In which Jess waxes nostalgic when talking about the best animated adaptations… and our many criteria for choosing them!
On June 7, 2015 the great actor and icon Christopher Lee passed away due to heart failure. He was 93 years old. Most people know him for his portrayal of Saruman in The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit trilogies, as well as Count Dooku in the Star Wars prequel trilogy. But there is so much more to him than that, and his passing is a great loss.
The talk in my family about him over the years was that he was going to act until he died, and that after he died, he would will his body to be used as a prop to be in even more films forever, however morbid that thought seems now. We really thought he was never going to die, we thought he would go on forever.
He came from an amazing lineage and his life spanned some amazing eras in history, and he left us all with a legacy of films and so much more. It is hard to list all the great things about him and what he has done, but I’ll give some highlights and Tid-bits.
Christopher Frank Carandini Lee—oh excuse me—SIR Christopher Lee, was born May 27, 1922 in Belgravia, London, England and was knighted for services to Drama and Charity on June 13, 2009 as part of the Queen’s Birthday Honors. Prince Charles knighted him, and because of his age he was excused from the usual requirement of kneeling…but I would say because Christopher Lee is awesome and he kneels to no one.
He and his older sister Xandra were raised by their parents, Contessa Estelle Marie (Carandini di Sarzano) and Geoffrey Trollope Lee, a professional soldier, until their divorce in 1926. Lee’s maternal great-grandfather was an Italian political refugee, while Lee’s great-grandmother was English opera singer Marie (Burgess) Carandini. Lee also descended from the Emperor Charlemagne of the Holy Roman Empire and was related to Robert E. Lee, the Confederate general. Later, while Lee was still a child, his mother married (and later divorced) Harcourt George St.-Croix (nicknamed Ingle), who was a banker. Through his stepfather, became step-cousin to Ian Flemming, the creator and author of the James Bond series.
Tid-bit: Lee was Flemmings choice for Dr. No (1962). Lee enthusiastically accepted, but by the time Fleming told the producers, they had already chosen Joseph Wiseman for the role. Lee finally got to play a James Bond villain in The Man with the Golden Gun (1974), in which he was cast as the deadly assassin Francisco Scaramanga. Lee said of his performance, “In Fleming’s novel he’s just a West Indian thug, but in the film he’s charming, elegant, amusing, lethal.…I played him like the dark side of Bond.”
Through his long life, he was more than just a great actor, he was a man of honor, a loving husband and father, a Classically trained singer and sometimes a fanboy.
Tid-bit: Apparently he geeked out when he bumped into J.R.R. Tolkien randomly in a pub, who gave Lee his blessing to play Gandalf in any future Lord of the Rings film (although he didn’t play Gandalf, he made a fabulous Saruman). He also once declared himself to be an unconditional fan of Gene Hackman.
He didn’t start acting until he was 25 and it was hard for him to break into it with supporting roles because he towered over the leading men at 6’ 5”.
Tid-bit: He is entered into the Guinness Book of World Records as “The Tallest Leading Actor”.
Still, he was able to make a go of it starring in many Hammer Films horror films, but when they got schlocky he tried to break away from them.
Tid-bit: Lee agreed to star in the 1966 Dracula: Prince of Darkness, but he felt the script was so awful he adamantly refused to say any of the dialogue. Hammer decided that it was far more important to have a mute Lee as star as opposed to anyone else, and thus had Dracula hiss and yell through the film. In his autobiography, he relates his first meeting with Peter Cushing during production of The Curse of Frankenstein (1957), in which he played the monster. Lee stormed into a dressing room where Cushing was sitting and angrily yelled “I haven’t got any lines!” Cushing replied, “You’re lucky; I’ve read the script.”
But what did he do in the first 25 years of life? A hell of a lot more than most 25 year-olds can say!
