Face of Fu Manchu

It seems fitting that my first post-thanksgiving review should be of a film this goofy. Thanksgiving back home in Kentucky was grand, as it included a visit to Churchill Downs where I raked in a small fortune in winnings (and by small, I mean small, like fifty bucks), bourbon drinking, fried chicken and fried biscuits at Joe Huber’s Orchard, Winery, and Family Restaurant, a visit to the Bass Pro Shop where I got to go on a light gun safari (end conclusion — you don’t want to hire me as your crack shot assassin — the only thing I could consistently hit was the turtle, and that was by accident), and a late-night conversation with my sister, my best friend from high school, as well as another friend newly met, about cadaver dissection in East St. Louis, machine gun battles in Guyana, and watching sub-dermal parasitic worms from the Amazon crawl around beneath the skin of your ankle.

It also included the traditional Thanksgiving dinner culminating in the company of my uncle and his five children, almost all of whom were sick. As a result, predictably enough, I have contracted a bit of the sore throat, which means I rely once again on my sweet and sour colored medicine of choice, DayQuil, which tastes like rotting hippie foot but takes care of the pain and makes my head feel light and magical. It also means that, when I sit down to write a review of a film like The Face of Fu Manchu, the review, like the movie, is going to be a little goofier than usual. I should write all my reviews while high on cold medicine. It would be good for my readership and give this site that unique hook it’s been missing. I’ve always assumed that my writing would be better if only I was more whacked out or drunker.

And whacked out or drunk is a pretty good state to be in when you venture into the murky waters of Fu Manchu. In case you need one, the brief history of the name goes a little bit like this. Back in the second decade of the 20th century, there was a British pulp writer by the name of Sax Rohmer, whose specialty — speciality if you’re British like Sax — was tales revolving around Chinatown and its many shady inhabitants. Much of the imagery Western culture has regarding Chinatown and the Chinese can be traced directly to the fantastical works of Rohmer, who envisioned Chinatown as an impenetrable tangle of secret passages, opium dens, brothels, trap doors, and long-fingernailed assassins wielding ancient ceremonial daggers lurking in the shadows. The Chinese themselves in Rohmer’s world were frequently described as cunning, deceitful, and perhaps most pervasive of all, inscrutable.

Rohmer was tapping into the Caucasian fear of what became known as the “Yellow Peril.” For much of the 19th century, several Western powers, most notably among them Great Britain, maintained substantial control over key ports and cities in China, and managed to wrangle some small manner of control (though to a far lesser extent) over areas of Japan. It was an arrangement that wasn’t going to last forever, though, and rightfully so if you were one of the natives, who often found themselves second-class citizens, if indeed they were considered citizens at all, in their own countries. The Boxer Rebellion got the ball rolling, even though the rebellion itself was crushed, but things really came to a head during the Russo-Japanese War, which was fought primarily in China and for control of what would logically be considered Chinese territory. The Japanese had seen the writing on the wall and began an extremely diligent and rapid campaign to modernize their system of government as well as their military to more closely reflect and take advantage of advances that had occurred in the West. Most famously, this included the abolition of the samurai class and the sword and armor in favor of a national army trained and equipped with rifles, Western military structure, and lighter, Western-style uniforms. In contrast, China had sort of piddled about with similar modernization here and there, but they never really took it seriously, and no substantial progress was ever really made.

So China found itself remaining a largely untrained and almost medieval country caught in between the powers of the West and an increasingly ambitious Japan, who was identifying herself far more with Western nations than with her Asian neighbors. With no real standing national army and no navy to speak of, especially when compared to the modern navies of Japan, Great Britain, and the United States, China — despite its size and population — was a ripe plum waiting to be plucked. Its most important city and port, Shanghai, already belonged by default to a consortium of Western powers. It’s other most important port, the island-city of Hong Kong, had been British territory since the Opium Wars. Japan, now modernized and ready to rumble, wanted to expand its own influence in China, and their initial dreams of manifest destiny brought them in direct conflict with the vast and mighty empire of Czarist Russia.

Well, vast and mighty by reputation, anyway. In reality, Czarist Russia was a creaking, feeble dinosaur on the verge of total collapse. Although it boasted the biggest army in the world, the majority of Russian soldiers were poorly equipped and poorly trained, often charging into battle armed with little more than bladed farm tools. The officers, more times than not, attained their position through political maneuvering or nepotism and were, by and large, ill suited for the actual demands of being a military officer. Russia assumed, for the most part, that the sheer threat of Russia was enough to keep them from conflict, and so the machine fell apart without anyone noticing.

