The Good, The Bad & The Badass: Christopher Lee
They sure don't make em' like Christopher Lee anymore. Sure, there are prolific character actors out there, but Christopher Lee, man there was a guy who liked to work. With over two hundred IMDB credits to his name, right from his very first sword-fight opposite Gregory Peck in 1950's CAPTAIN HORATIO HORNBLOWER up to his recent reprise of Saruman in THE HOBBIT: THE BATTLE OF THE FIVE ARMIES at age ninety-three, Christopher Lee literally worked non-stop.
Even if Lee had only ever played Dracula, he would have been one of the greatest horror icons of all time. Next to Bela Lugosi, he's the actor most associated with the part, and the one all others are judged against (with good cause, as he played the role eight times). But that's not all there was to Lee by a long-shot. He was also a formidable Bond villain, the star of dozens of Hammer horror classics, including turns as the Frankenstein monster, The Mummy, and memorably off-kilter roles in classics like THE WICKER MAN and THE DEVIL RIDES OUT, and that's not even counting his 21st century comeback in LORD OF THE RINGS and the STAR WARS prequels. He even found time to cut a couple of metal albums, becoming the oldest person to have a single on the Billboard chart at ninety-one years old for the song “Jingle Hell.”
Crazy enough, Lee's off-screen life was even more badass than in the movies. During WW2 Lee was an intelligence officer, spending five years waging war against the Nazis in North Africa, Italy, Finland and more. Heck, some have even suggested that with Ian Fleming as his cousin, he may have been the real-life basis for James Bond. Awesomely, when asked about his war record in a documentary in the 007 DVD's, Christopher Lee devilishly asked the interviewer if he could keep a secret. When the interviewer said yes, Lee leaned forward and answered (awesomely) “so can I.” A-mazing.
While Dracula is obviously the part he'll always be most famous for (although for a younger generation its probably Saruman), as far as I'm concerned the juiciest part of his career was Scaramanga in THE MAN WITH THE GOLDEN GUN. Now, I'm a huge Bond fan so I may be biased, but hear me out. I don't particularly like this Bond film. It's actually my least favorite of the franchise but oddly enough Scaramanga was one of the best villains. The best baddie in the worst Bond movie – go figure. Why is Scaramanga so good? It all comes down to Lee. In the seventies, he was struggling to emerge from his typecasting as Dracula. While Scaramanga was still a baddie, he was a sophisticated ladies man, and was even given a sympathetic back-story where he was a trick-shooter in the circus who developed a taste for murder after his revenge killing of a brutal animal trainer. It was a three-dimensional part, and it's probably the only Bond film where I found myself rooting for the villain thanks to a very poor showing for the usually great (that's right - great) Roger Moore.
THE THREE MUSKETEERS has been filmed countless times, but to me the definitive version in Richard Lester's swashbuckling two-film saga, THE THREE MUSKETEERS and THE FOUR MUSKETEERS. Lee plays the sword-wielding baddie, Comte de Rochfort, sporting a badass eye-patch and swashing his buckles with aplomb. The final showdown in the second film between him and Michael York as D'Artagnan is a classic. These movies are way too obscure considering how absolutely amazing they are.
In over two-hundred credits, I doubt Lee ever gave a bad performance. Even in trash like THE RETURN OF CAPTAIN INVINCIBLE, he made the film worth watching by belting out a great musical number. But, for all the later day fame it helped bring him, Christopher Lee was somewhat wasted in the STAR WARS prequels. While he gets to fight Yoda in ATTACK OF THE CLONES, he's written out of REVENGE OF THE SITH so quickly that it pretty much renders his character a secondary villain even though he's the only one in the entire trilogy to show any real menace (outside of Darth Maul).
There's never been a Bond film where the makers so thoroughly ignored 007 in favor of a villain as in THE MAN WITH THE GOLDEN GUN, but then again who can blame them? A good illustration of the film's focus on Scaramanga is the opening teaser, where Bond is entirely absent. Instead, we watch Lee's Scaramanga face off against a mob hit-man (veteran character actor Marc Lawrence – maybe the only guy out there with more credits than Lee). It's a tense, exciting sequence, and the movie's highlight.
5. THE MAN WITH THE GOLDEN GUN
4. THE THREE MUSKETEERS/THE FOUR MUSKETEERS
3. HORROR OF DRACULA
2. LORD OF THE RINGS (Trilogy)
1. THE WICKER MAN
While Lee's gone he'll never be forgotten. Every generation of genre fans discovers his work at some point and with the amazing range of parts he played Lee's film immortality is guaranteed. Rest in peace sir.
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