Thursday, June 11, 2015

More Than Met The Eye

Christopher Lee (1922 - 2015)

Leaving Dracula Behind: Lee As Scaramanga, Bond's Nemisis In Man With The Golden Gun

It's easy to make assumptions about anyone, even if you've seen them often -- around the office; on the street; even on a film screen or the Teevee -- based on what you think you know of them.

My favorite personal encounters with that were two people, living in my home town -- one, an Austrian immigrant who had come to America in the 1920's; after his death, it turned out he had been a young man, standing curbside, in Sarajevo on June 28, 1914, watching as the Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife were shot by Gavrilo Princip.   The other was a friend's father -- a slight and unassuming man, gentle in his take on the world, who had been captured on the Philippine island of Corregidor in 1942 and was a survivor of the Bataan Death March. You never completely know what's behind the person you see.

Christopher Frank Carandini Lee passed away on Monday night, aged 93.  He was an Englishman out of a mold long broken, now: Born not long after the Great War to a Continental marriage -- his father a Colonel in the King's Royal Rifle Corps; his Italian mother the Comtesse di Sarzano, from a family ennobled under Holy Roman Emperor Frederick Barbarossa but decaying over the centuries into more genteel circumstances.

There were many British families like theirs, before and after WW1 (read about Robert Graves' own in Goodbye To All That), solidly English but with Old Bloodline connections to the Continent -- however, with not so much by way of money. Never quite broke, yet never quite rich, but always conscious of who they are and where they came from.

His parents divorced when Lee was four; he and a sister were educated in Switzerland and private schools in England. His mother then married a banker, Harcourt George St-Croix Rose, the uncle of Ian Fleming.

In the arcane labyrinth of English "public" (read: exclusive) schools, Lee missed an opportunity to attend Eton and instead prepped at Wellington College, where with a small exception he did no acting-- which wouldn't become his career until after World War Two.

Lee turned age 17 just before the summer of 1939. His mother had just separated from her second husband, and Christopher suddenly needed a job. Unable to find one, he and his sister were sent to France -- and here, his mother's family connections opened doors to a particular layer of the world's culture: While in Europe, he watched the last public execution by guillotine in France; and among the exiled members of former royal families met Prince Felix Yussupov, who murdered Rasputin in 1917.

Portrait Photo Of Lee, Circa 1939

When war looked inevitable, Lee came back to England --  Germany invaded Poland on September 1; Great Britain declared war on Germany four days later.  Instead of heading back to school, Lee volunteered to fight with the Finnish army during its invasion by the Soviet Union, but was kept far from any fighting and after a few weeks was sent back to London. France had been invaded and surrendered to Germany; England had managed to save its men but not its guns at Dunkirk, and the Blitz was about to begin.

Lee found a job as a clerk because, under Britain's selective service scheme at the time, he had to wait to be 'called up' --  in which case he would have no choice over which branch of service he'd be placed in.  Unless he volunteered, which he did, and chose to go into the RAF. He did not qualify for pilot training, but was assigned to intelligence duties and posted to a squadron in the spring of 1941.

Long Range Desert Patrol Group In The Field, 1941

On the public record, Lee was posted to several different RAF squadrons as an intelligence officer, a role he held more or less for four years through the North African and Italian campaigns -- except for Burma and New Guinea, the only theaters of the war where Britain was active before D-Day. Lee also had four bouts of Malaria during the war (which I can guarantee you is serious).  And though he never discussed it, later in life Lee admitted that he had been a part of two organizations in the British army -- SOE, Special Operations Executive, and the Long Range Desert Patrol group.

While the LRDP did perform some commando-style raids deep inside German- or Italian-held North Africa to force their enemies to spend time and resources hunting them down, during 1941 - 42 they were principally long-range reconnaissance units,  small groups operating far behind the lines. Their job was to be stealthy, to observe enemy troop movements and positions, and report.

The SOE were the real commandos -- they blew things up, carried out assassinations and assisted local resistance organizations, and their job was to give the nazis hell. After 1942, SOE also sent agents into countries like Yugoslavia, people who (as Lee did) spoke multiple languages and could dress and act like a local.

The SOE agents ran exfiltration lines, moving downed Allied air crews, political refugees and other intelligence agents out of Europe from night pickups on the Dalmatian coast. It was dangerous work; the German security services in Yugoslavia -- or anywhere else -- were efficient and brutal.

 British 'Irregular' Detachment; Italy, 1944

It was rumored that this had been Lee's role for a time; he never denied it, or any other rumor about his wartime service -- including that he had been recruited to be a spy by his step-cousin and MI-6 officer, Ian Fleming, who would become the creator of James Bond. Once asked by a fan if he had been an undercover agent during the war, Lee smiled and asked quietly, "Can you keep a secret?" Of course, the fan said. "So can I," Lee replied.

When the role of 007 was being cast for the first Bond film, Dr. No, in 1962, Fleming wanted the role of 007 played by his step-cousin, Christopher -- because, Fleming said, Lee had "done this kind of work", and would play the role more believably [Note: The BBC, in it's obituary notice, has reported Fleming wanted Lee to play the role of Dr. No, which went to actor Joseph Wiseman]

Flight Leftenant Lee In Vatican City, 1944, After The Liberation Of Rome
When the first Lord Of The Rings trilogy was being filmed in New Zealand, director Peter Jackson was filming the scene on the Tower, where Saruman stabs Wormtongue in the back; Jackson was directing Brad Dourif to shout or scream when Lee stabbed him; Lee demurred -- when someone is stabbed from behind, he said, reflex makes the victim draw in their breath.  Jackson pushed back, asking, How do you know that? "Because I know what it sounds like," he said -- and that was all.

It's possible Lee was 'playing the mystery' a little; he was an actor, after all; but I tend to think there was some truth to all the rumors -- and while he may have allowed that to play out in the imaginations of others, Lee came of age in an England where such things as discretion, and duty, and knowing how to hold one's tongue meant something, Official Secrets Act or no.

(Lee was, incidentally, the only member of the LOTR cast or crew who had actually met J.R.R. Tolkien, as a still-young man after WWII in an Oxford pub.  It was a brief, chance meeting; Lee enjoyed and admired Tolkien's work and was awe-struck at meeting the man, and so when introduced only managed to say, "Ah, hello, how are you?")

Sir Christopher Lee, 2012

For his career in film, there is plenty on the Intertubes for you to see. I enjoyed his performances; I'll miss his general gravitas and sense of sagacity or menace he could bring to a role. And beyond the general reserve of the English, I always got the sense there was much more about Lee beneath the surface (for example -- the man had two heavy metal albums out there. Ruminate on that for a moment).  He was rumored to have one of the largest private collections of manuscripts and printed material on the occult on the planet -- something he played down, but again, never denied.

In any event, now he knows what we do not. Go well.

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