisher years including the two roles that made both these actors big stars and has mentioned in the opening of this salute to Lee. Together, Lee and Cushing both featured and starred in a total of twenty-two films, starting as early as Sir Laurence Olivier adaptation of Hamlet (1948). From Lee’s humble Extra part here, to their on screen farewell in The House of the Long Shadows in 1983, these extraordinary associated figures don’t include the opening scenes taken from Fisher’s 1958 version of Dracula which are incorporated into the opening of, Dracula: Prince of Darkness (1966) in which Lee finally returned as the Count but sadly Cushing did not feature on this occasion. After Terence Fisher’s, The Hound of the Baskervilles (1959) and The Mummy (1959), Lee would gain top billing from Cushing in their remaining on screen relationship, apart from Robert Day’s, She (1965) in which Cushing had second billing behind the films main female star, which on this occasion would be former Bond girl Ursula Andress. Lee’s part in ‘She’ was for some strange reason considered a strange billing position despite his now established association with Hammer? So why have I mentioned earlier Hammer Film association considering we had left the elder statesman Lee being awarded a BAFTA in 2011. The reason is that in this year Lee would play a cameo in a film called The Resident, a psychological thriller produced by a film company called Hammer Films – surely not? Purchased by Cyrte Investments, under the watchful eyes of Dutch media tycoon John de Mol in 2007. Subsequently de Mol put his substantial money where his mouth was and has he had announced on purchasing the rights to the name Hammer and its extensive film catalogue, this man of his word made Simon Oakes CEO of Hammer Films and in 2010 their first release was a reasonable remake of Tomas Alfredson’s, Swedish based modern horror masterpiece, Låt den rätte komma in – Let the Right one In (2008). ‘Let Me In’ was noted for its Americanised revaluation but could not recreate the original power and pull of Alfredson’s earlier effort. Plus I believe it was far too soon after the original had made its considerable and immediate impact upon many fans of the genre to achieve or offer anything alternative or greater in its reformed Hammer production release. Getting back to The Resident, we see Lee play an initial unnerving elder character known as August the Grandfather of Max played by Jeffrey Dean Morgan. The plot of the film is a simple stalker movie premise in the same vain as John Carpenter’s excellent, made for television, Someone’s Watching Me! (1978) or John Schlesinger’s, Pacific Heights (1990) or of a passing similarity to Phillip Noyce’s, Sliver (1993). In this effort Hilary Swank’s, Juliet Devereau character is being premeditatedly targeted by a stalker who initially manipulates a situation in which to get Juliet to rent an apartment that he owns. After thinking this to be a great location and the apartment is a bargain in terms of monthly rent Juliet moves in. Sadly for Swank’s character the ulterior motive behind Max’s low rent, great location scheme starts to unravel in a series of events and strange coincidences that enter her characters daily routine, she eventually gaining the distinct feeling that not everything is what it seems regarding the apartment nor perhaps her landlord Max? These doubts begin to sow seeds of suspicion and intrigue and with this sudden doubt creeping in, she begins to formulate a slight confused state of mind on many personal issues confronting her? Lee’s brief and sometimes convenient introduction hides a noted window dressing for what unfolds during the films subsequent storyline. Indeed we soon surmise that the careless nay feeble, possible? ‘red herring’ of the old and suspected Lee is merely someone who perhaps is guilty by complicity only? Having knowledge of what his Grandson is actually plotting or is August equally fearful of warning the new tenant that she may not have made the wisest choice by moving into residency. The Resident is a reasonable film but does signpost the obvious. Lee’s brief appearances are what we expect of him and he does maintain an early creepiness or wary disposition that works its magic as usual, sadly the rest of the film though decent enough does create only basic premise but does offer up a great performance from Swank and sadly a slightly more wasted performance from Morgan, though again I would suggest this is script failure and not Morgan’s acting abilities because he is good – as a deceiving character who begins to show clear signs of his obsessive attributes, which never really makes us totally unsettled, you almost get the immediate impression that Swank’s Juliet will eventually, somehow gain the upper hand come the films pretty weak finale. The Resident looks good and in the main entertains on certain levels and seeing Lee re-associated though briefly with the product name that made him famous is indeed a nice touch I guess! Hammer’s next production was successful and made great box-office return for them. The Woman in Black (2012), based on Susan Hill’s 1983 novel and starring Daniel Radcliffe was always going to be the shedding of acting skin for its young star and a return to form for the new spirit of Hammer and its genre aspirations. In 2014 Hammer made two more supernatural horror movies. The Quiet Ones, though given a largely critical panning did extremely well at the cinema and again provided good box-office return. This was followed by a sequel, The Woman in Black 2: Angel of Death, which again made reasonable box-office return, though not on the scale of its predecessor. Let us hope Hammer can maintain this standard but perhaps do something more challenging and unusual in future projects and I hope they can be a little more diverse in appeal and not get stuck with a certain kind of film tag.
