Book Review: Christopher Lee's "Tall, Dark and Gruesome"
A month ago, thousands of horror fanatics, movie buffs, and nerds in general across the world mourned the loss of one of their greatest heroes. Not to say that it was only awkward, slovenly college grads like yours truly who were despondent: among the mourning were such titans of cinema and entertainment as former James Bond actor Sir Roger Moore, Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit director Peter Jackson, Edward Scissorhands and Pirates of the Caribbean star Johnny Depp, and Star Wars creator George Lucas. Who was it that could bring so many different people together in fond remembrance of one man? A war veteran? A humanitarian? An actor, even?
All of the above guesses are correct, for it was none other than Sir Christopher Carandini Lee who after 93 years of acting, singing, fighting, golfing, and writing, finally passed away. Having brought to life such iconic characters as Hammer Horror's Gothic interpretation of Count Dracula, Francisco Scaramanga, the refined-but-relentless Man With The Golden Gun of the James Bond franchise, the conniving Saruman of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, and the Star Wars prequels' Count Dooku over the course of half a century, Lee touched the lives of countless viewers, even if it was mainly by scaring the pants off them. They loved every minute of it though, just as much as they loved Lee, whose cinematic exploits were only the tip of the iceberg that was the man's interesting life, as one could see upon reading his fascinating autobiography, Tall, Dark, and Gruesome. While the bronze-skinned, 6-foot-5 Lee easily fit the first and second parts of that description, readers will leave with the impression that the “gruesome” part of it couldn’t be farther from the truth. On the contrary, Lee demonstrates a pronounced taste for humor (particularly the dry and self-deprecating kinds), deep respect and an abiding love for friends, family, and coworkers, traits that would be utterly foreign to the rogues he so famously portrayed, although some, like The Wicker Man’s crafty Lord Summerisle and the fiendish (or, in these enlightened times, the unfortunate) Fu Manchu, shared his obvious intellectual aptitude. Considering the life of both adversity and achievement that Lee details in his book, it is not at all surprising that he would develop such praiseworthy qualities.
The first third of Tall, Dark and Gruesome reveals Lee’s childhood and life before he became an actor. Born in 1922 to a British general and an Italian countess, the future Sir Christopher should have lived a life of privilege that many even today could never dream of. Instead, he found himself thrust at a young age into a situation all too common in the 21st century. Shortly after his 4th birthday, his father left his mother, leaving the young Lee only with the “actual physical memory of a tall burly man cheerfully and busily sawing logs on a wintry day of woodsmoke in a country garden” (Lee, pg. 15). Being a countess, his mother was able to find assistance raising him, but his aristocratic background did little to shield him from further misfortune, finding himself bullied by his peers on account of his Italian heritage when he went to school. "They only called me 'wop' and 'dago' with extra gusto, and jeered at my pedantic comment that I couldn't be both. I learned early on that the one truly international quality among people of all races is xenophobia," (Lee, pg. 20) he mused in hindsight. This is to say nothing of the harsh punishments inflicted on Lee and his classmates, as seen when he recounts one time in which he and a schoolmate endeavored to return to their school for chapel early only for his bicycle-chain to break, forcing him to walk the rest of the way. Unsurprisingly he and his friend were late, and concluding they were not in the wrong, decided to explain to their teacher why they didn't make it to chapel, even going as far as to produce the broken chain as evidence of their claim. Their teacher kindly listened to their explanation, then took them to his study, bent them over the sofa in his study, and beat them with a bamboo stick.
Nor did Lee's troubles end after he completed primary education, for the Second World War broke out while the recently-graduated Lee was staying in France, forcing him to return to London before the advancing Germans reached Paris. Although he, along with thousands of Britons, still faced the prospect of Axis ordinance falling upon their heads at any minute, Lee was more heavily hit by the sudden death of his father. Sitting at a civil defense switchboard when his mother told him the news, he was overwhelmed, writing, "The cords and slots of the switchboard swam together in a meaningless tangle before my eyes. I disconnected the whole works and ran into the lavatory to burst into tears," (Lee, pg. 73). After the funeral, Lee enlisted in the Royal Air Force and before he knew it, he was on a ship bound for South Africa. Upon completing his training in the neighboring colony of Rhodesia, he saw action in North Africa and Italy, at one point narrowly avoiding German bombs by plunging beneath a small vehicle, only for the blast to catch him in the rear. "It was like being hit with a shotgun from thirty yards," (Lee, pg. 94) he claims.
