Christopher Lee archive donated to BFI

by Studiocanal UK, Rights holder unknown; Fox, Hammer Film Productions UK, Amber Wilkinson, Studiocanal, Paramount Pictures

Scott Of The Antarctic
Scott Of The Antarctic Photo: Studiocanal UK

Lady Lee, Sir Christopher Lee’s widow, has donated his photographic archive to the BFI National Archive. The collection features photographic prints and albums collected and compiled by Sir Christopher Lee - who died in June 2015, aged 93.

Spanning his entire film career, the archive includes a number of previously unseen on-set stills and contact sheets as well as portraits from many of his most iconic roles including Dracula (1958) and its sequels, The Wicker Man (1973) and The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001).

Lady Gitte Lee said, “It was a great joy and an honour for my husband when he was awarded the BFI Fellowship in recognition for his lifelong contribution to the industry. I am therefore delighted that the BFI are helping to preserve the heritage of his legacy, by bringing Christopher’s photographic archive into the BFI National Archive. I am immensely proud of my husband’s achievements. One of Britain’s best loved actors, he was a man who entertained audiences worldwide for more than 60 years. It gives me great pleasure that his photos will be seen and appreciated for generations to come.”

From one of the actor’s earliest film roles in the Ealing Studios classic Scott of the Antarctic (1948), right up to his work in the 2000s, the Sir Christopher Lee Archive offers a first-person account of his career, spanning more than 60 years.

Other films represented in this collection include Hammer classics such as The Mummy (1959), Rasputin: The Mad Monk (1966) and The Devil Rides Out (1967) as well as The Private Life Of Sherlock Holmes (1971), Sleepy Hollow (1999) and Star Wars: Episode III Revenge Of The Sith (2005).

At the heart of the archive are three album/scrapbooks put together in the early 1970s and annotated by Lee, spanning the years 1948-1972. Album one covers Lee’s first decade and a half as an actor. Some of his earliest roles include World War II drama They Were Not Divided (1950) and Captain Horatio Hornblower (1950) in which Lee played supporting parts (his annotation to They Were Not Divided writes, “Back to camera, as usual”). He spent ten years honing his craft in supporting roles before his breakthrough performance as The Creature in Hammer Studios’ The Curse Of Frankenstein (1957).

Lee at one time held the Guinness World Record for the most on-screen sword fights. This album records an early and memorable example: Lee’s infamous sword fight with Errol Flynn in The Dark Avenger (1955) in which Flynn accidentally cut through Lee’s little finger. The album also includes a striking pair of portraits of Lee, almost unrecognisable, during his screen test for John Huston’s Moby Dick (1956), a part ultimately played by another actor.

Album two spans the 1960s, including horror classics Dracula Prince Of Darkness (1965) and The Devil Rides Out (1967) and showing Lee alongside fellow horror legends including Peter Cushing (The Skull, 1965), Vincent Price (The Oblong Box, 1959) and Boris Karloff (The Curse Of The Crimson Altar, 1968) as well as on set with Hammer director Terence Fisher. Lee’s appearance in two separate series of popular TV programme The Avengers (in 1967 and 1969) are also captured here.

Album three runs from Julius Caesar (1970) to Death Line (1972). It showcases some of the special make-up used in films such as The Scars of Dracula (1970) and includes images from I, Monster (1971), as well as a number of behind-the-scenes stills from Billy Wilder’s late masterpiece (and one of Lee’s favourite films), The Private Life Of Sherlock Holmes (1971).

Nathalie Morris, senior curator - Special Collections, BFI said: “We’re delighted to have been entrusted with this marvellous group of photographs which were collected and kept by Christopher Lee, one of the all-time cinema greats. These images wonderfully demonstrate Lee’s versatility and charisma as an actor, taking us on a journey from his early small parts through to his starring roles and then beyond, as directors sought him out for high profile supporting roles and cameos. The albums are fascinating for being assembled by Lee himself, especially as they also include his occasional, wryly-observed, comments. The BFI National Archive is incredibly grateful to Lady Lee for this generous donation.”

See a selection of photos from the archive below - click on an image to view it in gallery mode.

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