The little we say regarding Robin Hardy’s much anticipated The Wicker Tree (2011) the better, I’m afraid. Not even Lee’s guest appearance as the old gentleman helps the standing of this alleged poor sequel to Hardy’s imperious The Wicker Man (1973). Despite the indifference of the films at that point that Christopher Lee participated in during this working year came a distinct and clear highlight, this being beyond any doubt Christopher Lee’s participation in an extraordinary film that for many reasons was very important to note. Martin Scorsese’s breathtaking and elaborate Hugo (2011) was not only an unusual project for the director to be associated with directly but with a pretty hefty budget and the fact that it was to be shot in 3D form would be all a new experience to the great Martin Scorsese, let alone the substance of the films meticulous story based on Brian Selznick’s novel, ‘The Invention of Hugo Cabret’.
Christopher Lee as Monsieur Labisse in Hugo, 2011.
With glorious sets, superb acting by all the cast and a film that not only shows Scorsese’s talent as an outstanding director having to leave the comfort zone associated with his amazing past work… “like we needed to be told that anyway!” but the sheer time, scale and effort in producing this vast, beautiful work is genuinely opulent beyond words and rather than question the unusual dynamics put to work in this scenario and of the many who assumed before the movie even begun production that Scorsese was the wrong choice for this drama based fantasy, adventure, then not only must we congratulate the visionaries who conspired to give us this work but we must again look long term at this production and its future legacy regarding its cinematic position. Sadly, even criminally in my mind, Hugo was a large scale box-office failure. I will at this stage bite my tongue on why such a fabulous movie failed, simply because I do not wish to offend certain quarters, plus this a tribute and not a place to vent ones spleen. Christopher Lee as the bookshop owner, Monsieur Labisse fits in perfectly with the precision of character adaptation, he like all the cast become part of the fixtures and fittings and with his dominant and famous features he’s totally at home with this piece of cinematic workmanship. “Is it obvious I like this film?” What a way for Lee to finish off the year.
In 2012 Lee would work with Tim Burton in his final cameo appearance for the director in a remake based on the TV series, Dark Shadows. Nine years after completing the ‘Rings’ trilogies Lee would also return in two of the three Peter Jackson, Hobbit films as Saruman in, ‘An Unexpected Journey’. The great actor would also enter a landmark 90 years of life and was still working very hard. Amazing!
Come 2012, Lee turned up in the Jeremy Iron’s led film, Night Train to Lisbon, directed by Bille August, based on the best selling novel of the same name and written by Pascal Mercier. In this Lee plays Father Bartolomeu a Priest, teacher who has an association with a character that Raimund Gregorius (Irons) is attempting to track down after he goes in search of characters found in a book that he retrieves while trying to save a girl from attempting to commit suicide from a bridge. In the belongings she leaves behind he finds train tickets and the book that becomes an impulsive travelogue obsession. The Girl From Nagasaki, is a visual avant-garde retelling of the Puccini opera, Madame Butterfly. A musical of sorts but more a visual collage or mosaic of different forms of the performing arts. The premise bares a great resemblance in tale to the original opera but Co directors Michel Comte and Ayako Yoshida add their unique and visual twist upon the theme. Lee plays the elder version of Officer Pinkerton who returns to find a lover he left behind after WWII. It deals in a unique way with the aftermath of the Nagasaki nuclear attack and concentrates largely on the female character Suzuki, who as we find out survived the atom bomb explosion. This tale of betrayal, abandonment, regret and rediscovery takes a new approach to Madame Butterfly. Lee for a 91 year old gentlemen looks wonderful and the almost clinical lines of the film make him look genuinely imperious. The usual oriental imagery and culture are brash and spectacular and the film even for someone who may not necessarily enjoy opera, dance, musical interpretation or more complicated broken up visual concepts, or even Madame Butterfly, will perhaps think differently after viewing this visual feast.
