Having a career that spanned just under an incredible seven decades, the sad loss of Christopher Lee was reported last week to the dismay of generations. From the small British screen to descending upon Hollywood, join us as we pinpoint and celebrate the highlights of Lee’s working life and legacy.
Nothing screams British cinema quite like the Hammer films. Most famous for its series of Gothic pictures from the mid-50s through to the 1970s, Christopher Lee and director Terence Fisher were the driving force of the movement. Inspired by the Universal Monster movies of the 30s and 40s, the films often crossed romanticism with hypersexual thematics and were splattered with vibrantly crimson blood. Of course, you would always find Lee playing the grotesque antagonist and we’re not just talking about his iconic run as Dracula. In fact, one of the first films to be released was a retelling of Frankenstein in 1957 which saw Lee star as Victor’s infamous creation; it wasn’t until the following year that Dracula’s debut was made but then the bloodsucking fiend wouldn’t return to our screens for a sequel until 1966 with Dracula: Prince of Darkness. Before then, he struck fear into thousands portraying the undead in The Mummy and playing key roles in such films as The Hound of the Baskervilles and The Gorgon.
In recent times, Hammer has experienced a major revival since its decline in the late 70s. Having enjoyed commercial success in 2010 with Let Me In, the company released The Resident the following year. With Hilary Swank and Jeffrey Dean Morgan in the leading roles, Christopher Lee stayed true to his Hammer roots and returned for one final run as the ill-fated August.
From beyond the grave to lordship, 1973 saw Lee reprise his vampiric role in The Satanic Rites of Dracula but it was his portrayal of Lord Summerisle in Robin Hardy’s The Wicker Man that would see him go down in the history books. Adding charisma to a believable villainous character, Lee helps steer the climax of the film into becoming one of the most breathtakingly intense and iconic conclusions in cinema. Although it would seem that Lord Summerisle lacks screen time, the somewhat recent release of The Final Cut shows that Lee actually has a larger role in the film and his previously undiscovered scenes are nothing less than spectacular. Who would have thought that he and co-star Britt Ekland would subsequently go from worshippers of a pagan cult to being on opposing sides of James Bond in The Man with the Golden Gun?
The Lord of the Rings
Lee’s role in Peter Jackson’s highly regarded trilogy shows that his strong acting abilities hadn’t changed since his career flourished in the 1950s. Here, with close to 300 million dollars spent on the fantasy epic saga, Lee adds a new villain to his long list in the form of Saruman the White. A whirlwind adventure around kings, dwarves, elves and wizards, the trilogy sees Saruman trying to stop Frodo on his path to destroy the precious ring he stumbled upon. Although Lee only joined the cast as a fan who would read the J. R. R. Tolkien books annually, it was Jackson who was most keen to have him on set. Being a huge fan of the horror legend, Jackson even gave Saruman a vampiric ending. Unfortunately, Sir Ian McKellen (Gandalf the Grey) once stated that Lee wasn’t impressed but with a box office taking of around 3 billion dollars and having received multiple Academy Awards, it would seem that others disagree.
It’s easy to forget the smaller characters that great actors play; Christopher Lee has played so many voices in films yet they’re often overlooked. In the long list of films he has been a voice actor to, Tim Burton’s undead stop motion feature Corpse Bride, in which Lee voices Pastor Galswells, always seems to come out on top. A great addition to the cast, Lee gives a deadpan performance as the stubborn, elderly man of the cloth. A hilarious scene involving Lee’s character comes when his booming voice attempts to banish a group of re-animated corpses from his church, only to be kindly greeted by them. Although this is a small part of the film, the comical timing is perfect.
It’s important to remember that small roles don’t exist, only small actors, and Christopher Lee was not a small actor. Putting an equal amount of passion into every role, be it in front of a camera or microphone, his dedication and great talent are to be treasured and will be sorely missed.
Which of Christopher Lee’s films are your personal highlights?
Comment with your thoughts.
– Daniel Sheppard Hammer Horror & The Wicker Man
– Ryan Keen The Lord of the Rings
– Maisie Anderson Corpse Bride