When Lee was nine, he was sent to Summer Fields School, a preparatory school in Oxford whose pupils often later attended Eton. He continued acting in school plays, though “the laurels deservedly went to Patrick Macnee (The Avengers, 1969).” Lee applied for a scholarship to Eton, where his interview was in the presence of the ghost story author M. R. James. He placed eleventh and thus missed out on being a King’s Scholar by one place. His stepfather was not prepared to pay the higher fees that being an Oppidan Scholar meant and so he did not attend. Instead, Lee attended Wellington College, where he won scholarships in the classics, studying Ancient Greek and Latin. Aside from a “tiny part” in a school play, he didn’t act while at Wellington. At age 17 and with one year left at Wellington, the summer term of 1939 was his last. His stepfather had gone bankrupt, owing £25,000.
Then, his mother and stepfather separated, and Lee had to get a job. While looking for work, he saw the death of the murderer Eugen Weidmann in Paris, the last person in France to be publicly executed by guillotine.
Tid-bit: Lee was quite interested in the history of public executions, and reportedly knew “the names of every official public executioner employed by England, dating all the way back to the mid-15th century.”
World War II soon broke out and Christopher Lee volunteered. He joined the Royal Air Force and became an intelligence officer for the Long Range Desert Patrol, a forerunner of the SAS, Britain’s special forces. He fought the Nazis in North Africa, often having up to five missions a day. During this time he helped retake Sicily, prevented a mutiny among his troops, contracted malaria six times in a single year and climbed Mount Vesuvius three days before it erupted. Later he moved to Winston Churchill’s even more elite Special Operations Executive, whose missions are still classified. The SOE was more informally, and fabulously called The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare.
Lee never said anything specific about his time in the SOE/SAS, but he has said: “I was attached to the SAS from time to time but we are forbidden—former, present, or future—to discuss any specific operations. Let’s just say I was in Special Forces and leave it at that. People can read in to that what they like.” Further he once said: “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.”
Tid-bit: During his death scene in Return of the King (only included in the Extended Edition to Lee’s disapproval), director Peter Jackson was describing to him what sound people getting stabbed in the back should make. Lee gravely responded that he had seen people being stabbed in the back, and knew exactly what sound they made.
There is so much more I could say about his time in the war, but then this post would be so much longer than it already is. So I will finish this section with this, by the end of the war he’d received commendations for bravery from the British, Polish, Czech and Yugoslavian governments. And this was all before the age of 25.
Since then, he has had an amazing career, because besides the fact that he was a decorated hero, he was also amazingly talented—if the classically trained singer did not give it away, here is more:
Still early in his career, Lee dubbed foreign films into English and other languages including Jacques Tat’s “Mr. Hulot’s Holiday”. Sometimes he dubbed all the voices including women’s parts. Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., recalled that Lee could do any kind of accent: “foreign, domestic, North, South, Middle, young, old, everything. He’s a great character actor”.
Lee spoke fluent English, Italian, French, Spanish and German, and was moderately proficient in Swedish, Russian and Greek. Lee stated in an interview that he was “conversationally fluent” in Mandarin.
Tid-bit: He was the original voice of Thor in the German dubs in the Danish 1986 animated film Valhalla, and of King Haggard in both the English and German dubs of the 1982 animated adaptation of The Last Unicorn.
Besides that, Lee was a world champion fencer.
Tid-bit: In Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones (2002) and Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith (2005), in which he played the villainous Count Dooku. He did most of the swordplay himself, though a double was required for the long shots with more vigorous footwork. Lee’s face was imposed on the double’s body. Lee mentioned that in the last 40 years, he has done more sword fights than any other actor, but “not anymore.”
Mostly, he has played the villain, which he did so well that I wouldn’t even count it as a demerit, and he has been in so many films that he is in the Guinness Book of World Records for Most Screen Credits (2007) which was 244 at the time, starring in the most films with a sword fight (17 films), being the most connected actor along and being the Tallest Leading Actor.
Tid-bit: Guinness says that he connects to virtually any actor in 2.59 steps—take that Bacon!
However, he later admitted that his film work was not always chosen on quality but often on whether it could support his family. In fact, he has a history of being considerate to his loved ones, and caring for their well-being. And he got to be awesome while doing so.