In 2014 Lee was seen for the final time playing Saruman in Peter Jackson’s, The Hobbit: Battle of the Five Armies. Not only was this significant for Jackson who had worked on the idea of bringing Tolkien’s world to life for close on 20 years but Lee’s lifelong ambition to be involved in a cinematic adaptation of Tolkien’s work was finally complete.
During my time working on this homage to Christopher Lee I have watched clips of films I have not yet seen him in. I have researched quite a bit about him but by the same token I have attempted to not be directly influenced by the public domain in which Lee is most certainly someone who has influenced much in commentary and the many stories of his life and acting career which are often fascinating and on occasion extraordinary. Some of his quotes have been concise, considered, passionate, straight talking and on many occasions extremely witty and very humourous to the point of anecdotal greatness. I have listened to some of his wonderful narrations and when placing his name on YouTube, it has revealed an open book of his life thoughts, work and his extraordinary willingness to interact with the public or fans. See: (UCD – University College Dublin Q&A 2011).
It is also blatantly clear that Lee was not just an actor but in the traditional way of exampling what a real ‘Gentleman’ defines then this man is the perfect description of that fading term. In finally completing this farewell, I have imposed my usual biased when writing this article and I have not even had the chance to touch upon lots more regarding his extensive canon of work or other matters concerning Lee. In time I hope to add more to this review and also eventually edit any silly mistakes and correct any problems I may have unwittingly incorporated into this personal tribute, things that may need my attention. The big difficulty however is none of these minor problems? – but how do I cope with ending this career synopsis which sadly ceases in 2015? Well let’s simply do what we did at the beginning and finish with the two remaining pieces of work he left us and then celebrate this superstar’s massive cultural contribution. Strangely, with his work on Raul Garcia’s, animated and splendid looking, Extraordinary Tales. With narration playing a pivotal role throughout Lee’s career. So what better way to hear the great man bestowing one of the tales of Edgar Allan Poe in a five part anthology adaptation. Lee is amongst an illustrious group of narrators with solid genre connections the like of Julian Sands, Roger Corman, Guillermo del Toro and of course Bela Lugosi… “I kid you not?” Lee is given the task of narrating, ‘The Fall of the House of Usher’. All early signs of this production that has been gathering a momentum since 2007, I believe will be given its final official assembled release date sometime in October 2015?
(Sigh!) Sadly we reach the point when we must talk about Lee’s final role(s). This moment also once more illustrates a number of poignant points regarding Lee’s personal character attributes. As someone who could feature in some of the biggest productions ever set to cinema he was also noted for working on projects that mattered for other reasons? German born director Michael Pakleppa had by this time lived in London for some twenty years and was about to start a little independent film called ‘Angels in Notting Hill’. Ever the gentleman and on this occasion in favour of his friendship with Pakleppa, which had begun 30 years previous when Lee had met the founder of German based Filmwelt Distribution, whose animated film, The Last Unicorn (1982) featured the voice-work of one Christopher Lee. Pakleppa the director of this latest work had asked Lee if he would be interested in participating in his project, perhaps expecting Lee to be unavailable due to other work commitments. The case was however that as a friend and having knowledge of the script and also to help out on this independent piece, Lee immediately agreed. In ‘Angels’ Lee would use his trademark voice to perform not one but two characters in this urban fantasy based love story. Lee performs the voice of The Invisible Boss of the Universe an omnipresent character that dictates the missions of celestial, guardian angels. After one such angel, Joy – Selma Brook fails her first job description, she is then given a second assignment in which she must bring the traumatised Geoffrey – Ryan Mercier, a man whose girlfriend has recently passed away and now lives in a fantasy world which to the normal observer is a total breakdown from the real world. This matter also begins to effectively destroy his antique business financially. This tale though concentrating specifically on the angel Joy and the broken character Geoffrey does include two other important character developments, of which all in one form or another must forgive past sins and even a clear betrayal in one particular case. It’s also about letting the past go and ultimately looking to the future. Lee’s second character is a wise cracking and at times intellectual toy dog that Geoffrey refers to as Mr President. His inclusion in this indie effort shows a scale of friendship and commitment to those who he appreciated outside his working environment and was happy to help out Michael Pakleppa on his film.
