Monday, June 15, 2015

Sir Christopher Lee's Life Was like Something Taken from an Epic Movie

Early this month, legendary actor Sir Christopher Lee passed away at the age of 93.  He is not only one of my favorite actors, but he is also one of the most fascinating people that ever lived.  This essay is my tribute to his incredible life.

To be honest, I was not always a fan.  I was only 12 years old when Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring and Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones were released.  I wasn’t really impressed by Saruman and Count Dooku the first time I saw those movies that time.  It was only when I got to re-watch those movies when I was older and more knowledgeable about movies and acting that I appreciated Christopher Lee’s strong performance in portraying those villains.

There was a span during the late 90’s and early 2000’s when I had watched plenty of old movies through cable and actually had seen many movies that Christopher Lee starred in – like The Curse of Frankenstein, The Man with the Golden Gun, The Hound of the Baskervilles, The Mummy, The Three Musketeers, Gremlins 2, to name some – but I never recognized him as the same actor behind 007 villain Francisco Scaramanga, Fu Manchu, Frankenstein’s Monster, Rochefort, Dr. Midnight, Sir Henry Baskerville* and others.  In fact, back then, I didn’t recognize that Saruman and Count Dooku were portrayed by the same actor.

*I’m a big Sherlock Holmes fan, and I’ve seen plenty of Sherlock Holmes movies, so I’m not sure if I’ve also seen Sherlock Holmes and the Deadly Necklace and The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes wherein Lee was able to play the roles of Sherlock Holmes and Mycroft Holmes respectively.   I guess I’ve seen a lot of Sherlock Holmes films that I forgot some of the titles which I’ve seen already.  1959’s The Hound of the Baskervilles, however, is one of my favorite Sherlock Holmes movies (as well as the 1939 version).  Anyway, it’s really interesting that Lee had been able to portray three different Sherlock Holmes characters in live action. 

Lee’s most iconic role is probably that of Dracula.  I’ve seen 1958’s Dracula, and he was terrific in that (and his good friend Peter Cushing was terrific as Van Helsing).  However, the first time I saw him as Dracula was in the hilariously bad Dracula: Prince of Darkness (from 1966) wherein he just hissed all throughout the film.  Hence, my Christopher Lee fandom didn’t start with my first encounter with the character he’s most known for.  It was in The Wicker Man, wherein he played the role of Lord Summerisle, that a Christopher Lee character had made a great impression on me.  Still, I wasn’t able to connect the dots yet.

I can’t remember how and when, but I eventually learned that Christopher Lee was in plenty of movies I’ve seen and played all those memorable characters.  And I was blown away by the realization.  I kicked myself for not recognizing him.  I was like, “This guy is Saruman and Count Dooku!?  Why wasn’t I able to notice that?  What?!  You mean, he’s also that Bond villain?!  And Dracula?!  And that guy that freaked me out in The Wicker Man?!  Whoa [looking at his filmography], I’ve seen many of these movies.  He was in all of these?  Wow!  This Christopher Lee guy is kinda cool.”  And I can’t help but be impressed.

But it was the time that I got to read about Sir Christopher Lee’s bio that I was really blown away and became fascinated with the man.  There’s actually much, much more amazing stuff about him beyond his prolific film career.  Here’s a summary:
  • He is a descendant of Emperor Charlemagne of the Holy Roman Empire on his mother side (who happened to be a countess). 
  • He is related to General Robert Lee – the famous Confederate general during the American Civil War – on his father side.
  • He was a world-class fencer.  He holds the record in performing in most swordfights on screen. 
  • He could speak six languages.
  • He was allegedly a heluva golfer.  He also played various other sports like rugby, squash, and hockey.    
  • Ian Fleming, creator of James Bond, is a step-cousin of his.  Lee was Fleming’s first choice to play the role of James Bond. 
  • The reason he resonated badassery on screen is that he was an actual badass in real life.
  • In 1939, he went to Finland so he can enlist in the Finnish Army to help fight off the Soviet invasion on the country. 
  • During World War II, he joined the Royal Air Force and became a commando/intelligence officer for the Long Range Desert Patrol, which would eventually become the SAS (considered by many to be the most badass elite force in the word), where he participated in many dangerous missions against the Nazis, seeing action in North Africa and Sicily.
  • In 1943, while still fighting the Nazis, he caught malaria six different times.  After recovering from the sixth occasion, he was able to appease a mutiny-in-the-making in his squadron.
  • Later in WW II, he was assigned to an even more elite unit – the Special Operations Executive (SOE), also known as “Churchill’s Secret Army” and “Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare.”  SOE’s missions were to conduct espionage, sabotage, and recon behind Axis lines, and aid resistance units of occupied countries.  Up until now, their files are still classified, and whenever Lee was asked during interviews about his time in SOE, he kept his mouth shut.  However, he had been once quoted of saying: “I've seen many men die right in front of me - so many in fact that I've become almost hardened to it. Having seen the worst that human beings can do to each other, the results of torture, mutilation and seeing someone blown to pieces by a bomb, you develop a kind of shell. But you had to. You had to. Otherwise we would never have won.”  After the war, Lee had been decorated by the British, Polish, Yugoslavian, and Czech governments.  So if we read between the lines, we can conclude that Lee was a real life James Bond (no wonder Fleming wanted him for the role) whose missions had significantly contributed to the war effort.
  • He retired from military service at around the age of 23 (!) and started his acting career at the age of 25.  Christopher Lee had accomplished more things at his early 20’s than most people in their lifetime.
  • He, unsurprisingly, holds the record of most film appearances ever.
  • He was a classically trained singer.  His most notable musical performance in film was “Pick Your Poison” in the 1983 movie The Return of Captain Invincible.
  • He is, surprisingly, a fan of heavy metal.  He began to make heavy metal albums when he was already 88. 
  • Some of his honors are Commander of the Venerable Order of Saint John (1997), Commander of the Order of the British Empire (2001), Knight Bachelor (2009), a BAFTA Academy Fellowship (2011), Commander of the Order of Arts and Letters (by the French government in 2011), and the Bram Stoker Award for Lifetime Achievement (1994).
There are several other interesting trivia and anecdotes about him (that you need to check out by yourselves; it’s worth it), but I think the point is already sent across: Christopher Lee is literally awesome – on and off screen.

If you have seen Christopher Lee’s performances, you would have observed that he had this compelling screen charisma that improves whatever scene he was in.  He gave it his all in every character he played regardless of the quality of the film, showing genuine love for his craft.  And because of his constant willingness to give a thorough performance no matter what, he had portrayed countless characters that have brought delight to generations of audiences.

But he was indeed more interesting than any character he had played.  He lived a remarkable, full life.  And, probably, the reason that he was able to get the most of his life is that he took on life with the same boldness and enthusiasm and dedication he displayed in portraying his roles.  Moreover – despite his aristocratic pedigree, grim past, and knack for playing villains – Christopher Lee was genuinely approachable, classy, kind, warm, amiable, and down-to-earth in all the public appearances and interviews he was in (at least, those that I’ve seen).

Sir Christopher Lee was a bona fide badass, a well-rounded and charming individual, a real gentleman, and the stuff of legends.  He will be missed.

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