Lee was engaged for a time in the late fifties to Henriette von Rosen, whom he met at a nightclub in Stockholm. Her father, Count Fritz von Rosen proved demanding, getting them to delay the wedding for a year, asking his London-based friends to interview Lee, hiring private detectives to investigate him, and asking Lee to provide him with references, which Lee obtained from Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., John Boulting and Joe Jackson. Lee found the meeting of her extended family to be like something from a surrealist Luis Buñuel film and thought they were “killing [him] with cream.” Finally, Lee had to have the permission of the King of Sweden to marry. Lee had met him some years before whilst filming Tales of Hans Anderson and received his blessing. However, shortly before the wedding, Lee ended the engagement. He was concerned that his financial insecurity in his chosen profession meant that she “deserved better” than being “pitched into the disheveled world of an actor.” She understood and they called the wedding off (though she must have later been saddened that it didn’t turn out that way).
Later, Lee was introduced to Danish painter and former model Birgit “Gitte” Krøncke by a Danish friend and his wife in 1960. They were engaged soon after and married on March 17, 1961. They had a daughter, Christina Erika Carandini Lee (b. 1963) and were still married upon his death.
Beyond the serious note there, Christopher Lee had some fun in his life.
He was on the cover of Paul McCartney’s 1973 Band on the Run album (seen below), as well as the video for the song—which was a making-of for the cover.
Around 1988, Lee agreed to play a vampire once more in an unproduced Dutch/Belgian comedy that was to be called “Blooper.” The script, written by Frank van Laecke, was commissioned because of the physical resemblance between Lee and Dutch opera singer Marco Bakker, as noted by Bakker’s wife, actress Willeke van Ammelrooy. Lee, a great lover of opera, got along well with both of them. The story concerned an opera singer called Billy Blooper (Bakker) who learns his father (Lee) is a vampire who’s teeth had gone rotten after eating too many sweets. Now whenever he bites anyone, instead of turning into a vampire, they became half-human, half-chicken (which sounds ridiculously campy and fun—and is right up my horror alley).
And yes, the rumors are true, Christopher Lee loved Heavy Metal.
Lee’s first contact with heavy metal music was singing a duet with Fabio Lione, former lead vocalist of the Italian symphonic power metal band Rhapsody of Fire (and currently a member of Angra), on the single “The Magic of the Wizard’s Dream” from the Symphony of Enchanted Lands II album. Later he appeared as a narrator on the band’s four albums Symphony of Enchanted Lands II—The Dark Secret, Triumph or Agony, The Frozen Tears of Angels and From Chaos to Eternity as well as on the EP The Cold Embrace of Fear—A Dark Romantic Symphony, portraying the Wizard King. He also worked with Manowar while they were recording a new version of their first album, Battle Hymns. The original voice was done by Orson Welles (who was long dead at the time of the re-recording). The new album, Battle Hymns MMXI, was released on November 26, 2010.
In 2006, he bridged two disparate genres of music by performing a heavy metal variation of the Toreador Song from the opera Carmen with the band Inner Terrestrials. The song was featured on his album Revelation in 2007. The same year, he produced a music video for his cover version of the song “My Way.”
His first complete metal album was Charlemagne: By the Sword and the Cross, which was critically acclaimed and awarded with the “Spirit of Metal” award from the 2010 Metal Hammer Golden Gods ceremony, where he described himself as “a young man right at the beginning of his career”. It was released on 15 March 2010. In June 2012, he released a music video for the song “The Bloody Verdict of Verden”.
On his 90th birthday (May 27, 2012) he announced the release of his new single “Let Legend Mark Me as the King” from his upcoming album Charlemagne: The Omens of Death, signifying his move onto “full on” heavy metal. That makes him the oldest performer in the history of the genre. The music was arranged by Richie Faulkner from the band Judas Priest and features World Guitar Idol Champion, Hedras Ramos.
In December 2012, he released an EP of heavy metal covers of Christmas songs called A Heavy Metal Christmas. He released a second in December 2013, entitled A Heavy Metal Christmas Too. With the song “Jingle Hell,” Lee entered the Billboard Hot 100 chart at #22, thus becoming the oldest living performer to ever enter the music charts, at 91 years and 6 months. The record was previously held by Tony Bennett, who was 85 when he recorded “Body and Soul” with Amy Winehouse in March 2011. After media attention, the song rose to #18.