Quoting Christopher Lee: “When I die, I want to die with my boots on.” Lee in making this recent comment prior to his passing had always enjoyed a touch of humourous irony, even when it often entailed slight self deprecation. What this amusing throwaway one liner also meant was that Lee to the last was not going to retire from his duties as a consummate acting professional. In February Christopher Lee was seen in the public eye for the final time while attending, The Berlin Film Festival in support of a gala evening for one of the charities close to his heart, Cinema for Peace Foundation. In May of this year, Lee had accepted a part in the directorial début feature of Xavier Nemo. The film ‘The 11th ‘ in which Lee was due to start a September shoot for this drama based on several intermingled events set 24 hours prior to the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center’s. Sadly eleven days after he had celebrated his 93rd birthday the acting legend Christopher Lee passed away.
It is know secret that one of Lee’s passions was his love of music. Gifted a voice that had acquired a base tone that was naturally operatic in nature. Though never fully committed to this possible future trade in his younger days, choosing instead to become an actor, despite he going against his own personal belief that this would perhaps be a mistake. During his illustrious career his passion for music never diminished fully and on occasion his love not only allowed him to perform in film, See: The Wicker Man (1973). The Return of Captain Invincible (1983). In latter years Lee officially released an eclectic mix of actual musical infusions. During this period he would also get involved in the world of ‘Heavy Metal’. The connection between his voice-work and his association with filmic fantasy worlds would allow him access to such an unusual alliance often associated with a rock music sub genre known as Symphonic Metal. His passion for opera was obvious so all this put him on a unique musical path that would allow him to show his musical talents not just to fans who had little acknowledgement of this other side to Lee’s vast talents and additional abilities. The first notable delve into his musical aspirations came with the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, The King and I – First Complete Recording, (1994). On this production he worked with British operatic legend Valerie Masterson. In 1996 we saw the release of Christopher Lee sings Devils, Rogues & other Villains, (From Broadway to Bayreuth and Beyond). This album consisted of a mixture of Modern, Medieval, Classical and Opera inspired themes. In 2002 Christopher Lee’s impressive connection with Tolkien’s work resurfaced when Danish musicians, ‘The Tolkien Ensemble’ invited Lee to work on their third working production, ‘At Dawn in Rivendell’. This was work based on music, song and poems inspired by The Lord of the Rings. The original concept to these productions had originally started in 1997 when ‘The Tolkien Ensemble’ released An Evening in Rivendell. This was followed up by a second release ‘A Night in Rivendell’, (2000). Two years later with Lee on board the third release not only came at a time when the films had already become massive hits but with Lee actually involved with Jackson’s work and with anything Tolkien inspired becoming part of the cultural diet gave this, The Tolkien Ensemble piece a recognition that was inspired by Lee’s presence. There was a final release called ‘Leaving Rivendell’ (2005), minus Lee but by this time both the back catalogue and this final edition became hits. In 2006 Classico Records finally released a compilation album of all the combined efforts on a four CD collection titled Complete Songs & Poems. Between 2003 – 05′ and with Christopher Lee participating their were a number of concerts associated with this unique venture. In 2005 Lee and The Tolkien Ensemble took part in a a major sell-out concert in Concertgebouw, Amsterdam. Not content with his new found musical aspirations Lee not a personality to Rest on one’s laurels ventured further and in 2006 Christopher Lee released a solo album titled ‘Revelation’. This album was an eclectic collection of songs from different musical inspirations. Amongst its highlights Lee performing, “Wand’rin Star” from the musical ‘Paint Your Wagon’, Paul Anka’s, “My Way” and of course “Name Your Poison” the song from The Return of Captain Invincible (1983), in which Lee had originally performed this very tune.
