The Star Wars Prequels' Biggest Crime Was Wasting Christopher Lee

Sir Christopher Lee as a character who should really have been called something other than Count Dooku.
Sir Christopher Lee as a character who should really have been called something other than Count Dooku.
Image: Lucasfilm

I wouldn’t call myself a Sir Christopher Lee fanboy, but I am an ardent admirer who often watches entertainment solely because he’s in it and buys merchandise because it bears his image or likeness. After all, he’s a pretty cool dude. He had a lengthy acting career in films both great and godawful, he was a completely badass real-life spy, and at the age of 83 decided to become a heavy metal star.

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But I’m not here to talk about that. I’m here to talk about how the Star Wars prequels squandered one of cinema’s great portrayer of villains.

Lee made a career out of playing bad guys and playing them well. His portrayal of Dracula for a multitude of Hammer Horror films in the ‘60s and ‘70s is legendary, and the original 1973 The Wicker Man’s Lord Summerisle and the jocular assassin Scaramanga from the otherwise not-great James Bond flick The Man With the Golden Gun are two of cinema’s more memorable villains. This pedigree is why director Peter Jackson cast Lee as the evil wizard Saruman in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, starting with The Fellowship of the Ring in 2001. Suddenly, Hollywood remembered that Lee was awesome, and bringing him into the other big nerd trilogy of the time was an absolute no-brainer. George Lucas hired Lee for 2002’s Attack of the Clones, and I was excited as hell. The Phantom Menace’s Darth Maul was an awesome fighter with a cool theme song, but now the prequels had hired an actor truly worthy of joining Star Wars’ pantheon of great villains.

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The first sign of trouble was when it was revealed he was playing Count Dooku.

Honestly, the Count part is great—if not because of his many times playing Count Dracula, then because Lee always brought an aristocratic quality to his roles. (Lee was a descendant of Charlemagne, for the record.) Besides, Counts often end up as villains in fiction, ever since The Count of Monte Cristo gave them a bad name back in 1844. It was, of course, the “Dooku” part that gave me pause. Even if you ignore the fact that the name is a stone’s throw from “dookie”—which is extremely difficult—“Dooku” by itself still sounds silly as hell. It’s not a name to strike fear in people’s hearts. Even “General Grievous” sounds more intimidating and less ludicrous. Honestly, “Dooku” sounds like a rejected name for Jar Jar Binks, and I wouldn’t be that surprised if that were true.

Regardless of his character’s name, Lee is the best thing about Attack of the Clones, although admittedly that’s a low bar to clear. I won’t pretend he’s performing an Academy Award-winning turn in the film, because no one forced to say the dialogue in the prequel trilogy could. Also, like so many characters in the prequels, Dooku is in too few scenes to make much of an impression. But Attack of the Clones reveals the Count had the potential to be amazing—if only the movie had let him.

The movie asserts Dooku is a villain for simply being against the Galactic Republic and the Jedi, and never wants us to think otherwise. But the scene where the Count tries to recruit the captured Obi-Wan on Geonosis spotlights a fascinating area Clones refuses to explore. The Count presents himself as a rebel trying to defeat a corrupt government and tells the Jedi that the Republic is secretly being run by a Sith Lord. Even though Obi-Wan has already said he finds Palpatine fishy, he utterly dismisses Dooku’s claims without a second thought.

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It’s wild because Count Dooku is telling the absolute truth. The Republic is being run by a Sith Lord and thus is corrupt. Technically, it’s a government that attacks planets who want their freedom—the same thing Leia and Luke spend their time trying to topple in the original trilogy. With the limited information Obi-Wan has, he should find Dooku’s claims very compelling—or they should a least give him grave reservations about Palpatine and the Republic the Jedi serve. But nope. Instead, Obi-Wan says he doesn’t buy it, Dooku gives up, and then there’s a cool duel where he hands Anakin and Obi-Wan their Jedi asses until a green kickball on cocaine attacks him and Dooku has to skate on his rad spaceship.

I know people always give the Jedi shit for never realizing they’re working for the most powerful Sith lord in millennia—not unjustifiably—but I’ll buy it, and believe Palpatine was just that good. What drives me crazy is that not one of the Jedi ever questioned the morality of what they were doing in the Clone Wars, and Dooku could have given the prequels a fascinating depth they badly needed. (I’m sure this happened all the time in the Clone Wars cartoon, which is canon, but the cartoons are different from the movies and you know it.)

Imagine a prequel trilogy where Dooku first appears in Menace and is the leader of the rebellious Separatist movement from the beginning, sending Darth Maul to do his dirty work. At first, he seems like a simple tyrant trying to crown himself a king, someone who deservedly needs to be stopped—until Obi-Wan and Anakin get captured by him in Clones, and he reveals the Republic is secretly being ruled by the Sith. He says he’s trying to save the galaxy by destroying the corrupted Republic. Obi-Wan and Anakin wouldn’t join him, but they would have increasing doubts about Palpatine. In Revenge of the Sith, Obi-Wan and the other Jedi would be too busy fighting the Clone Wars to do anything else, and Dooku could still die in the first act. Then, after grooming Anakin for years Palpatine could finally convince Anakin that the Jedi have been the Republic’s real problem—the Jedi who left his mother as a slave, effectively killing her, the Jedi who forbade him to love, the Jedi who refused to make him a Jedi Master even though he’d earned it.

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This is clearly my personal fanfic, but Lee could have pulled off being the prequel trilogy’s main villain in his sleep, except he wouldn’t have—he gave almost every performance his all, no matter how crappy a movie he was in, and he was in a lot of crappy movies. (One notable exception was 1966’s Dracula: Prince of Darkness, in which he found the script so godawful he refused to say any of the lines and instead spent the entire movie hissing.)

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Another one of the major problems with the prequels is that instead of having one primary character serve as the villain in all three movies, each film had a single, disposable main antagonist. Yes, Palpatine was working everything behind the scenes, just as he did in the original trilogy, but Darth Maul was Phantom Menace’s Darth Vader, just as Dooku was in Clones and Grievous in Revenge of the Sith. The prequels’ main villains had so little screentime and got offed so quickly they never had the time to become as compelling as Vader.

I don’t want to knock anybody for loving the prequels (anymore; I’ve done that plenty in my time) because if you grew up with them, you likely consider them your Star Wars movies, just like kids nowadays are growing up with the sequels. And I won’t pretend making Count Dooku the prequels’ main bad guy would have solved all the films’ problems. But Lee made his long, impressive, wonderful career primarily playing some of cinema’s greatest villains—and Count Dooku deserved to be among them. Probably with a different name.

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Rob Bricken was the Editor of io9 from 2016-18, the creator of the poorly named but fan-favorite news site Topless Robot, and now writes nerd stuff for many places, because it's all he's good at.

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DISCUSSION

angriergeek
Angrier Geek

This is clearly my personal fanfic

Everyone’s personal fanfic is better than what Lucas did. In my head, Luke goes back to Dagoba for years to train with Yoda. But Luke, being Luke he also leaves whenever he senses doom for the rebellion and shows up to help and as a result stories begin to spread on both sides, a legend of a sole X-wing piloted by a Jedi Knight that shows up in the nick of time to defeat the Empire’s forces. When he finally does return he’s with surviving Jedi who have been drawn out of hiding, stirred by the sense of Luke’s growing power within The Force alongside a rising tide of rebellion so the Empire has actually gambled all on this new Death Star. It’s make or break for them. And there are no Ewoks.

And I maintain the reason Christopher Lee and Ian McDiarmid are so good is because being seasoned actors and veterans of B-movies, they knew how to work with a shit script the way the kids did not.