Lee released a third EP of covers in May 2014, to celebrate his 92nd birthday. Called Metal Knight, in addition to a cover of “My Way” it contains “The Toreador March”, inspired by the opera Carmen, and the songs “The Impossible Dream” and “I Don Quixote” from the Don Quixote musical Man of La Mancha. Lee was inspired to record the latter songs because, “as far as I am concerned, Don Quixote is the most metal fictional character that I know.” His fourth EP and third annual Christmas release came in December 2014 as he put out “Darkest Carols, Faithful Sing”, a playful take on “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing.” He explained: “It’s light-hearted, joyful and fun.…At my age, the most important thing for me is to keep active by doing things that I truly enjoy. I do not know how long I am going to be around, so every day is a celebration and I want to share it with my fans.”
Rock on Mr. Lee, ROCK ON!
Tid-Bit: His one outspoken regret, or at least claimed it as his biggest mistake, was that he turned down Donald Pleasence’s role as Dr. Sam Loomis in Halloween (1978). Honestly, that would have been so amazing, but he did so many other fantastic roles that that one was no big loss.
I’m really glad that the last thing I saw him in was The Hobbit trilogy, because even though he is known for his villain roles, including Saruman, I always want to root for him, and seeing Saruman on the side of good felt like redemption, and a nice send off.
What I want to do now is to try to watch every film he was in—especially the ones I have no idea what they are about, like The Oblong Box (1969), and re-watch some that I didn’t realize he was in, like The Wicker Man (1973)—not the really bad Nick Cage remake, but the really interesting and thrilling original!
I suppose that will take me until I, myself, am 93. And in that way, and many others, I guess Christopher Lee really will live on forever.
The Last Unicorn was a favorite childhood film of mine; maybe not THE favorite, but in the top ten. I had watched it many times over the course of my childhood, but it wasn’t until just after I graduated high school that I finally picked up the book to read.
My mind was blown. The characters filled out, the world was round, there was rhyme and reason, and the end of the book was that much more tragic, and yet happy; true sorrow and true joy, and regret. Almost immediately I realized how much better the book was, and how silly it made the film seem.
Just over a year or so ago, I acquired the Blu-ray of the film. I still had fond memories of the film and besides that, Jeff Bridges is a voice. In fact it has a pretty great cast especially with Christopher Lee as the villain King Haggard, as well as Angela Lansbury, Alan Arkin, and Rene Auberjonois. I gave it a re-watch and suffice it to say, I actually remarked, “This movie is not as bad as I remember!” Still, it had been near 10 years since I read the book.
I took it upon myself recently to get a real picture of both of them in close proximity, and do a full and thorough comparison.
The Last Unicorn is a 1982 animated fantasy film produced by Rankin/Bass for ITC Entertainment and animated by Topcraft. The film is based on the novel (published 1968) of the same name written by Peter S. Beagle, who also wrote the film’s screenplay. The Last Unicorn is about a unicorn who, upon learning that she is the last unicorn in the world, goes on a quest to find out what has happened to the others of her kind.
Both the book and the film take generally the same path. The unicorn hears that she is the last, and goes searching for more of her kind. Along the way she meets Schmendrick the magician who helps her and joins her quest. They get into some trouble with a band of rogues, but after they escape, Molly Grue-the only female from the group-decides to join them. They set off for the castle of King Haggard who has a bad reputation and a demonic red bull at his side. It is said that the red bull had chased all the Unicorns away long ago, so they know they will find some answers there.
The book, however, is so much more in-depth and sturdy up against the silly humor of the animation. I want to say that the book is more adult, but the situations themselves would not call for an adult rating.
