Wednesday, 16 December 2015

2015 In Memoriam: Sir Christopher Lee

7th June 2015 – Christopher Lee, 93

("Christopher Lee at the Berlin International Film Festival 2013" by Avda - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons - )

"As an intelligence officer attached to No. 260 Squadron RAF, he reportedly prevented a small mutiny after troops – frustrated and lacking news from the eastern front – threatened to break ranks. Following his work with the LRDG, and owing in part to his language skills and favourable impression with senior officers, he was assigned to the Special Operations Executive, conducting reconnaissance in occupied Europe and tracking down suspected Nazi criminals. "We were given dossiers of what they'd done and told to find them, interrogate them as much as we could and hand them over to the appropriate authority." As a result Lee, who almost died twice during the war earning himself the nicknames Duke or Spy, witnessed the devastating aftermath of the Nazi’s camps first-hand. “We saw these concentration camps. Some had been cleaned up. Some had not,” he said in 2009. Although he rarely spoke about his experiences during the war, towards the end of his life he described it as being “real horror and blood.” “I’d seen dreadful, dreadful things, without saying a word,” he told an interviewer, explaining how horror on film “doesn’t affect me much.”
Rose Troup Buchanan, Indepenent 12 June 2015, Christopher Lee: The Untold Life of the SAS soldier who spoke several languages and almost died twice in WWII.

Actor who spent a career being murdered by Peter Cushing on the big screen! The Cushing and Lee combination made most of the best Hammer horror films, and their off screen friendship lasted over forty years.

To some, Christopher Lee is the ultimate Dracula. To others, he is Lord Summerisle from The Wicker Man. To others, he’s Saruman, or Count Dooku, or the chap who sings with Rhapsody. All of those people agree, however, that Christopher Lee was a one of a kind legend.

A school mate of Patrick macnee, a man who met M.R. James and who was one of the last surviving witnesses of a public guillotining, Lee had a number of small roles before his breakthrough as the creature in The Curse of Frankenstein in 1957. The following year, The Horror of Dracula appeared, his first appearance of several as the blood sucking Count. The story was loosely based on the Bram Stoker film, and by loosely, I mean Harker becomes a vampire in it. Hammer came calling more regularly, and though he was first up to play The Mummy, or Frankenstein’s monster, or Dracula once more, he had a more human appearance as Sir Henry Baskerville in the Hammer adaptation of the Conan-Doyle classic. 

The Gorgon, The Skull, Rasputin the Mad Monk and the Fu Manchu films swiftly followed in the 1960s as Christopher Lee began to make films at a prodigious rate. Indeed, he was at one point in The Guinness Book of Records for most appearances in films. Dracula: Prince of Darkness, Dracula Has Risen from The Grave, The Devil Rides Out and two episodes of The Avengers followed.

“I never thought of him as - I never thought of him as a vampire, ever. I mean, the blood is the life. That's one thing you have to bear in mind. And it is for all of us, isn't it? Here's a man who is immortal. Here is a man who, through being immortal, is a lost soul. Here is a man who experiences the loneliness of evil, something he can't control, who wants to die but there is a force in him, a malefic force, which drives him to do these terrible things. I said earlier the character is heroic, based on the real man - a war leader and a national hero, I may say, in Romania to this day - Vlad the Impaler. Certainly a bloodthirsty character, without a doubt. I also told you that the character is romantic - so he is, as far as women are concerned, and erotic. And there's, of course, the obvious association with the bite in a sexual sense, if you like. So I tried to put all those particular characteristics into the character. It appears that I succeeded.”
Christopher Lee, on Dracula, interview with NPR, 1990

Lee continued to show his diverse acting skills. In 1970, he played Dracula in a further three films, as well as Judge Jeffries (M.R. James’s hero in one tale, bizarrely) in The Bloody Judge, Artemidorus in the Charlton Heston film version of Shakespeare’s play, and Mycroft Holmes in The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes.

And then, in January 1971, his dear friend Peter Cushing suffered the loss of his wife to cancer, a moment from which the actor never recovered. Lee got as many of Lee’s acting friends together, a director they both respected (Eugenio Martin), and created the film Horror Express as a way of keeping an eye on his old pal. It is one of the few films they made in which Lee and Cushing’s characters are allies.

