Are there any words more delightful in a movie’s opening titles than “Peter Cushing?” Of course there aren’t—well, not for me, anyway. Cushing’s presence in a film means that no matter the nonsensical depths to which it may sink (and Cushing has been in a lot of nonsense) there’ll be smashing scenes that rise above it thanks to the talent, commitment, and sheer believability Cushing imbues in even his most outlandish roles.
Peter Cushing is remembered as one of the great gentlemen of horror, both for his professionalism and his personality. He appeared in over a hundred films, but his most active period was from the late fifties to the early seventies when he played his best–remembered roles, including Van Helsing and Sherlock Holmes. His contribution to the horror genre is vast, glorious, and well–documented, but it’s not the only genre that’s benefitted from his acting talent.
His science fiction is a much smaller oeuvre that reflects in miniature his horror work. The sci–fi films and television shows he appears in range from the sublime to the absurd, from the perhaps–best–forgotten to ground–breaking work that deserves greater recognition. Many of their themes—dystopic futures, amoral protagonists, science as saviour (or destroyer)—are featured in today’s most popular SFF books and films. These earlier works reflect a different society, yet their hopes and fears are often familiar.
Cushing’s most famous science fiction role is in no less than Star Wars, where he plays Grand Moff Tarkin, aka Darth Vader’s boss. There’s a well–known anecdote about his time filming Star Wars: the boots of his costume were too tight and very uncomfortable, so Cushing asked George Lucas if it’d be possible to film his scenes from the knees up. Lucas obliged and Cushing performed his evil doings while wearing incredibly intimidating carpet slippers.
Sometimes, when watching Star Wars, I try to imagine that and it doesn’t work very well. It’s Cushing’s fault. Tarkin is too cold, too callous, for me to believe in carpet slippers. And while Darth Vader and Emperor Palpatine are wonderful characters, their evil is safer; it’s explainable. But the Dark Side hasn’t seduced Tarkin into a tragic fall from grace; he’s just doing his job as he casually blows up a planet, killing billions. Cushing’s precise, understated performance ensures that Tarkin remains the most frightening villain in the Star Wars movies, and the most human.
The other major sci–fi franchise Cushing has a part in is Doctor Who. While he’s not a part of the official television canon, Cushing’s time as the Doctor in the two 1960s Amicus movies results in a number of firsts that, over fifty years later, seem routine for the series.
William Hartnell, the original actor to play the Doctor for the BBC, wasn’t considered famous enough to star in the movies, so Cushing got the part. And he played it entirely differently. He still had the TARDIS, he still had serious issues with the Daleks’ less than altruistic ideas about social change, but now he was a calm, patient, almost terrifyingly good–natured scientist, heavily implied to be human and possessing the surname “Who.”
The Amicus movies are also the first Doctor Who stories told in color, and the first to feature gloriously multi–colored Daleks. More importantly, when the production team was working out how to continue the television show without an ill Hartnell, they could already see that another actor could work, and that the part could be played differently. The show’s ability to swap out its lead actor every few years is one of the reasons it’s still going half a century later.
These two Doctor Who movies can also work as fine adaptations if you’re trying to convince a modern viewer to get into classic Who. Fifty–year–old television is different, it’s slower, it’s often more stage play than not, and it was only expected to be viewed once by a society with rather different values to what we have today. Cushing’s Who movies reduced two–and–a–half hour stories down to less than ninety minutes, cutting out very little of the plot, and giving a much softer version of the Doctor, more akin to the modern characterisation.
While we never got a third Doctor Who movie for the big screen, if you enjoy Cushing’s take on the Doctor, he plays it again (including his fascinatingly original method of running away from things) in At The Earth’s Core, a lost world story (a trope now so unfashionable in science fiction that Doctor Who, never the most robustly scientific series, made a joke about it in a David Tennant Christmas Special). Based on the Edgar Rice Burroughs novel, it’s about as progressive as you’d expect for an adventure written in 1914. Sadly the film was made in 1976. There’s equal opportunity imperialism for Britain and the United States as our gallant heroes—Cushing the scientist, and Doug McClure, former cowboy in The Virginian—descend beneath the Earth to teach a primitive society how to overthrow their giant telepathic parrot oppressors. It’s not one of Cushing’s better turns.
In the classic British science fiction series Space: 1999 (created by Gerry and Sylvia Anderson), Cushing guest stars as a greyer shade of scientist. Despite the metallic face paint and Dick Dastardly’s hat, it’s a dignified performance, and one that treads a skilfully ambiguous path. It’d be a simple matter to make his character, Raan, an outright villain or a misunderstood scientist. But while Raan is unsettling, neither the performance nor the story preaches regarding his actions or his nature.
Despite the nuance in his character, there’s no way for Cushing to disguise the heavy–handedness of what Raan learns from his experiment: it’s that old moral lesson of a balance between the heart and the head being best. Cheeringly, Cushing’s greatest film role has no time for lectures on morality. He’s got work to do.