What many fans of Lee will not forget in a hurry was his relationship with rock music which had started its journey amidst this musical reinvigoration within Lee’s life. This coming-together started in 2004 and would cement a latter partnership that lasted up to 2013. In 2004 Lee appeared on the Rhapsody album, ‘Symphony of Enchanted Lands II: The Dark Secret’ (2004). In 2005 the track, “The Magic Wizard’s Dreams” taken from the album in which Lee appeared in a duet with band member Fabio Lione; a noted classical trained tenor himself. This track was recorded in several languages and actually became a noted hit in several European countries. In 2006 Lee returned as the musical concept character Wizard King on the Rhapsody aka Rhapsody of Fire album, ‘Triumph or Agony’ which also featured the late Susannah York. In 2010 the Italian band released, ‘The Frozen Tears of Angels’ as part of the Dark Saga Trilogy. In 2010 Lee would narrate on the track “Dark Avenger” for American rock band Manowar album, ‘Battle Hymns MMXI’.
The Christopher Lee – Metal combination was never more highlighted than in 2010 when Lee embarked on a solo project which became, ‘Charlemagne: By the Sword and the Cross’. Based on the epic tale of ‘Charlemagne, the First Holy Roman Emperor’ and again within the fascinating and complex ancestry which stems from Lee’s, ‘Carandini’ side of the family meant that he was directly related to this noted historical dynasty. On this concept album Lee would perform the Ghost of Charlemagne, who recounts his history in musical form. Following on from this release Lee would finally be recognised for his work and on the 14th June, 2010, He was honoured for his contribution to rock music by being bestowed with the ‘Spirit of Metal’ award at the Metal Hammer Golden God awards ceremony at London’s Indigo2 venue. The award would be given to him by Black Sabbath legend, Tony Iommi. Amazingly two years later: on the 27th May – the day of his 90th Birthday Christopher Lee released ‘Charlemagne: The Omens of Death’.
Growing up during a period in which the likes of Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, Vincent Price, Donald Pleasence, Andrew Keir, Patrick Wymark, Oliver Reed, Ian Ogilvy, Ralph Bates, Michael Gough, George Woodbridge, Nigel Green, Andre Morell, it was easy to see how all these actors became a welcomed flamboyant familiarity and par for the course. These people became the actors who had taken up the genre baton and had actually been interspersed between the two great periods of horror inspired cinema along with those who we must also not forget whose faces though most often were visually black and white representations, were nevertheless still the true originators and just as wholeheartedly important, they too became auspicious regular guests in the life of horror fans in the decades that followed their original incarnations, many distinct figures the likes of; Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, Basil Rathbone, Fredric March, Peter Lorre, Charles Loughton, Lon Chaney Jnr. And if we harp back before these legends we have to acknowledge Friedrich Gustav Maximilian “Max” Schreck, Alexander Granach, Conrad Veidt, Werner Krauss, all a vital staple, all becoming necessary evils most often (in performance) and please do not forgive the pun, “for it is unconditionally intended!”
These three sets of notables where at the forefront, seen in between and some even being still present during the third defining coming of horror cinema, (Hammer). So what’s the big deal some of you young whipper-snappers may be thinking… “Why are you reminiscing like an ol’ fart and why are these mere actors, people you never actually met or have anything in common with so important?” The answer is very simple, these are the very names who gave life to the vivid cinematic imagination to fantasy, horror, sci-fi and beyond, a celebration for those who had the gumption and grand vision to write and use films based on the supernatural, of monsters, ghosts, vampires werewolves, witches, madmen, alien life forms and plain old nasty garden variety killers, performed by those above as horrors anathemas. These people gave us the unsavoury side of gothic or the fantastical, they became the visual interpretations that we could get more involved with at safe distance through the connection of viewing spectator. All these splendid performers of the macabre playing upon the darkness of our souls, their characters becoming both heroes and villains in all that the genre could offer us with its thrills, spills and scares. These actors gave a sense of scale and gravitas to fictional worlds and those who dare journey such darkened corridors, we being entertained as enthusiastic onlookers appreciating the effort put in by these legends of cinema on our behalf. This elite and ground breaking group of actors who appeared in these sprawling worlds of make-believe from the 1950’s onward now offered us a colourful alternative, another dimension in which to go seek these lurking bogeymen or be available in order to ultimately do battle with mad scientist creators, while by proxy the hero of the hour would attempt to bring down the beast, often at great cost and bravery, this happening despite great risk and the possibility of impending doom.
