“We don’t always get the kind of work we want, but we always have a choice of whether to do it with good grace or not.”
– Christopher Lee
You don’t have to be a bad actor to be a Bad Movie Superstar. Many a great actor has appeared in a bad movie, or more than one, and the advantage of that is that a bad movie with a great actor in it is usually, on some level, a good bad movie. Street Fighter has little going for it, but it does have Raul Julia’s bombastic swansong as M Bison. Biggles: Adventures in Time is a pile of crap, but Peter Cushing is awesome in it, as in just about everything. It was said once of Cushing and his close friend Vincent Price: “[They] made some wonderful serious movies but are only known for horror.”
The man who said this, in an interview in 2011, was a friend to both men, and himself a towering (literally) figure in the movie world who appeared in more than his fair share of pap over the 93 years of his life. It seems fitting then that we mark the death of this man, Christopher Lee, with his induction into the ranks of Bad Movie Superstardom.
Although eschewing the path of personal tragedy, Lee had nothing if not an interesting life prior to his acting career. At 17 he spent a fortnight in Finland to defend the country from Russian aggression, and when WWII went global, he joined the RAF, spending most of the war as an intelligence officer after an optic nerve problem washed him out of flight school. He worked with the Special Operations Executive and Long Range Desert Patrol, saying of his work: “I was attached to the SAS from time to time but we are forbidden – former, present, or future – to discuss any specific operations. Let’s just say I was in Special Forces and leave it at that. People can read in to that what they like.” It is said that his work put him in a unique position to advise Peter Jackson on the sound of a man’s neck snapping, but I’m not sure that’s confirmed.
Post-war, a cousin suggested acting, although he was initially declared to be too tall. He broke into the business through the time honoured method of taking whatever jobs would pay the rent until something big came along. The something big was the role of the Creature in The Curse of Frankenstein, the film that introduced him to Hammer studios, who would make him world famous as Count Dracula, in which role he gives Bela Lugosi a run for his money as archetypal depiction.
Lee would go on to play Dracula a tonne more times, although he was famously reluctant, not wishing to become typecast in the role. He also claimed to have refused to speak his lines in Dracula: Prince of Darkness (although writer Jimmy Sangster insists he never had any,) and that he only took part because Jimmy Carerras, President of Hammer, would sell the picture on his participation and then plead with him not to put everyone out of a job.
In the same period he achieved lasting notoriety playing the fiendish and inscrutable Dr Fu Manchu (and a few other oriental villains,) donning super-creepy yellowface. It can’t be said to be his finest hour, and although politically no worse than generations of blackfaced Othellos, there’s a reason they don’t get shown so much anymore. As with Dracula, Lee’s primary role in these films was to loom and be terrifying, which he was very good at.
He did eventually break the mould, playing a few straight men in lesser Hammer films (including one segment of classic portmanteau Dr Terror’s House of Horrors,) an heroic witch hunter in The Devil Rides Out, and Sir Henry Baskerville, Mycroft Holmes and Sherlock Holmes in various productions of Conan Doyle’s books. He buckled swashes in The Devil-Ship Pirates, and went on to play Count Rochefort in Richard Lester’s Three Musketeers, Scaramanga in The Man with the Golden Gun and Lord Summerisle in the cult horror classic The Wicker Man. He was still mostly seen as a horror actor, like Cushing and Price despite a few more serious roles over the years, most often as military men or sombre physicians.
A move to America helped Lee to shed the shackles of horror, playing more Holmes, and a supervillain in The Return of Captain Invincible (which so needs a review here.) In 1998 he played the founder of Pakistan, because that was an obvious jump. He played the villain in Return from Witch Mountain and had a cameo in Gremlins II, and just a whole load of minor roles, including loads of TV work in the 70s Captain America and the Tomorow People remake.
His career had been slowing down for a while by the year 2000, but the roles of Saruman in The Lord of the Rings – for which he was notably the only member of cast or crew to have met Tolkien in person, albeit only briefly – and Count Dooku in The Attack of the Clones and The Revenge of the Sith brought him back to prominence. The early 21st century were good to Lee, and like any once-great character actor, formerly known for horror and now relaunched as a professional evil wizard, he naturally kicked out some heavy metal power ballads with Manowar.
No, seriously. He recorded several albums of his own in the last decade and was awarded a Spirit of Metal Award and described himself as ‘a young man right at the beginning of his career’ in his acceptance speech.
What made him great as a metaller was the same thing that made him great as an actor. He wasn’t necessarily the most nuanced performer, but he has an intensity that was second to none and a thundering bass that demanded the listener shut up and pay attention. He could be commanding, demanding or reassuring, but he was never less than compelling.
He also, as is the case with many bad movie stars, never took the material lightly, be it ever so shit. He might not have wanted to speak the words in Dracula Prince of Darkness, might not even have wanted to be there, but he hissed and snarled like a trouper. Even in Star Wars, he did a lot of his own fight work, with doubles only for the fancier footwork. The man gave his all to every project as if it was a timeless classic, and lifted his own performance and the film as a whole because of it.
So, yes; he was in some shit. He was in The Silent Flute and Season of the Witch, and two Star Wars prequels. In his younger days, he played a lot of yellowface villains, but that was the sixties; so it goes. He spent the better part of the sixties living on hisses while he tried to establish himself in anything else. But he never half-arsed, never phoned it in, even when this happened:
Lee was part of the generation of professional actors who never fussed about the merit of their latest gig. Yes, it was great to play Hamlet (Lee was a spear carrier in Olivier’s Hamlet,) but other things could be great too, like eating and paying rent on time, and being in work. He was a jobbing thesp, and a damned good one.
Christopher Lee died on the 11th June 2015, aged 93. We shall not look upon his like again.
You know, unless we watch his movies.
Highlights on the Bad Movie Marathon
- Curse of the Crimson Altar – dodgy squire
- The Skull – playing a posh antiquarian
- Dracula, Prince of Darkness – playing you know who
- Season of the Witch – playing the plague-deformed bishop
- The Silent Flute – playing mysterious man of mystery Zetan