Two more Hammer horror Dracula films (it required less makeup than being Frankenstein’s monster) followed before the role of Lord Summerisle in The Wicker Man appeared. Lee was attached to the project through a friendship with writer Anthony Shaffer before production even started. Lee considered the cult classic his greatest film, though he reserved sadness for the fact that the “complete version” was lost in an archive somewhere (the version we all known is  the cinema version, which was significantly shorter) as it was “ten times better”.

In 1974, he made the natural move from Hammer villan to Bond villain, appearing as Scaramanga, The Man with the Golden Gun. Alas, The Man With the Golden Gun is probably the worst Bond film to date. None of this is Christopher Lee’s fault, as he makes for an interesting and compelling villain in his too little screen time. The moment where he casually takes a tongue lashing from his boss, all the while creating the weapon that will dispose of the boss, is the best scene in the film, and Lee underplays the menace wonderfully. A cousin of the author, Ian Fleming had wanted Lee to play Dr No.

Lee continued to appear in a wide spread of films. He appeared in the kids film Return from Witch Mountain, which is actually the first thing I ever saw him in. He even played Prince Philip and Mohammed Ali Jinnah! He was the voice of Death in Wyrd Sisters, Lucas de Beaumanoir in Ivanhoe, and Flay in Gormenghast. He showed no sign of slowing down in his increasing age, appearing in a whopping twenty-eight films after he turned 80.

It was his work with Peter Jackson that brought Christopher Lee to the younger generations, though. A fan of Tolkein (he re-read Lord of the Rings annually, and had known Tolkein), Lee had originally auditioned for the role of Gandalf, but it was considered to be too physically demanding for his age. However, as the traitorous Saruman, he positively stole every scene he appeared in.

And this is before mentioning his work with the SOE during WW2. Or his singing voice. Or his rock albums with Rhapsody and Luca Turilli.

Christopher Lee was a proper renaissance man, and the only regret we have is that this polymath didn’t earn another 93 years alive so we could be dazzled by all the new talents he’d pick up in that time.

“Lee’s particular difference as Dracula lay in his height and powerful showing, and his terrifying presence even when no words had been written for him. But while admitting that Dracula had been his cornerstone, he eventually left the role to others, and later regretted letting himself in for so many of the vampire’s increasingly absurd adventures. He took work wherever he could find it, including five times as Fu Manchu. When he could not find roles in Britain, he cast about in France, Italy, Spain and Germany. His ability to say his lines in their languages was a great advantage when it came to dubbing. He became the first actor to play both Sherlock Holmes and, for the director Billy Wilder in 1970, Sherlock’s brother Mycroft. While shooting by Loch Ness in Scotland, Wilder remarked to him, as they walked in the twilight by the spooky stretch of dark water with bats wheeling about: “You must feel quite at home here.” Supporting roles in action pictures – as a Nazi officer, a western gunman and a pirate – extended not only his portfolio but also the range of lead actors who were his idols. Among them was Burt Lancaster, whose example as his own stunt man Lee strove to emulate. Lancaster once warned him against journalists: “Never let them get too close.” Lee liked to give interviews, but resented the results, since they invariably harped on about Dracula despite his protestations that he had left the “prince of darkness” behind.”
Alex Hamilton, Guardian obit

“He played each of these characters not how a classic villain should be played, but how a classic Christopher Lee villain should be played – there was a difference, and it involved a fixed, psychotic gaze, a hint of a hiss which was much imitated but never equalled, and an only partly-concealed humanity. As Lee once said, borrowing from Anthony Hopkins, “I play people, not villains”. Yet it’s a testament to his work ethic, his success in defining the template of a modern cinematic villain as being English and painfully well-spoken, and the high esteem within which he was held by a new generation of young and powerful filmmakers that below the above highlights lay a bedrock of further roles which most of Lee’s contemporaries might describe as career-defining even on their own.”
David Pollack, Scotsman obit

“Like his frequent co-star Peter Cushing, he was in many ways a paradox – a thoroughly modern actor, yet also a throwback to an earlier age when actors loomed genuinely large. Not for nothing did a Times critic compare him in 1966 to the early 19th-century tragedian Edmund Kean. Several years later the same reasoning almost had him cast in an abandoned film about Kean’s successor Henry Irving (an actor who has frequently been cited as the original model for Dracula). Though this and various other projects didn’t make it into production, Lee was nevertheless remarkable for the huge number of films he did make, a workaholic tendency that inevitably threw up its share of unworthy roles but also landed him in the Guinness Book of World Records. He was also remarkable for the sheer international scope of his film work, a scope enabled in part by his command of numerous languages.”
Jonathan Rigby, BFI obit