The main problem with the film is that Rankin/Bass made it into a family movie, which means that much of the story is watered down and it glosses over the points where the book is dark, gritty and bloody. Even when the dialogue makes reference to an injury, the audience sees no blood. The one exception to the non-adult rule is the harpy, Celeano. I never noticed before this, but the harpy has exposed teats which was a bit shocking considering. Although I dislike the design of the creature, it is pretty frightening. I just really wish that the harpy looked like a harpy and not a weird type of carrion bird. In the book the harpy is described as having the face of a hag with hair like moonlight and wings of bronze.
Rankin/Bass is also known for throwing in a random song (most performed by America) to emit emotion while trying to create a montage that tells us something that otherwise would have been missed, but somehow we still miss it. At the beginning when the Unicorn is supposed to have traveled for a very long time before meeting any of the characters, the film took the time to show the changing seasons-maybe a bit too much time. Then later when they are supposed to have been at Haggard’s castle for a long time, you don’t feel like it has been more than a few days. They show a montage of Prince Lir fighting dragons and bringing Lady Amalthea the head as a prize, but they miss that he was not a hero-type before he met her, nor does it mention that he was engaged before-hand. It shows that she cares little for the dead presents he brings, but it misses how it hurts her to find his horse was injured in one of his battles.
We also lose many of the great characters from the book in the film–Drinn and all of Hagsgate, Haggard’s soldiers-at-arms and the mayor of an indulgent town–who is supposed to be the reason they meet the band of rogues. And the characters we do have aren’t given the background they need or are unnecessarily changed.
The butterfly is not changed that much, but considering the watering down of the story and characters, I don’t understand why they choose to make the butterfly talk so much–including saying that Man cannot see the unicorn, but mistakes it for a white mare. This is untrue! People with pure hearts can always see a unicorn as well as many others, just less so now that unicorns seem to have left the world. The fact that man sees a mare instead is shown just a scene later, so why waste your time and breath, butterfly?
An even worse change was to the cat. In the book, a cat appears in the kitchen of Haggard’s castle and Molly takes a liking to it. When the time comes, the cat chooses to speak-to Molly’s surprise-and she heeds his words even if they are a bit of a riddle. Once everything is said and done, the cat stays with Molly on her next journey. In the film, they decided to give the cat a peg leg and an eye patch and turn it into a pirate. For no good reason. And when the castle falls, what happens to the cat? Guess it died.
Captain Cully, the leader of the rogues becomes a non-character, only there so we can meet Molly Grue. She is still wonderfully brash in the film, but she loses all of her best retorts and relationship/character building moments, so when Schmendrick says “Come with me” and she replies “I will”, it just seems out of the blue and a little stupid.
Meanwhile, Schmendrick just seems like a bumbling idiot who really wants to be a magician, but hasn’t found his way to true magic yet. Some of the spells that he conjures in the film don’t seem to have a reason behind them, while in the book they are well explained. All through the film he says “Magic do what you will” repeatedly, but we don’t really know why. As a child, I know I made a conscious leap from there to know that he was just a conduit for magic and didn’t know how to control it, which is true in the original story, but he has a more fleshed out background. You know who he is and what he has been through and see him trying many tricks and spells throughout the book that show that he can do parlor magic and he has trained to be a true wizard but has yet to fully succeed.
Although the cast is generally good, I feel like much of the voice acting is lack-luster. Christopher Lee, Jeff Bridges and Angela Lansbury are fantastic. Hell, I’ll throw Tammy Grimes (Molly Grue) in there too. Alan Arkin (Schmendrick) and Mia Farrow (Unicorn/Lady Amalthea), however, not so much, though I think it’s partly the way they are portrayed in the film.
I know that Peter S. Beagle wrote the screenplay, but I wonder how much influence the director and producers had, because there were character changes that I am not okay with, like when the Unicorn feels pity for the Harpy. That is not how it is, the only reason she wants the harpy to be free is because if Mommy Fortuna frees her soon, she might just survive it–the pity is all for the poor old witch. Mia Farrow is just obnoxious in general, she puts inflections in her lines that rub me the wrong way and are not at all how I imagined my unicorn. Then they give her songs to sing–really cheesy songs that I loved as a kid–and she can’t really sing. But apparently if you get the German soundtrack, they replace Mia Farrow with a better singer and it sounds great.