Christopher Lee like the nobles mentioned above was undoubtedly the last of a unique master class of British acting nobility who when he passed away sadly drew to a close the life of a screen star who had been immersed in a noted traditional acting career, he a true great of film, television and music? This was a moment that also brought to an end the remaining element of what had once been (still is and always will be) a genre defining era in world cinema. When the mighty film icon that we know as Christopher Lee left us behind after 93 glorious years, it was also the final call on what had been a golden age of cinema, of a true acting culture of dedication toward the craft, however simplistic it could be at times. Lee having endured over several inspiring decades right up until present lived through a vintage period of creative and rewarding cinema in which Christopher Lee both epitomised and became synonymous with during a number of changing periods of genre movement that often expanded outward and beyond normal routine cinematic convention. Not only did Lee come to define said acting greatness but he also became a representative of something just as equally unique and remarkably important to many movie fans across the globe, which for many of us started as part of his personal association with horror cinema and many of its wonderful highlights and the many cinematic experiences which have come to define true genre majesty. Despite he once commenting in disparaging tone that horror films in the grand scale of his entire career had provided him with work that though grateful for, its ultimate purpose and importance in his career trajectory; he never considered the genre to be his favourite area of self appeal nor the most important part of his lengthy career? It seems Lee admittedly saw it often as merely a means to an end only. With this statement made you’d therefore assume the fickle and thick skinned amongst horror fans would condemn such comments from a man regarded in many circles as an iconic representation of the genre and all he came to represent in the grand scheme of all things horror associated. The main reason most fans never took issue with these comments was because those who had a passing admiration for the talented Christopher Lee would doubtless be quite aware of his record and representation during the turbulent real time dramas of WWII and his continued work after the cessation of war. It is historically clear that Lee in his time serving his country against the Third Reich had served in numerous positions within the armed services during a time in which he saw and noted unspeakable acts of wartime barbarity. Perhaps it would therefore be safe to imagine that being an actor in the falsified violent universe of horror cinema though fascinating to fans of the genre, such tales were trivial by his standard of the reality of what had been his early life. It also has to be noted that the effects of war and its aftermath gave him a desire beyond the death and destruction to eventually become heavily involved in bringing to justice real monsters and madmen in the form of on-the-run Nazis, many who had originally escaped apprehension and had hid away after the war ended hoping to evade justice. Subsequently some of these men were captured and finally brought to task care of Lee’s personal working contribution both during and shortly after the world tried to get back to being free of a fascist tyranny that had caused the death of millions of people. All these experiences of war happened during Lee’s youth and into his early twenties. Yes Lee achieved much in his early life, being party to many historical events and covert causes that achieved great allied victories during a time of great upheaval and the after effects of the fall of Nazism thereafter. Here is a brief summation of what we know of his military career, most of which we actually know very little of because of certain covert operations to which he was attached throughout his time serving allied causes, these causes often noted for being covert operations that hinted at missions consisting of heavy bouts of enemy sabotage and even his contribution in the use of wartime subterfuge. He served both the United Kingdom and at one point even the armed forces of Finland. The branches in which he served were for the Finnish Army in 1939. Then he was transferred to the British home guard in 1940. Eventually his hard work was recognised and from 1941 to ’46 he served in differing elements of the Royal Air Force in which he was ranked a Flight Lieutenant. During his time he was based in the allies North African campaign, the allied invasion of Italy and the battle of Monte Cassino. It is also believed he had a direct association with the formation of what would become the elite British force via his time in special services and later the formation of the British SAS. There is much more of Lee’s service that still remains top secret to this day and perhaps with time we will learn more of his services to the allied forces during WWII. Of this subject Lee once said of these two separate parts of his life: “When the Second World War finished, I was 23, and already I had seen enough horror to last me a lifetime. I’d seen dreadful, dreadful things, without saying a word. So seeing horror depicted on film doesn’t affect me much.”
Christopher Lee during WWII.
