Saruman: Given the passing of the late, great Christopher Lee, I will step aside from my examinations of the Fellowship actors for a look at this stellar performance. Like Ian McKellen, Ian Holm, and several of the other LOTR actors not named Ian, Lee provides another excellent example for comparison between a classically trained actor and some of the younger, less experienced members of the cast.
With a long and rich tapestry of life experiences including service in the British Special Forces during World War II, Lee brings a fantastic wealth of expertise along with his imitable love of Tolkien to the film set. It’s fairly common knowledge Lee wanted nothing more than to play Gandalf, but Jackson made the right call when casting him as the vile traitor Saruman instead. Lee’s most defining characteristic is his tremendous stage voice, which translates wonderfully into the slick, seductive tones of the White Wizard. One can scarcely imagine any other actor in the role as Lee wends his slippery way from scene to scene, commanding the audience’s rapt attention every step of the way.
Saruman doesn’t get a ton of screen-time throughout the film trilogy, but his presence is critical as Sauron always remains a potent but remote and disembodied force. This partial vacuum is filled in part by the Ringwraiths and their nightmarish menace, but also by the more proximal Saruman, who (in the films, at least) personally interferes with the Fellowship’s ability to proceed with the Quest. This gives a more immediate sense of danger to the audience, who gets to see a major antagonist and understand his purposes and motivations. As always, a character’s relationships with other characters is also an important part of the action. I’ve mentioned several times already how the way different characters’ interactions with Sauron (via a palantir) or his Ring is crucial for the audience’s understanding of the Dark Lord’s character, and Saruman is no exception. One of my favorite mini-moments is the way Lee chooses to show himself after conversing with Sauron through the palantir early in FOTR. In the very next clip, the mighty White Wizard is seen huddled and seated, as though chilled to his soul or horrified at what he was subjected to in the Dark Lord’s twisted mind. This reaction, especially coming from Sauron’s most powerful ally, is very telling and even that brief moment communicates vital information to viewers about Sauron’s nature and his ability to terrify and dominate even Saruman the White, who we just recently saw overpower Gandalf in a sort of angelic duel. The pecking order, then, is clearly established: Gandalf has shown himself to be possessed of considerable divine power (as seen in his scenes with Bilbo and the aforementioned duel), but Saruman is stronger than Gandalf. Sauron, on the other hand, pulls Saruman’s strings from a great distance and inspires immense fear in Saruman, all of which has our audience thinking: how can the Free Peoples possibly defeat something of such incredible power? And if this great Wizard, who was supposed to be on our side, can be converted and manipulated, on whom can we rely? Who is friend or foe? Gandalf mentions later he considers Saruman to be a greater threat with each passing hour “because he is driven now by fear of Sauron.” The uncertainty this creates in the audience’s mind is important for the furtherance of the drama, and Lee’s use of small opportunities advances this.
Lee’s use of voice is always worthy of mention, and his masterful display of raw talent throughout the Rings trilogy is a tantalizing case study for it. Even without any obvious moments featuring Saruman using his strongest ability to dominate others’ minds, Lee’s voice is enough to convey that power in spades. The riveting scene I love to read and re-read from TTT The Voice of Saruman is greatly reduced in the films, earning little more than a tip of the hat in the Extended Edition. This is probably wise for the same reasons visualizing prolonged mental bouts with the Ring don’t work on-screen, but we still get delightful tastes through Lee’s vocal art. He uses range, volume, diction, and stresses flawlessly to augment his physicality and makeup, creating a character of great power and a deep mind, but with a sneering condescension which belies his ambitions.
Another key triumph of Lee in his portrayal is his knowledge, through decades of acting in roles of strength, authority, or power (which he probably received often, since they fit so nicely with his vocal abilities) is that those with true power have no need to exert much force. The mere threat of their doing so is all that’s needed to drive the actions of others in the manner he wishes. This is a personality trait which is an excellent fit for the character of Saruman, and Lee uses it to the fullest. Whether he is ordering his Uruk-hai about, trying to persuade Gandalf toward treachery, or simply going about the business of inspecting his hordes, Lee’s Saruman exudes a hidden menace which his servants, his opponents, and the audience all keenly feel. As I’ve noted elsewhere, “less is more,” and this axiom is rarely more true than in situations where someone wields immense power. Lee’s controlled actions convey extreme confidence, so long as the character is in control of his circumstances. It’s when things slip that we see the character become less suave, such as in the parley before Orthanc following Saruman’s defeat. Lee knows his character is in very real danger of being toppled and imprisoned, and his character reacts with more attempts at direct exercise of power (up to and including an outright magical attack on Gandalf, who he hates most) than we’ve ever seen from him, even while at the height of his influence. This juxtaposition is another method of showing the audience the back-and-forth over who has the control at any given moment, which brings lovely moments of drama into the films. Films that, generally speaking, often were required to move too quickly to allow the drama in any single scene to develop far just in order to cover the vast amounts of time necessary to tell the story. Lee is always aware of how his character is perceived by the audience and lends his majestic personality to a role that could have been written with him in mind.
In summation, it is remarkable how well the character of Saruman is understood by the audience considering how little time Lee gets in front of the camera, especially when you mark that most of that time is spent in very short scenes where he issues orders or plots his wars. Despite these limitations, it’s Lee’s use of the non-verbals as well as the verbals which work pure magic for the audience.