Bright Lights Film Journal

The Great Roles of Christopher Lee’s Maturity

How can anyone not marvel that two of Gothic Cinema’s greatest performers, Christopher Lee and Vincent Price, were born on the same day? Christopher Lee was born on May 27, 1922. Price was born 11 years earlier on May 27, 1911.

Today, Christopher Lee is 87. He has been an outstanding character lead since the 1950s. Which makes it all the more remarkable that he played some of his greatest roles in the 2000s. Here are three of them.

Flay in GORMENGHAST (Andy Wilson, 2000) – This superb four-part BBC miniseries (still available on DVD) is based on the first two books of the Gormenghast Trilogy by Mervyn Peake. Gormenghast is not a fantasy in the usual sense. Its world is not inhabited by wizards, dragons, elves, or other magical beings. However, Gormenghast is a fantasy in the sense that it takes place in a world that never existed, an earthly realm with a history, culture, and encrusted set of rituals all its own. Its principal literary antecedents are Shakespeare, Dickens, and Franz Kafka.

Flay, played by Lee, is one of the Lord of this grotesque realm’s most loyal retainers, described in the book as a man of very few words, tall, skeleton-like, and stiff. Not too stiff, however, to prevent him from participating in a climactic duel (perhaps the last time viewers were privileged to witness Lee’s excellent swordsmanship). He is a superficially frightening personage who turns out to be one of the story’s heroes. According to Lee, Flay was “one of the biggest challenges I have ever had. Flay does not talk like ordinary people, he does not come out with grammatical sentences. He just says things like ‘you, here, no.’ It is not easy to get over what I mean, when I have got very little opportunity to say many words. I have to get this brutal, at times savage and unforgiving, but also very gentle and loyal figure across. It is a huge test.” And ultimately, one of Lee’s most moving roles.

Lee, an ardent fan of fantasy and occult literature, was the only member of the Gormenghast cast to have known author Peake personally: “I used to meet him at the old Harrod’s Library when it still existed . . . . He was a charming, delightful man, very quiet, reserved with beautiful blue eyes, good-looking, very gentle – obviously an extraordinary man. He invented a world and a language and almost a race of his own.”

Saruman in LORD OF THE RINGS (Peter Jackson, 2001-2003) – The wizard Saruman, aka Saruman the White, is the principal human villain in Jackson’s film trilogy based, as if you already didn’t know, on three books by J.R.R. Tolkien. (The other main villains are monsters, a giant spider, a flaming eye, and suchlike.) The role is a fantastic display of Lee’s vocal authority and physical presence – particularly in the first film of the trilogy, The Fellowship of the Ring, in which he faces down the good wizard Gandalf played by Sir Ian McKellan. Lee’s part was unfortunately cut out of the third film, The Return of the King – or at least its Oscar-winning theatrical version. All the more reason to immerse yourself in the extended 4-hour DVD versions of these films in which Lee appears throughout. Did I mention that Lee also met Tolkien once?

Dr. Wilbur Wonka in CHARLIE AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY (Tim Burton, 2005) – What better tribute to Lee, one of the finest character actors of his generation, than to play the father of Johnny Depp, one of the finest character actors of the current generation? Tim Burton’s film, unlike the earlier Gene Wilder version of this Roald Dahl tale, creates a backstory for eccentric candymaker Willy Wonka (Depp). He had a strict dentist father (Lee) who wouldn’t let him eat sweets! This sets us up for one of the most moving sequences in Lee’s career, a reconciliation scene in which two very repressed characters are finally allowed to express their love for one another.

Happy Birthday, Christopher!