Sir Christopher Lee was not able to attend the New York City press events held just before the 2002 release of "The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers," but it sure seemed like he was there, based on the number of times members of the cast and creative team made references to him.
There were members of Peter Jackson's team -- especially co-writer Philippa Boyens -- who knew the fine details of J.R.R. Tolkien's worldview and masterwork, including the ways in which his Catholic faith influenced its symbols and substance. In one famous quote, the author called the trilogy a "fundamentally religious and Catholic work."
However, various members of the team agreed that Lee was, in many ways, the official keeper of the Tolkien flame during the filming, the person whose knowledge and love of the books made him care, fiercely, about getting key details right so that the spirit of the books would soak into the movies. Several people said that they thought Lee was, himself, a Catholic.
Was Lee a believer and, if so, of what stripe? I thought that this detail might surface in the obituaries over the past day or so, but apparently journalists were not interested in the role that explorations of good and evil -- incarnate evil, especially -- played in his life and work. Alas, this didn't happen.
Now I really regret that he wasn't at those NYC round-table interviews. What did Lee say years earlier? I'll come back to that.
Here is the core biographical details from The Washington Post:
Christopher Frank Carandini Lee was born in London on May 27, 1922. He said that his father was a British army commander and that his mother was an Italian countess.
Mr. Lee was raised by his mother and stepfather, a banker whose heavy drinking led to financial reversals. On scholarship, he excelled in the classics while attending preparatory schools and also participated in student dramatic productions.
During World War II, he served in the Royal Air Force and also did intelligence work, but he dismissed reports over the years that he was a spy. To demonstrate, he once stood ramrod straight before a British interviewer with his full height on display and asked, “Do you consider that I would blend inconspicuously into a crowd?”
Lee wrote a memoir and called it "Tall, Dark and Gruesome.” I do not own a copy, but he apparently described himself as being raised as an "Anglo-Catholic," meaning that he was part of the smells and bells, "high church" tradition within the Church of England. Did he ever swim the Tiber? I can find no references to that.
Throughout his life, many criticized Lee for taking on many roles that were not worthy of his skills, a fact that he himself joked about from time to time. However, journalists probing his beliefs might want to ask if there were movies and roles that he thought were crucial, in terms of what they revealed about his life and beliefs.
This was a pet project of Lee’s, and he had to push Hammer to get it done. Lee was tired of the pop-up scares of Dracula movies. He wanted to depict real evil and Satanism in a serious way. He wanted to show that the occult was dangerous, and treat it with intelligence. I just rewatched this film a week ago with the commentary track on, and was struck by how knowledgeable he was about the subject, and how much the film meant to him. ...
The film is notable for ... sober depiction of occult practices and their dangers. Even more notable is its strong Christian message. Over and over, either God or Jesus is used to thwart evil. The final triumph (it’s not like I’m spoiling things here) is accomplished by the overwhelming power of the cross. Even when the good guys use an incantation, it hearkens back to Solomon. (In esoteric tradition, Solomon was able to control and cast out demons.)
A lot of horror has a winking quality: the audience understands this is a lark. The Devil Rides Out plays it straight down the line, and it’s stronger for it.
In other words, it does appear that Lee took seriously questions of ultimate good and ultimate evil, even while the public saw him as a living cartoon. At the end of his life, he returned to these dark arts in Star Wars and Lord of the Rings movies and, according to his colleagues on the Tolkien epics, he knew the source material inside out, in part because of his own faith.
Does that prove anything worth exploring in a mainstream news obit? I would say that it does, in light of Lee's career defining encounters with questions linked to evil.
The New York Times obit did, at the very end, offer this tantalizing hint at deeper issues.
Mr. Lee often said that he identified with Count Dracula, because they were both embarrassments to an aristocratic family. In “Lord of Misrule,” he expressed sympathy for his famous horror characters.
“In my mind Dracula, the Mummy and Frankenstein’s monster are driven figures, unable to help themselves, eventually out of control like a runaway train,” he wrote, “and consequently very much alone.”
Haunted? I think that it's safe to say, "yes" to that question. Meanwhile, we can all enjoy this fine tribute essay from Catholic film critic Steven D. Greydanus, online at Crux.