The iconic coming-together of both Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing or Lee and his Hammer Film association was not just about creating a new era of colour enhanced fantastical ‘gothic’ material for a new excitable age of cinemagoers to appreciate the effects of the Kensington gore laden films about to be unleashed but its popularity saw people flock in their droves to witness this very specific period in British cinema which also gave us a symbolic dynasty of which all future cinema within its genre boundaries and most certainly its influence beyond would make many future film makers use this new and exciting horror movement as a defining template. In personal terms Christopher Lee also came to epitomise not just the period drama, intellectual good guy (on occasion) but more obvious was his portrayal of cads or the more extreme vengeful beast or creature – monster in re-imaginings of some of literatures traditional, inventive creations which fitted within the boundaries of horror cinema of that era, Lee justifiably becoming the visual iconography of its very revolutionary progression. These many new forms of creative flux and there ideas would not just inspire hard more inventive work but the very ethic in which the actors of this golden age would also strive to convince us that this bloody fantasy world was a precision form of escapism that was focused on serving an important storytelling tradition that needed to be reinvented for a new age of cinema; which again became just as important in achieving its goals as it was to be a implementer and observer of this change. During this period and behind the scenes of film location shoots, a true gentlemanly friendship and loyalty that would go beyond standard parameters brought many aspects of Lee’s personality to the fore and also revealed a much more considered man privately than Lee’s future product charisma would play out publicly, often in villainous cinematic terms. His high intelligence and personal warmth often created massive bonds with many who worked and participated in Lee’s substantial ascent toward eventual stardom. These moments strangely coinciding with Peter Cushing’s ascension into cinematic permanence also. There was absolutely nothing normal about these growing conspiring processes of genre cinema nor was there anything but hard work and companionship that made all these accumulative forces come together in perfect formation, or what was uniquely going to be achieved as a result of this evolving working formula. Cinema was indeed in for a rude awakening and Lee the up and coming actor, Cushing the already go to actor in his association with Hammer Films would be at the forefront of this new trailblazing era of cinema. We must also note that during this hectic period, this noted strong friendship and bond between these two acting legends would be maintained throughout a career that spanned several glorious decades. When we mention Christopher Lee we cannot continue our bow to him without mentioning his partnership with the wonderful Peter Cushing. Sparring partners on screen most often, off screen they became close personal friends.
Cushing, Price and Lee, three of the closest friends.
Both legends of film and television, both having the same staunch attitude and work ethic in their performances, even in moments when it would have been easier to take the money and run. Though of the two Cushing was the elder statesman by this time, it is clear to see that Lee was influenced by being in Cushing’s company and I imagine on occasion and being the consummate professional Cushing was willing to stand back and watch his younger friend climb to the heights and perhaps even beyond what he had laid down previous to Lee’s breakthrough and their consistent alliance thereafter. The moment Terence Fisher aligned these two actors together it was bound to succeed and within that first year the inevitable happened. Like Cushing had achieved before him, Lee would achieve the same spoils soon after. Would it be right to suggest that even in his ageing years, Lee (like Cushing) remained quite an imposing, suave, commanding figure. One imagines even in his nineties, Lee in particular was still able to easily turn heads when he passed by. The direct influence of Cushing upon Lee is clearly noted as on many occasions during and with an increasing regularity even after Peter Cushing’s death in August of 1994, Lee clearly missed his kindredship with his close acting partner in crime and went to great lengths in the years that followed to often remind people of his friends importance, despite his absence. The same was said of his fondness and close friendship with the effervescent Vincent Price. These three men became known in the genre as the “Unholy Trinity of Horror”. Christopher Lee and Vincent Price share a birth date. Both gentlemen were born on 27th May. Lee, 1922, Price, 1911. Peter Cushing birth came on the 26th May, 1913.
Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing together.
Lee once said of his relationship with Peter Cushing: “I don’t want to sound gloomy, but, at some point of your lives, every one of you will notice that you have in your life one person, one friend whom you love and care for very much. That person is so close to you that you are able to share some things only with him. For example, you can call that friend, and from the very first maniacal laugh or some other joke you will know who is at the other end of that line. We used to do that with him so often. And then when that person is gone, there will be nothing like that in your life ever again.”
Lee and Price pretending to play chess.
Christopher Lee on Vincent Price and Peter Cushing: “They were both grand masters of their art but more importantly as human beings… wonderful people, wonderful actors and I miss them very very much.”
