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Sir Christopher Lee died June 7 at age 93. Christ and Pop Culture writers Blake Collier and E. Stephen Burnett take a look at the veteran actor’s past and recent histories of portraying dark and villainous characters to help us better see light and righteousness.
Christopher Lee was no stranger to the darkness in the hearts of humanity nor to the dark creations of the human imagination. He was in the Royal Air Force and Special Ops during WWII, including a particularly nasty year in Finland during the winter. He was said to be a spy but never talked about it because of an oath of secrecy. Lee said, in reflection, that when the war was over, being only 23, “already I had seen enough horror to last me a lifetime.” So making a career out of incarnating evil throughout his film career was something that never bothered him much.
Clearly Lee believed the same about Saruman’s fall as he did about his other onscreen villains—not that they are wholly helpless victims, not that they are solely evil oppressors, but that they make themselves both.It would be his turns as the Frankenstein monster, the Mummy, and Dracula for the British production company Hammer Films that not only accelerated his run of over 200 acting roles but actually reinvigorated a production company that had been around since the 1930s and had already been bankrupted once. As far as horror renaissances go, the series of Hammer horror films during the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s—especially Lee’s turn as Count Dracula—was the most significant boost for the genre since the classic Universal monster flicks. On sheer numbers of films alone, Christopher Lee (along with his frequent co-star, Peter Cushing) should be recognized for injecting new blood into a genre that had been, on the whole, floundering since the ’30s.
It would be his visage with those bloodshot eyes in the role of Count Dracula that would become the iconic face of vampiric horror. Bela Lugosi may have been the first Count Dracula, but to many, he was never able to bring the depth and gravitas to the character that Christopher Lee was able to. Lee tangentially explained what may have made his Dracula the best, even to this day, in a 2003 interview with The Guardian:
“Good” people . . . being persistently noble can become rather uninteresting. There is a dark side in all of us. And for us “bad” people the bad side dominates. I think there is a great sadness in villains, and I have tried to [put] that across. We cannot stop ourselves doing what we are doing.
Lee’s Hammer horror villains, especially Dracula, were so memorable and effective because he identified with the the characters he was portraying. It seems that Lee’s experience of real human horror had allowed him to search out the potential darkness in himself and to have compassion on those who, according to his own words, “cannot stop . . . doing what [they] are doing.” He recognized the toll of sin and death in the characters of Frankenstein’s creature, the Mummy, and Count Dracula by recognizing that there is a bigger issue going on with evil beings than just one bad choice after another. No, these villains—and by extension, humans—are on a hopeless trajectory of damnation if left to their own twisted desires and broken wills. Lee was right about the implications of his understanding of the parts he played: there is a great sadness, a tragic element, to these villains, something that Universal seldom touched.
Wherever Lee stood in relationship with his Creator, he understood the grace and compassion required to take on the cinematic flesh of those abhorrent horror icons and to keep them and their stories alive for future generations. He showed us that even “villains” could be loved and shown mercy and grace, even if that sacrifice may sometimes take a little bit of blood.
In Christopher Lee’s later years—an age when people are often tempted to believe they are either tragic victims or wicked villains—he portrayed one of his most notable characters as a man who was both victim and villain: Saruman from The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit film series.
When audiences meet the film’s White Wizard in The Fellowship of the Ring, they learn within the first hour that Saruman has chosen the way of evil. Saruman believes the order of wizards has no hope of defeating the evil of Sauron, solemnly intoning, “We must join him, Gandalf. We must join with Sauron. It would be wise, friend.”
Gandalf is stunned. “Tell me, friend—when did Saruman the wise abandon reason for madness?!”
An outraged Saruman suddenly attacks Gandalf and starts an especially Hollywood-like wizard-magicking duel—one that could overshadow the frighteningly realistic answer to the question of when the wise Saruman fell into madness.
Similarly, those who accept the common narrative that The Lord of the Rings is okay but The Hobbit films—which are set before The Lord of the Rings—are garbage, may miss the hints of beauty and profundity that pierce like hot iron even through the latter series. These moments include the final film’s battle between the White Council and Sauron, which is Tolkienian (from the Appendices to The Lord of the Rings). In that battle, elves Galadriel and Elrond are joined by wizards Radagast and Saruman to expel the dark lord Sauron from his original fortress. (Sauron wasn’t always in Mordor.) And unlike Saruman’s appearance in the first Hobbit film—in which he doubts Sauron is anything but old news—Saruman here leads the charge against evil. He knows Sauron is back and gives no indication of his own future temptation.
Barring any changes from the film’s extended edition, Lee’s last words as Saruman are as a stern and righteous warrior: “Leave Sauron to me.”
So when did Saruman the wise abandon reason for madness?
J. R. R. Tolkien’s epic suggests Saruman studied too deep the machinations of the dark lord and fell to temptation. But the change was subtle, too slow to see, and undescribed. And when given the chance to portray Saruman again for The Hobbit films, Lee carefully explained how he approached the role:
The number one wizard is Saruman the White, and in the first film, where we have the [White] Council, he is a good, decent and noble man—somewhat tetchy on occasion, somewhat sarcastic. But he’s never vicious in this film. No. Noble, upright, knows what he’s saying, and the others listen to him. And they are very respectful . . . all of them. . . . And there’s no suggestion of him turning into what we do see in The Lord of the Rings.
Clearly Lee believed the same about Saruman’s fall as he did about his other onscreen villains—not that they are wholly helpless victims, not that they are solely evil oppressors, but that they make themselves both. “We cannot stop ourselves doing what we are doing,” Lee said, in one of the clearest (if possibly incidental) reflections of the biblical concept of “total depravity” or “total inability” to do good.
No human story can fully reflect this reality, or the necessary rejoinder that because we cannot do good, we need a Hero to do good for us and take the penalty for evil. But Lee’s life reveals his passion for creativity, goodness, and warnings against evil.
I hope that as many commentators said, Lee indeed passed “into the west” and can now share laughter and stories with Professor Tolkien.
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