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Wednesday, February 02, 2005

THE KNIGHT SHIFT Exclusive: Christopher Lee's VERY FIRST Horror Picture Appearance!

And it was way, WAY before he played this guy.

Or before he appeared as Lord Summerisle in The Wicker Man, either. Or as Fu Manchu or Scaramanga or the Mummy... and before The Lord of the Rings was anything but scribblings in Tolkien's notebook. Five years before George Lucas was born, his future Count Dooku made an appearance in one of the most unique - and gruesome - photographic records of the twentieth century.

This ain't quite "exclusive" to this blog, since I posted the same discovery two days ago on TheForce.net's Episode 3 Spoilers forum. But you have to be a registered member of the board and explicitly ask for access to that particular forum (it's TheForce.net's way of protecting Those Who Will Not Be Spoiled, along with HIGHLIGHT TO READ: the Amazing Inviso-Text!(tm)) so it's not available for just anyone to read. That's why I wanted to post about it... 'cuz this is a pretty cool historical find!

It might also explain the path that Christopher Lee's career took in the following decades...

Guillotining of Eugene Weidmann

The above photograph was taken moments before the execution of Eugene Weidmann early on the morning of June 17th, 1939 outside the Saint Pierre prison at rue Georges Clémenceau in Versailles, just outside of Paris. Weidmann had been convicted - after finally confessing to the crimes - of kidnapping and murdering six people, including a female American dancer. His taking responsibility for the murders spared the lives of his three accomplices but set Weidmann up for a date with Madame Guillotine.

If you look carefully you can see Weidmann already strapped to the bascule and that he's been tilted into position with the lunette closed around his neck. This was possibly less than 5 seconds before Jules-Henri Desfourneaux (just four months into the job of nation's chief executioner) released the déclic that sent a 90-pound steel razor blade slamming into Weidmann's neck with a half-ton of force before coming to rest after falling for 1/70th of a second. Debate still rages as to whether the victim is immediately rendered unconscious or if he/she has what might be up to 60 seconds of awareness after the head has been severed from the body before the brain finally runs out of whatever oxygen was in the head's blood at the moment it was removed.

Eugene Weidmann inadvertently became the last person publicly executed by guillotine in France. The crowd of witnesses got so rowdy (a few accounts have them dipping hankerchiefs in Weidmann's blood as "souvenirs" of the execution, not to mention throwing handfuls of blood and spinal fluid all over the place) that the French government never again allowed executions to be a public spectacle: they would be remanded to privacy behind the prison walls, with only a few prison officials and the lawyers of the condemned on hand to witness the act.

Somewhere in this photograph, amid the crowd of witnesses for what would be final public use of the guillotine, is a young English lad named Christopher Lee. The future acting legend was 17 years old when he saw Weidmann lose his noggin.

Lee was visiting a friend in Paris at the time when it was announced that Weidmann's appeals had been exhausted and that his execution was to take place immediately. Standard procedure before capital punishment ended in France in 1981 was that the prisoner was awakened in the early morning the day after any chances of clemency or acquital had dried up. He was informed that with no possibility of reprieve, that his execution was to be carried out immediately. By that time everyone else knew that he was gonna leave prison a little less taller than he was when he came in. The condemned was given time to pray with a priest, offered a last cigarette and then however many shots of rum he could stomach (heckuva cure for a hangover huh?). His hands were bound, then promptly escorted to the guillotine and secured into the apparatus. As soon as his neck was trapped in the lunette the blade fell, allowing scarce time for the victim to feel panic or anxiety about being killed in so bloody a fashion.

Lee and his friend heard that Weidmann's execution was going down, so they went to Versailles to see it happen. Somewhere in this photo you're looking at the future Count Dooku, and Saruman, and Dracula, and Rasputin, and Fu Manchu, and Lord Summerisle, and Frankenstein's Monster, and the Mummy, and Francisco Scaramanga, and Dr. Catheter, and that Nazi from 1941, etc. watching the last guillotine decapitation that they let Jean Q. Publique take a gander at. It's sorta like that photo of Abraham Lincoln's funeral procession in New York City and if you look real carefully you can see six-and-a-half year-old Teddy Roosevelt watching it from a window above the street. I've no idea where exactly Lee and his friend are supposed to be at in this one though (and I only connected Lee to these photos after finding that he mentioned being at the execution during an interview) but ObiWan506 from the Jedi Council Forums at TheForce.net found this possible location:

And if that wasn't pretty wild (though way morbid) enough already: there is film footage of this execution! It's one of the only two motion pictures known to exist of actual guillotining. But it's... pretty harsh, trust me. I had to mention that though 'cuz technically it would qualify as Christopher Lee's first-ever appearance in a horror film if we could find him somewhere in it :-P

Anyway, I really wanted to put this out there and share with any other fans of Christopher Lee that might find it. He's always been one of my very favorite actors and the kind of life that he's lived (months after seeing Weidmann executed Lee and some friends snuck into Finland and offered their services against the Soviet invasion in the Winter War, then worked for British Intelligence in World War II) can only be called one to envy. That he's still going strong and doing the kind of work that he loves at age 83 is really inspiring. After doing a lot of looking I hadn't found where anyone else had put Lee and the photos of the Weidmann execution together, so if this really is an original contribution to Christopher Lee's mystique - in however small a way - it'll come as something that I'll be tremendously humbled and honored to have done.

So I had to publish because of that, and this: if you understand, based on whatever scant bits of info has come your way about Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith, what's going on in this scene...

...then you're gonna appreciate the irony when it's released in a few months :-)


Anonymous said...

I've seen the footage of Eugene Weidmann's execution...I think. It was disturbing but then again it could've been another incident. But it was marked as the last and most recent public execution. But anyway, where did you find it?

Take care.

Anonymous said...

I thought I knew it all I was wrong again... interesting.

Ginger said...

Your description of the Weidmann execution contains a number of incaccuracies. Look up my photos on Picasa, do a search for Weidmann and see the "Schnecke" album