There are songs in the book, but they are much less cheesy, and sometimes even dark. She asks Prince Lir to sing her a song to drown out her nightmares, and he sings the first thing that comes to mind, which happens to be a not-so appropriate song. But I love that it was not a love song to her, but more an epic of tragic love and betrayal. The weird thing is that there are moments in the story where I think they give the unicorn more magic than she had in the book, and yet Mia Farrow and her lines make her sound like she has no power at all. How can she be that powerful and that powerless at the same time?
It’s not that she’s all-powerful in the book—she has restrictions—and yes there are times where she has inexplicable power, but it isn’t jarring or confusing. When Lady Amalthea trips while being chased by the red bull, in the book she doesn’t whine and say “oh my ankle, help me!” Magic made her a mortal woman, but that doesn’t mean they can take away her character’s stength. It’s sexist. She is supposed to be confused and forget why she is where she is, but she doesn’t lose her fight and suddenly need the prince to save her like a damsel in distress.
In addtion, some of the side characters are lost, and without them we never learn of the curse put on Haggard’s Castle or Hagsgate and what that meant for the people. The world outside of the quest is a flat one in the film. Besides the few smatterings of characters, we don’t know what the world is like, and since the Unicorn has traveled out of her forest and into the world of man for the first time in so long, you would hope to see more of it.
The animation leaves something to be desired as well. Usually I would say that animation can do things that many live-action films cannot, but in this case I think live-action would prove wiser. The characters move in such inhuman ways, and when Schmendrick falls after letting the magic take its course with him, he floats to the ground in what I would guess is a faint, but it looks so odd. There are points where characters are supposed to be thrown, thrashed and crushed and none of it looks right, they all float and fall so gently. One character has to tell us that he was dead after he is revived because otherwise we wouldn’t have known (he does say it in the book as well, but in the book he is a tangled mess and you knew he wasn’t going to walk away from that).
Haggard’s castle is also completely ridiculous. It is supposed to be worn down, standing only by sheer will. It’s very dark and there is a skull hanging in the hall, but beyond that it was a regular castle. In the film, to really drive the point home that Haggard is evil, the castle is full of demonic statues and dragons and horns. It is so far over the top and one wonders why Prince Lir–being the opposite of his father–would even continue living in a place like that. Being run down is one thing, but to be complacent with the awful interior design of this castle… I don’t even think a hag of a witch would build a place like that, and she was supposed to have. When you really get to know Haggard, at least in the book, you find that he is less evil and more just a miserly, bored, and unhappy old man who has never found joy, except one, and I don’t mean his son.
The character design for the Unicorn and Lady Amalthea, however, are quite beautiful. She glows and is graceful in both forms. They got the Unicorn right, with the tail of a lion, cloven hooves, and hairy ankles, rather than a white mare with a horn. My only gripe about it is that as a Unicorn she is supposed to be a much larger creature than she is in the film. In the book, Schmendrick remarks about it when he finally sees her up close. Also, in the normal world, men see her as a white mare, which is fair enough because magic has left most of the normal world, but when we see her through the eyes of a farmer, she looks like herself (lion tail and all) just without a horn. What white mare looks like that?!
In the end I would say that it is a fun film if you have had some distance from the book. It has its charms and is a cult classic that still shows all over the country. Still, to me, the film is more of a trailer to the book than an actual film in itself, if trailers ran 93 minutes. I don’t mean to tear it down—though I feel like I just have—because it could have been worse. At least they didn’t change the ending to a wedding or something. That would have been too sappy. It’s cute, but it just doesn’t do the book justice.
That is why I still wish for the live-action version that was talked about in the early 2000s. The website for it still exists, so that means there’s still hope, right? I even did a dream cast vlog for the film last week!
As for now, please go read The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle. It is a fantastic book. And of course, feel free to see the 1982 Rankin/Bass Animation, but remember to take it with a grain of salt. This one is up there with the animated versions of The Hobbit, Lord of the Rings, and The Black Cauldron. This was my earliest experience of “the book was better” and it is, to the greatest extent.