A legend died today. Sir Christopher Lee, star of screen, war hero (and shadow operative), metal head and with many more strings to his bow, passed away in London at the age of 93, having lived a most full life. Many worthy tributes have been paid already, fitting send offs, to be sure.
But it’s a particular curtailed send off that I wish to recall here. In the theatrical cut of the final instalment of The Lord Of The Rings , The Return of The King, Saruman, the evil wizard so ably embodied by Lee, dies off screen, casually remarked upon in passing. Whaaat? There was outrage. Lee was understandably hurt, but a consummate professional, refusing to engage in any public spat.
At the time, director Peter Jackson explained the decision thus:
“The problem is that the sequence was originally shot for The Two Towers, as it is in the book. Since The Two Towers couldn’t sustain a seven-minute ‘wrap’ after Helm’s Deep, we thought it would be a good idea to save it for the beginning of the Return of the King.
“The trouble is, when we viewed various ROTK cuts over the last few weeks, it feels like the first scenes are wrapping last year’s movie, instead of starting the new one. We felt it got Return Of The King off to an uncertain beginning, since Saruman plays no role in the events of ROTK (we don’t have the Scouring later, as the book does), yet we dwell in Isengard for quite a long time before our new story kicks off.
“We reluctantly made the decision to save this sequence for the DVD. The choice was made on the basis that most people will assume that Saruman was vanquished by the Helm’s Deep events, and Ent attack. We can now crack straight into setting up the narrative tension of ROTK, which features Sauron as the villain.”
As is the way of modern film releases, the scene was reinstated into the “Director’s Extended Cut”, and Lee was somewhat mollified. The two got over it, and went on to happily work together again on Jackson’s adaptation of The Hobbit. As an interesting aside, when Jackson began to discuss the effect of Saruman’s death (being stabbed in the back with a blade), Sir Christopher Lee assured him he knew exactly how it would feel and sound:
“When I was shooting the stabbing shot with Christopher,” Jackson recalled, “as a director would, I was explaining to him what he should do… And he says, ‘Peter, have you ever heard the sound a man makes when he’s stabbed in the back?’ And I said, ‘Um, no.’ And he says ‘Well, I have, and I know what to do.’”
That’s because Lee had a most interesting military career during WWII, and for a time afterwards. He volunteered to fight for Finland when they were invaded early in the war, served as a special forces commando, where he learnt how to kill silently and effectively, liberated concentration camp inmates, and hunted Nazi war criminals after the war.
On the set of the Rings films, when asked about his military career, he leaned forward and whispered: “Can you keep a secret?”
“Yes!” the interviewer replied,
“So can I.” Lee smiled.
Here is Sir Christopher Lee being asked at Trinity College, Dublin, about the above scene:
Sir Christopher Lee 1922 – 2015