In completing this goodbye I have omitted much of Christopher Lee’s acting CV because; as earlier mentioned this operation would be longer than this effort has already become. So I would like to finish with a brief conclusion as to why Lee the actor gained my many decades of attention. Hammer Films was where it all started for this fan personally and I would like to conclude with a few of his obvious fine stand out works, like his turn as The Mummy (1959). He played a pirate, Captain Robeles in The Devil-Ship Pirates, (1964), and repeated a similar role in The Pirates of Blood River (1962). What we must also not forget, was one of his most notable roles to this date which has to be his performance as Nicholas, Duc de Richleau in Terence Fisher’s, The Devil Rides Out (1968), a Hammer film and a Lee performance that still holds great sway with genre fans around the globe, even today. Christopher Lee had an assorted imitative relationship with various Sir Arthur Conan Doyle adaptations of Sherlock Holmes material. this association began In 1959 when Lee played opposite Peter Cushing’s fabulous Sherlock Holmes in Terence Fisher’s, The Hound of the Baskervilles, in this adaptation Lee played Sir Henry Baskerville. In, Valley of fear (1962), Lee played Sherlock Holmes for the first time. In 1970 Lee appeared in Billy Wilder’s impressive, The Private life of Sherlock Holmes, in which he played Mycroft Holmes with a deeply intense commitment to the cause, his rivalry with his brother Sherlock was a delight to witness. This is yet another Lee performances that I consider noteworthy of high praise and not to dissimilar to another character I mentioned earlier, his Stratton-Villiers of MI5 in Death Line (1973). At the beginning of the 1990’s Lee turned up in two TV movies known as Sherlock Holmes: The Golden Years. The first was ‘Incident at Victoria Falls’ (1991) and then he reprised his role as the elder detective in ‘Sherlock Holmes and the Leading Lady’ (1992). Another reason we should mention these two versions of Conan Doyle adaptations is because this allows we at TCMR to also bid farewell to Daniel Patrick Macnee, 6th February 1922 – 25th June 2015. Or the man better known to the world of acting as Patrick Macnee, who would play opposite Lee’s Holmes as Dr John Watson. The reason for the addition of Macnee in a Lee tribute is simple. Both Lee and Macnee met in childhood as young infant students of Summer fields Preparatory School. At the age of eleven both acted in the school production of Henry V. From that time onward they both remained good friends throughout their two separate, recognisable career paths which culminated in them appearing together several decades later in these two films. Macnee recently passed away eleven days after his friend, both actors where 93 years of age.
Lee as Sherlock, Macnee as Watson.
Patrick Macnee 6th Febuary 1922 – 25th June 2015, R.I.P.
It’s absolutely amazing that despite this extensive review of Christopher Lee’s work there is so much that I have passed over, though I will probably add much more regarding this true acting legend in time. So to Sir Christopher Frank Carandini Lee, I will bid farewell to someone I have been a big fan of since the days he became a part of my early childhood in his many monster guises and latterly in his acting evolution as one of British cinema’s; nay an icon of the world of cinema. His work will remain forever and I will continue from time to time to drop into this magical world as represented by this legend. A cultural gift to film television and music, a gentleman and a scholar of great note who experienced a truly fascinating 93 years of life all told.
Christopher Lee with his loving wife, Birgit Krøncke Lee of 54 years of marriage.
Sadly on the 7th of June, 2015 at 8:30am Christopher Lee was admitted to Chelsea and Westminster Hospital for respiratory problems that led to heart failure. Just over a week after celebrating his 93rd birthday Sir Christopher Frank Carandini Lee passed away. His wife Birgit Krøncke Lee delayed the public announcement until 11th June in order to break the news to family and close personal friends in first regard. On the day that Lee’s fans finally learned of his passing, it was a moment that brought a great swell of emotion in both social conversation of like minded souls and those on social media. There was not one person I spoke to on that day who did not know who Christopher Lee was, though most immediately chose to mention Dracula or his roles in Hammer Films. A few of my geeky friends immediately recognised his greater acting importance beyond the obvious and like me seemed more effected by this news. What we did not want to be however was maudlin at hearing of his passing but instead decided to celebrate the great man as an important constant, which he had clearly been in life. Despite his passing his many fans will always be able to turn to his acting brilliance and once more sit down and absorb his presence in a visual or vocal capacity in moments of their choosing. He will always remain a regular guest in our homes whenever the fancy takes us.“Come on in and make your self at home Christopher Lee, you’ll always be welcomed here!” E.D. Leach.
To The Last of The Long Shadows.
Christopher Lee RIP.