Christopher Lee holds the world record for the most amount of on-screen swordfights, having wielded a variety of swords, billiard cues, and lightsabers in 17 films. And that’s a small percentage of his body of work, with over 250 performances in some of the biggest, smallest and weirdest films you could hope to watch. I don’t know how he found time to write this autobiography back in 1977. And I also don’t understand how so much of that autobiography could be about golf.
How does he find time to play so much golf? And how does he make it sound so interesting? Maybe it’s the people he plays with: a mixture of stars, professionals, statesmen and politicians grace the pages, all of them deserving an anecdote or two. This procession of notables, all of them described with the laconic detachment worthy of nobility, seems very strange but utterly right for Lee’s life. He’s really not like anybody else. He has walked as a giant through a world of little people – and I don’t just mean he’s tall. He’s always seemed above us all, even when he has played monsters. And that lofty perspective makes for a very interesting read.
So Lord Of Misrule describes Lee’s life as a gracious journey through absurdity. He begins with his heritage, which is fascinating in itself as a lesson into Italian nobility and really good-looking people, and then we move through a childhood of nannies and parties and public schools, leading to a stint in the RAF as an Intelligence Officer during World War Two. His decision to be a professional actor comes later, and I really warmed to his writing as he described that period. It was by no means a quick process to stardom, and Lee is as happy to record his failures as his successes. His late start in the field of relations with the opposite sex are also reported on with that great, understated sense of humour. He felt he wasn’t quite ready to get involved with all that stuff, and so held back, much to the amazement of his friends at the time. I get the feeling Lee doesn’t do anything until he feels he can do it well.
I suppose, in such a full life, it’s inevitable that elements are skated over, and my own interests lay in Lee’s early days at Hammer, when he first achieved success and donned the Frankenstein makeup and the Dracula cape. I could easily have read a lot more about this time, but was really pleased to find a final few chapters in the book in which Lee backtracks and writes about his particular friendships with great figures such as Vincent Price and Peter Cushing, who appear to have shared his sense of humour. There’s also Lee’s close relationship with Boris Karloff, which is really interesting, and predates his own casting as Frankenstein. All of these influential figures in cinematic horror come across as the most gentle, caring friends, the memories of whom Lee obviously cherishes.
There’s also a later edition of the book (with a short foreword by Peter Jackson) that includes extra chapters on his recent roles, such as Saruman in Lord Of The Rings and The Hobbit. It’s wonderful to find out that Lee has always been a true Tolkien fan and wanted to play Gandalf before coming to the decision that really he was too old for riding around on horseback. Erudite and involving, he describes his love of Middle Earth with a passion that he also reserves for opera and, of course, golf. I don’t think he holds some of his roles in such high esteem, but if there’s one word that accurately sums up Christopher Lee I think it’s gentlemanly. He never belittles any project, even the pornographic film in which he appeared without being told exactly what he was getting into, and he prides himself on his good manners and his professionalism.
And professionalism is what you really get in this autobiography. Nothing is left out, but nothing is indecorous. The tone is exactly right, and Lee takes us from golf course to golf course, country to country, adventure to adventure, with the well-practised manner of a guide dealing with tourists who might easily outstay their welcome. How very well-mannered he remains in the face of the prying public, and the part-welcoming, part-intimidating stare he gives us from the cover sums it up nicely. This is an amble around his personal setting, in which he will point out his holes in one and his times in the rough. At the end of the game, we can put the book down and feel we’ve had a good walk through a most beautifully laid-out setting. Whether we can say that we know our guide, or whether we’ve been presented with a formal mask that remains just a little bit scary, is difficult to say.
Still, Lee saw it all, from a once-thriving British film industry to the birth of the fantasy blockbuster, and continues to appear in it all. I can think of no better tour guide for the strange world of cinema. If you want to know that world better, this book is a great place to start. I think Christopher Lee must know, and have played golf with, absolutely everybody who’s anybody.
Our next Den of Geek book club choice will be Miss Peregrine’s Home For Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs. Kaci will be discussing it on Monday 15th September.
Read Aliya’s thoughts on the previous non-fiction film entry in the Den Of Geek Book Club, Wiseguy: Life In A Mafia Family, here.
Follow our Twitter feed for faster news and bad jokes right here. And be our Facebook chum here.