Sir Ian McKellan once remarked that his fellow wizard and onscreen antagonist Sir Christopher Lee robbed the world of a great Shakespearian voice when he opted to forgo the stage for the shadowed halls and dark moors of Hammer.
While Lee does acquit himself admirably as Artemidorus opposite Charlton Heston’s Marc Antony in an early 70s film of Julius Caesar, the fact remains that the veteran actor had to do without Shakespeare’s words in the more than 270 films in which he appeared. In most, he made do with a whole lot less. Well, who needs the Bard when you have a voice like Lee’s.
For your approval:
10. “The Dark Side has clouded their vision. Hundreds of senators are now under the influence of a Sith lord called Darth Sidious.”
There are some extremely capable actors in the Star Wars prequels. Nearly all of them are defeated by Lucas-speak. That’s kind. They go down in flames. Not Lee. No one ever invented dialog that could undermine his authority. Do your worst, George.
9. “Away, bumpkin!”
The brave but comically outmatched D’Artagnan (Michael York) challenges Lee’s imperious Rochefort when they first cross paths early in Richard Lester’s delightful adaptation of the Dumas classic The Three Musketeers (1973). A peak outing for Lee, providing his best-ever showcase for the world-class sword skills that helped win his place in the Guinness Book of World Records for most on screen sword fights.
More importantly, the picture took ample advantage of the actor’s generally underutilized gift for stylized comedy. By the way, young D’Artagnan picks up a few skills before he and Rochefort have their fateful final encounter in Lester’s equally beguiling sequel, The Four Musketeers.
8. “Have the wench brought to me there!”
Christopher Lee doesn’t take orders, he gives ‘em! In Jess Franco’s The Bloody Judge (1970), Lee plays the real life George Jeffreys, then 17th Century Lord Chief Justice of England and, by all accounts, one nasty piece of work.
Don’t look for history lessons but the film finds Lee large and in charge, dealing out merciless justice to suspected witches and political opponents of King James II. A few exploitation scenes sprinkled about pretty much pale besides the sight of Lee bringing his formidable voice and bearing to one of history’s great sadists.
7 “All they have to do is eat three or four children and there will be the most appalling publicity.”
As Dr. Catheter (lovely) in Joe Dante’s mad, manic sequel, Gremlins 2: The New Batch (1990), Lee makes his entrance sporting a vintage mad scientist white lab coat carrying one of the pods from original Invasion of the Body Snatchers. A great meta-moment in a movie filled with them.
Geek auteur Dante clearly had a ball with this film and Lee is central to the fun. As head of the commercial gene splicing lab that inadvertently unleashes the mutant gremlin madness, Lee sends up his horror persona with cool precision. What I mean to say is, he’s a hoot.
6. “Come, come Mr. Bond, you get just as much joy out of killing as I do.”
Scaramanga is one of Lee’s most iconic roles and that “killing” line, delivered with suave, wicked assurance, is his most immortal. It’s the “Here’s looking at you kid” for cinema supervillains bent on power and destruction.
As Bond movies go, The Man With the Golden Gun (1974) is pretty weak. Roger Moore wouldn’t hit full stride in the part until the next one, The Spy Who Loved Me (1977). Lee, the cousin of Bond creator Ian Fleming, carries the picture into the series pantheon solely on the strength of his sinister charisma and a cheetah’s grace.
5. “You did not seriously believe that a hobbit could contend with the will of Sauron. There are none who can.”
When the corrupted and chillingly confident Saruman the White settles into his chair and serves this poisoned volley to a mortified and shaken Gandalf the Grey (Ian McKellan), well, it’s on!
4. “I trust the sight of the young people refreshes you.”
Lee’s Lord Summerisle seems to take absolute relish in scandalizing uptight Inspector Howie (Edward Woodward) as he shows off the bizarrely sexualized customs of the local residents here in the quaint Scottish village where young Rowan Morrison has apparently gone missing.
Robin Hardy’s The Wicker Man (1973) is a pitched battle between paganism and Christianity, the former personified by Lee in perhaps his finest performance. It’s certainly Lee at his most hospitable and charming, and he’s all the more terrifying for it.
3. “In two more days I shall give my commands. And they will be carried out at once! Or ten thousand shall die. That is all.”
Now there’s a speech worthy of Dr. Evil. Indeed, it’s hard to imagine that Mike Myers’ creation doesn’t share a good amount of Fu Manchu DNA to go with all that Blofeld. Now, there’s no getting around it:
The squirmy racial politics of Sax Rohmer’s “yellow peril” supervillain Fu Manchu, not to mention the usual casting of European actors to play it, has probably consigned the once popular series to movie oblivion. (If you really want a potent dose of prime old Hollywood Birth of Nation-caliber racism, check out Boris Karloff’s Mask of Fu Manchu from 1932; it will curl your hair.) Still, for high camp of a bygone era, you can’t top Hammer’s The Face of Fu Manchu (1965). And Lee’s portrayal is definitive.
2. “Spare me your pity and your mercy. I have no use for it!”
Peter Jackson gave Lee is greatest late-career role when he cast him as Saruman in the Lord of the Rings trilogy. More than that, he reintroduced Lee into the popular culture in a massive way. Ironic then, that Jackson also dealt the legendary star a very public humiliation when he decided to cut the actor from the theatrical cut of Return of the King. Jackson blamed the film’s already excessive length. (Obviously the roughly 18 hobbit-frolicking climaxes that end the picture couldn’t be trimmed at all.)
We ultimately got to see the excised scene in the extended DVD and … what a moment! Defeated yet unbowed, a defiant Saruman rages atop his tower, spitting his contempt for the fellowship and shaking their confidence in their quest. It’s a powerful climax for the character and one of the Lee’s most epic moments on film. Yeah, it’s on the DVD, but how cool would it have been to see and hear Lee roar on the big screen. He wuz robbed, and so were we.
1. “You have failed me. You must be punished!”
Lee played Dracula seven times for Hammer. (There was also Count Dracula, a non-Hammer adaption of Stoker’s novel directed by Jess Franco in 1970 and a 1976 comedy, Dracula and Son, from La Cage Aux Folles director Eduoard Molinaro. No, I haven’t seen it, either. Someone send me a copy.) With all those films, there aren’t a lot of juicy lines for the vampire. That was no accident.
As the Hammer films progressed, Lee was so appalled by the dialog he was given that he chose to cut the lines rather than allow his performances to be undermined by them. A cool choice as the character’s mystique remained remarkably consistent amidst the films’ varying quality. Still, when Dracula did have something to say, Lee made sure it mattered. You will be punished alright.
Author Bio: A lifelong film lover, Christopher Atwell is a freelance speech writer and communications consultant based in Brooklyn, New York. He’s has written scripts for celebrity galas and award shows and ghosted articles for executives that have appeared in USA Today, Cosmopolitan, and other national publications.