It is very sad for me to write this obituary. Christopher Lee was, and still is, one of my great heroes, and his passing has left the world emptier than he found it.
But Lee achieved much in his long, well-lived life. His career as a performer spanned almost 70 years (!), encompassing everything from well-received heavy metal albums (Lee received the ‘Spirit of Metal’ award at the 2010 Metal Hammer Golden God awards) to iconic film roles. These include playing Count Dracula in such classic films as Dracula and Dracula: Prince of Darkness (my personal favourite).
He played Francisco Scaramanga in the 1974 James Bond film The Man With The Golden Gun. Interestingly Bond creator Ian Fleming was Lee’s step-cousin. In fact, as one reviews Lee’s career, one sees many connections.
Lee was introduced to new generations of film-goers with his role as Saruman in ‘The Lord of the Ring’ trilogy and ‘The Hobbit’ trilogy. Lee had actually met Tolkien and every year he would re-read Tolkien’s books. Which to my mind says more about Lee than any words could – he had an understanding of the mythology and power of story-telling which all creative people should endeavour to have (read Joseph Campbell’s essential The Hero With A Thousand Faces for more on this).
Lee appeared in two Star Wars prequels and also the animated Clone Wars film as Count Dooku/Darth Tyranus. He had become a favourite actor of the creative directors he himself had inspired. For instance, he would work with Tim Burton on five films.
Lee received some much deserved acknowledgement for his achievements while he lived. He was knighted in 2009, received the BAFTA Fellowship in 2011 and the BFI Fellowship in 2013.
Lee considered his best film to be The Wicker Man. Can you see a film like that being made today? It is a truly superb piece of cinema in any genre.
Even before his birth, Lee’s background was interesting to say the least. His mother was a countess and his father fought in the Boer War and World War One. In his youth Lee met Prince Yusupov and Grand Duke Dmitri Pavlovich, the assassins of Grigori Rasputin.
At school, Lee met M.R. James, who he would play sixty years later. He also witnessed the last public execution in France, which had a lasting impression on him.
Christopher volunteered to fight for the Finnish forces against the Soviets in the Winter War of 1939. Later he was to serve as an intelligence officer in the R.A.F. At the end of the war, he worked hunting Nazi war criminals, and witnessed their vile handiwork first-hand in the concentration camps.
Following the war, Lee became an actor, enduring over a decade of struggle and bit parts. His exotic appearance, height and origins were against, yet these were the very things that would make him a star and give him a career of great longevity. (Interestingly, to show you how short-sighted Hollywood can be, Lee was turned down for a role in The Longest Day for not looking military enough, despite his great military experience in the real world!).
1957’s The Curse of Frankenstein gave Lee his breakthrough. He played Frankenstein’s Monster, and did so beautifully, conveying real sadness despite having no dialogue (something he would pull off again in The Mummy).
He would star in several fine Hammer Films: Rasputin: The Mad Monk wherein he gives a great performance as Rasputin (a film that was shot back-to-back with Dracula: Prince of Darkness) and The Hound of the Baskervilles (with Peter Cushing as Holmes, a role he would play several times more in the years to come, for example, in Sherlock Holmes and the Deadly Necklace – here, Lee plays Lord Baskerville, though he would go on to play Holmes too). The Gorgon was a fine effort too, not withstanding the need for some Ray Harryhausen magic in the SFX department; still, Lee and Cushing are marvellous together. The jewel in Lee’s Hammer crown has to be their superb adaptation of Dennis Wheatley’s The Devil Rides Out. Directed by Terence Fisher from a script by no less than I Am Legend author Richard Matheson, it truly is one of the all-time great, Lee being superb as the Duc De Richlieu.
More roles lay in the future: The Creeping Flesh, The Skull, and one of my all-time favourites, Horror Express.
A move to America eliminated his being typecast in horror roles. For instance, he was able to do comedy, in Steven Spielberg’s 1941 and on Saturday Night Live.
Lee was determined never to retire and this man meant what he said. A month before his death Lee had signed up to star with an ensemble cast in the Danish film The 11th.
There are two positives to be taken from Christopher Lee’s passing. The first is his cinematic legacy will endure, like the Count, for decades to come, continually rediscovered by all those still possessed of a sense of imagination and wonder. So many films did Christopher Lee appear in, that writing about one a week, it would take me years to cover just the well-known ones. Hopefully, new generations will take up the banner of making such fantastic art and entertainment – the next Terrence Fisher, the next Christopher Lee, the next Peter Cushing, may even now be out there, just waiting for their chance to pick up their torch. For we need the fantastic in our lives; the mean, dull and mundane we already have an abundance of, sadly.
Secondly, and most importantly, is the inspiration of Christopher Lee’s life. So many people today lead an isolated, virtual life. Not Lee. He truly lived, he seized every opportunity that came his way. He never stopped learning, meeting people, working and gaining new experience. While his passing leaves the world a sadder place, it is also a richer place for his being there. Let his work and his inspiration be his lasting legacy.