The remainder of the book focuses on his life after the war and his prolific film career, and considering the trouble he initially faced upon entering the profession, absolutely no one could have foreseen his future success. His mother vehemently opposed his pursuit and only grudgingly assented to it after much heated discussion, meaning he could not expect to fall back on his family's plentiful resources and connections if he failed. After being referred to a producer named Filippo del Guidice, he scored a meeting with an agent which ended with said agent saying, "Why on earth is Filippo wasting my time with you someone like you? You're much too tall to be an actor," (Lee, pg. 119). In spite of these early obstacles, he managed to score a seven-year contract with a production company, but it was over a year before he scored his first role in a film - a brief one with one-line, at that.
Lee would go on to spend a decade bouncing from low-budget film to low-budget film before he found himself working on a project for a rising studio called Hammer Film Productions: a remake of Universal's Frankenstein. Whilst preparing to portray the creature made famous by Boris Karloff (who Lee incidentally later became friends and neighbors with), Lee became acquainted with his co-star Peter Cushing, who would go on to not only become a dear friend of Lee but a horror icon in his own right as well. The potential of the duo was recognized by Hammer, and shortly after The Curse of Frankenstein was released, the studio began work on a new vehicle for Lee and his new friend: Dracula. Released as Horror of Dracula in the U.S., the film was a success on both sides of the Atlantic, thanks in no small part to Lee's thoughtful interpretation of the character. "...[T]here were aspects of him with which I could readily identify - his extraordinary stillness, punctuated by bouts of manic energy with feats of strength belying his appearance; his power complex; the quality of being done for but undead; and by no means least the fact that he was an embarrassing member of a great and noble family," (pg. 184) Lee offers, and given the enthusiastic way audiences around the world received his take on the bloodthirsty count, they couldn't agree more.
The book goes on to detail Lee's various experiences on and off-set up until the time of it's publication in 1997. From singing in films co-written by The Rocky Horror Picture Show creator Richard O'Brien (as well as appearing in a production of that particular musical) and hosting Chevy Chase and John Belushi-era Saturday Night Live to traveling to Moscow shortly after the Soviet Union collapsed to film a movie and playing golf in Bel Air with Jack Lemmon and Burt Lancaster, Lee is able to cover an amazing amount of ground. It must be said though, that Lee would have been able to cover even more ground if he spent less time on one particular subject that might be accessible only to a niche audience. That subject would be golf, which readers will discover was absolutely not limited to Lee's recreational matches with notables like Lemmon and Lancaster. Some of the anecdotes involving golf, such as the aforementioned one, are amusing, but readers' interest may wane as Lee gets bogged down in relaying the technical aspects of the sport if they are unfamiliar or otherwise not interested in it. It is made more regrettable by the fact that this space could have been allocated to his experiences and thoughts on films that aren't or are mentioned only briefly, such as the cheaply-made but excellently-executed Spanish horror film The Horror Express, which featured him in a rare heroic role, and Rankin-Bass's animated adaptation of Peter S. Beagle's novel The Last Unicorn, which he later half-jokingly allowed him to come as close as producers would let him get to playing Shakespeare's King Lear by having him voice the perpetually-glum King Haggard. Younger readers hoping to read about his more recent turns as villains in the Star Wars and Lord of the Rings series' will be sorely disappointed, although Lee can hardly blamed for this given the book's publication almost a decade before these films were made (he would go on to cover those roles as well as others in Lord of Misrule, the second edition of this book).
All in all, Tall, Dark and Gruesome is a powerful testament to both Christopher Lee the actor and Christopher Lee the man. The story he has to tell alone should reel in skeptical readers, but the way he writes is just as strong. His humorous sensibility suggests a real warmth behind the intimidating exterior portrayed on the big and small screen, and his considered reflections on work and life reveal a regularly-exercised mind. It goes without saying that the book would appeal most to those already familiar with Lee and his work, but this merely means that the curious should take it upon themselves to check out some of his films (and given his copious output, chances are they already have) before reading it. I guarantee the time spent watching Lee's films and reading his book will well be worth it, and would not be surprised if upon finishing the last page, they can't help remembering the last words of King Haggard: "The last! I knew you were the last!" Spoken of The Last Unicorn's protagonist, they easily could be said of Lee, who tied the blockbuster movies of today to the classic cinema of yesterday. For the initiated and uninitiated, Tall, Dark and Gruesome is a great way to remember a man who truly was the last of his kind.