The Dark Lord is a Gentleman
Sir Christopher Lee
By Jessica Dwyer
It’s taken me a full day to get to the point I could write about Sir Christopher Lee and his life and loss to us, his fans. Every time I tried to do it throughout the morning and afternoon I’d just start crying and be at a loss of words to really put it down.
Sir Christopher was immortal in my mind and in the minds of many of his fans. He just couldn’t die. You can’t do that when you’re Dracula or a creature of myth and legend. That just doesn’t happen. And for so long he proved us right with that belief. 93 years and he never stopped working. He was always a major presence on screen or off, his voice and gaze as powerful as ever it was. He was even signed to work on a new film prior to his death.
But he was, as was his good friend Peter Cushing, a man and not a myth. And so Sir Christopher Lee passed away on Sunday, June 7th of this year. His wife of 54 years Birgit chose to not announce his passing until his family had all been made aware before the media. After her wishes were met we heard the news today throughout the world that we had lost the last of the greats of horror.
Much like Van Helsing and Dracula, I always think of Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee together in my head. Along with these two were Vincent Price and John Carradine as well as Robert Quarry. They were between them all a bridge of horror coming into a new age, a golden age of color and adulthood. Price and Carradine led the way, while the world was still in black and white, followed by Cushing and Lee and then Quarry as the 70’s took on a more jaded edge to its horror films. With the loss of Christopher Lee, the last of the pantheon of horrors gods has faded to black.
It is though unjust to Sir Christopher to only focus on his work in horror and in films in general. He was a hero, with a life led fully. During WW2 he actually hunted down Nazi’s, working in a Special Forces units as well as part of the air force. He never talked about his time in what was a form of the secret service, but it was obvious he’d done some daring and dangerous work. As Lee himself had said, he could keep a secret.
He had a voice that was resonate and made for opera. And he used it in films and on records…once again right up until his death. Not many 80 to 90 year olds were recording heavy metal albums but Sir Christopher did. His last record was released in 2014, a Christmas record. Probably his most notable use of that legendary voice for singing was in The Wickerman.
Sir Christopher was fearless when it came to his acting roles and he never wanted to be boring (nor was he.) And he, contrary to popular belief, wasn’t just a villain. Sir Christopher was one of the few actors to not only play Sherlock Holmes but also his brother Mycroft. He also portrayed Sir Henry Baskerville in The Hound of The Baskervilles.
He took the heroic roles in films like The Devil Rides out where he fought against Satan himself. In the creepy classic Horror Express he again fought the forces of evil (alongside his usual nemesis Peter Cushing.) I could go on, but his film history is truly epic in scope.
But Sir Christopher would be best known for portraying what in the minds of many horror fans is the equally iconic as Lugosi’s version of Count Dracula. His performance managed to combine style, class, royal bearing, and the savagery of a hungry wolf within the folds of that glorious cape. He brought to the role as well a charged sexuality that hadn’t really been seen in The Count (something that would be recreated in numerous other versions of the part, but would never seem quite as well done.) This is ironic as Lee had been told he was too foreign looking to be a leading man. He’d play the part more times than any actor in history (including roles in films like Dracula & Son where he poked fun at his own creation.)
While he will forever be tied to Dracula, Sir Christopher portrayed almost all of the classic monsters of horror. His first horror role for Hammer was that of the Frankenstein creature in Curse of Frankenstein. He would follow this with Dracula and then The Mummy. He’d also portray a new take on Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde with the film I, Monster. In The Howling 2 he fought werewolves (and would actually apologize for the film later to the original Howling’s director for being in the movie…)
Even if a film was a bad movie Sir Christopher brought class and style to it. In fact, he brought an inherent sense of royalty and class to every role he played, including those monsters. His Dracula belonged on a throne. His Kharis (the Mummy) had nobility even wrapped in rotting bandages. It was a part of the gentleman he was that couldn’t be hidden behind the make-up. And we can’t forget Lord Summerisle or the classic Arabian Adventure.
That came across in the other genres Lee was a part of. There were the swashbuckling films like the Musketeer films where he would play Rochefort. His turn as the mad monk Rasputin was another prime example of it. And then there were the action films such as of course, his turn as Scaramanga in Man With the Golden Gun where he took on James Bond, the possibly forgotten film Jaguar Lives!, and his turn against Captain America in Captain America II: Death Too Soon. Lee did his share of science fiction films too. One that many of my age remembers was 1978’s Return to Witch Mountain where he starred alongside icon Bette Davis.
In the 80’s Sir Christopher would begin doing more and more voice work and would even return to the swashbuckling world of the Musketeers in 1989 (at nearly 70 Lee could still pick up a sword.) That decade would see him reunited on screen with those legends of horror Carradine, Price, and Cushing in House of Long Shadows.
The 90’s found him taking on Gremlins in Gremlins 2: The New Batch and becoming part of the Discworld. It would also be his first collaboration with Tim Burton in the Hammer Horror homage Sleepy Hollow.
In the 2000’s Sir Christopher had a renaissance of sorts starring in two of the biggest franchises of all time (and becoming well known to yet another young generation of film goers) in both Star Wars and The Lord of the Rings. He continued working with Tim Burton on films like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Alice in Wonderland, and his last with Burton, Dark Shadows (where for once Dracula was hypnotized by a different vampire.) He even returned to the world of Hammer films officially in the movie The Resident.
And that’s just scratching the surface.
I can’t possibly recount everything Sir Christopher Lee did that throughout a career as epic as his was, nor a life that was even more epic in scope. He was a real life hero, he was the cousin of Ian Fleming (who I like to think may have based a little bit of Bond on him.) He knew JRR Tolkien, had met the man and wouldn’t hesitate to correct you if you mispronounced a name from Tolkien’s stories.
No, I never met Sir Christopher Lee personally. I never had that privilege. But his presence was a large one in my life and his loss, even after such a long and storied life, will still leave a hole in the world for me and many others. It’s the end of an era, an era filled with gods and monsters that we’ll never see the like of again, much like Sir Christopher himself.
Sir Christopher Lee once said of his friend Peter Cushing that he was too good for this world and I think that it is no stretch to say the same of Christopher Lee. He was perhaps, too epic for this world and we could only be lucky enough to have one of him. And in that time he gave us so very much of himself and his art that he truly made himself as immortal as those characters he played.
And for that I must thank him, for that and for being that bridge for me and for so many others to enter the gates of Hammer and those beautiful dark fairy tales he made come to life in flesh and blood and fury. Thank you for showing both sides of the coin, the light and the dark, with such a perfect blend of elegance and intellect. Thank you for being as much a legend as ever Dracula or Holmes ever was.
Rest easy Prince and may you meet your Van Helsing on the other side with a welcoming smile and a cup of tea.