When creating their adaptation of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Hammer had one small problem: Universal Studios had got there first and they were very keen to let Hammer know that if they felt any elements of their production were being copied, their lawyers would be on the phone. This resulted in very careful, very different make–up for the monster, and Hammer playing extremely loosely with the plot elements of Shelley’s novel. Most significantly, where the monster took center stage at Universal, Hammer’s story focused upon Baron Frankenstein.
Peter Cushing plays the Baron, of course, and he is sublime. He presents a character that any grimdark work would be delighted to accept into its ranks. Cushing’s Frankenstein is witty, energetic, and brilliant. He’s also utterly obsessed with his work, and that requires fresh brains. What does a little murder matter when you’re on the verge of gifting mankind with immortality? Always on the verge, always just one step away.
He may be an amoral antagonist, but the Baron is a complex character, managing to evoke sympathy, pity, even support from the audience, despite his cruelty and obsession. While Cushing’s interpretation of Holmes was a compassionate—even warm—genius, his Frankenstein would find more of a kindred spirit in Benedict Cumberbatch’s Sherlock. And he’s far from the only sharp–tongued genius on telly today who disregards the law and morality if it gets in the way of what they consider their work. Many of the qualities that made Frankenstein an antagonist are acceptable in today’s heroes, just so long as you’re clever enough.
It’s a testament to Cushing’s dynamic performance that The Curse of Frankenstein made him a global name, secured Hammer’s fortunes for the next decade, and prompted a revival of Gothic horror. It is, I think, his finest performance. The definitive Frankenstein’s monster still belongs to Universal’s make–up department and Boris Karloff, but the definitive Frankenstein is Peter Cushing.
If The Curse of Frankenstein is Cushing’s greatest film, then the BBC’s 1954 adaptation of George Orwell’s novel 1984 is his greatest work on television. In all respects, 1984 is a seminal program. It was written by Nigel Kneale, of Quatermass fame, and presents a bleak, uncompromising vision of the future right from its opening moments when the titles loom out of a swirling mist. It was performed live, twice, and it’s the recording of the second performance that survives.
It almost didn’t happen: when it was first shown questions were raised in the House of Commons concerning whether it was appropriate broadcasting, particularly one horrific scene, where Winston Smith is tortured with rats. Fortunately, despite the furor, the BBC decided to go ahead with the next showing.
Live television acting is a fascinating thing. Knowing that you can’t have a retake, can’t stop, and that your performance is going out not to a few hundred in a theater, but millions across the country tends to give it a unique energy. Mistakes must be covered; the show must go on. And it’s Cushing’s show: Winston Smith is in every scene.
As Winston, Cushing is everything Baron Frankenstein is not. He’s unassuming, gentle, frightened by his small rebellions but his moral sense can’t tolerate conforming. And even conforming isn’t safe: Big Brother’s power is absolute and he will crush innocent and guilty alike.
The most popular dystopic story today, The Hunger Games, is replete with its own particular horrors and tragedy, but in the end, the rebels win. Hope triumphs. And they have their chance to make things better.
In 1984, there is no hope. The horrors are many and well–known: absolute state control, no privacy, no freedom of speech, no freedom of assembly, the past constantly rewritten to suit the present. New advances in technology make these injustices possible, but the technology is not to blame. Those with power have used the technology to remake humanity into creatures devoid of compassion or mercy.
That’s the most frightening aspect of this society: it’s destroyed all trust, friendship, and romance. It feeds on suspicion and hate. Here, look at these people different from you, they’re the cause of all your ills, and you should hate them for it. Poor Winston must listen to one of his peers cheerily informing him of what ignorant animals the lower–class “proles” are; how little it differs from so much of today’s media rhetoric on the unemployed is sickening.
1984’s themes are as relevant today as they were in 1953, but they’ve never been more starkly, shockingly evident than in this adaptation. There’s no hope for Winston Smith, but you root for him anyway. Cushing’s fault, of course. In a world devoid of compassion, it’s up to him to evoke it from the viewer. And every moment he does only increases the dread of seeing him, for all we know the last decent human being left alive, destroyed by Big Brother.
It’s a difficult piece of television to watch, but a powerful one, and a triumph of Peter Cushing’s talent that it can speak as loudly to someone watching in 2015 as it did in 1954.
I have a stamp with Peter Cushing on it. It’s part of a set the Royal Mail released in 2013, celebrating the centenary of various “Great Britons.” I’m not a collector; I just loved the idea of having a stamp with Peter Cushing on it. And I can’t think of any other actor I could say that about.
Cushing’s unique appeal is difficult to pinpoint. 1984 made him a television star, The Curse of Frankenstein made him a global name, but he never saw genre as a millstone. If those were the sorts of parts people wanted to see him in, then those were the sorts of parts he was happy to play. That attitude bleeds through onscreen: There’s an energy to his performances, an intensity that implies he’s fully committed to each part, leaving his work feeling fresh and relevant decades later. He always gives the very best he can, and never suggests that he considers a production second–rate. All else may be falling to pieces, but Peter Cushing brings humanity, intelligence, and vigor to his every scene. And when all else is wonderful, well, then Peter Cushing just makes it quite, quite magical.
© 2015 L.M. Myles