Anyone but Japan, that is. Either because they were giddy with their newfound weapons and training, or because they sensed the core incompetence rotting away the Russian military machine, Japan decided to pick a fight. Now excuse me here, because that wicked combination of DayQuil and an obsession with military history is going to kick in and result in a long-winded and ultimately unnecessary look at all this stuff, when in fact, all I really need to do is say, “by the turn of the century, lots of Asians didn’t like the West, and lots of Westerners didn’t like Asians, and that resulted in the ‘inscrutable Oriental’ becoming a major villain in Western pulp fiction.” But you know how I am. I like to hear myself ramble, especially when I’m light-headed and have had nothing to consume all day but caffeine and cold medicine.

So China and Japan had already gone to war over who got to control Korea. In what became known as the Sino-Japanese War, China was soundly trounced by her better trained and more modern island neighbor. This resulted in Japan gaining dominance in Korea, as well as picking up control over Taiwan and a little place called Port Arthur. Port Arthur isn’t the sort of place lost of people hear about and go, “Oh yes, dear, dear Port Arthur! What a fine place!” But if you were Russian at the end of the 19th century, Port Arthur was a big deal, because it was that empire’s only warm-water port in the Pacific. They had signed a lengthy lease on the port with China and were none too pleased to see their tenancy voided once Japan won control. So troops were deployed to defend Russian interests in Port Arthur. Additionally, Japan was grappling with maintaining control of Korea, with whom the Russians had signed a mutual protection pact — presumably for the sole purpose of sparking conflict with someone else, since it was unlikely Russia was going to ever see Korea galloping to their defense against some European country (it was just this sort of tangled network of mutual protection pacts that pulled most of the world into World War I). As a result of the pact, Russia further deployed troops throughout Manchuria and the northern reaches of the Korean peninsula.

Needless to say, diplomacy failed and war broke out in the early months of 1904. The long and short of it is that by September of 1905, Russia had been beaten into submission, and a cold, hard slap to the face had been delivered to the empire that had previously assumed that, even with poorly trained and equipped soldiers, they would be able to crush any enemy by sheer force of numbers. Japan felt cheated by the peace treaty brokered by Teddy Roosevelt, feeling that they were robbed of both territory and reparations they deserved, as well as feeling that the West was refusing to give them the respect due to a country that had just proven itself a major global power (there must have been similar feelings about the rapid ascension of the United States back in the day). Additionally, the rest of the Western World received a similar wake-up call. Here was an upstart country of Asians, barely out of their feudal era, and they’d just delivered a crippling defeat to what was supposed to be one of the preeminent powers in the world. Anger and fear resulted, and such paranoia about these devious Orientals was bound to enter into the psyche of the mainstream by way of its popular culture — which, at the time, would have been manifest primarily in pulp magazines. At the same time, other Asian countries suffering under the yoke of Western “influence” — and by other I mean China — were emboldened by the Japanese victory and so decided it was just about time for people to get discontent and uppity with colonial masters who were showing the first signs of losing the grip they had on their territories in the East.

And all this brings us to Sax Rohmer.

Born in 1883, Rohmer would have grown up between the era that included the post-Opium war domination of China by Great Britain and the gradual erosion of power and influence that came in the wake of the Russo-Japanese War. He would have been hit by the full force of growing Yellow Peril paranoia at a very impressionable age, and it would seem that the fears, apprehension, and racial condescension that came from growing up in an empire and are often amplified to desperate levels when that empire seems to be slipping, took firm root in the mind of young Rohmer. In 1912, after publishing a few stories and working as a skit writer for comedic stage performers, Sax Rohmer published the serialized adventure The Mysterious Dr. Fu Manchu, featuring the “Oriental” criminal mastermind who would become the embodiment of all the West’s fears about Asia getting all uppity and in-their-faces.

Rohmer was sort of the quintessential pulp writer: he really wasn’t especially good, but he dreamed up some outlandish ideas and knew how to keep you excited and reading regardless, sort of like the precursor of all those people who write airport bookstore spy and thriller novels. Rohmer was writing Fu Manchu stories well into the 1950s, long after the Yellow Peril had overstayed its welcome, and the stories made him phenomenally rich. With such popularity, it was only a matter of time before Rohmer’s signature villain found his way onto both stage and screen. The early Fu Manchu films were serials, featuring bad acting, cheap sets, and clumsy writing, but also packed with all that dark, shadowy Chinatown exoticism that made the original stories such hits. Fu was played by a variety of actors, all of them Caucasians in fake eyelid make-up, of course, and the most famous of which was Warner Oland. He wasn’t famous at the time, mind you, but he would soon be going on to play another famous “Oriental,” albeit a decidedly more heroic one in the form of Charlie Chan.

During the 1930s and 40s, as tensions between the West and Japan escalated (never mind that Fu Manchu wasn’t Japanese), the character got more impressive screen treatments, being played by none other than Boris Karloff in a relatively lavish adventure. By the end of the war, however, though there was no end of Caucasian actors in Asian make-up hamming it up in Poverty Row potboilers, Fu Manchu and his trademark moustache (which he is never described as having in the stories) pretty much faded from the scene.

Until 1965.

By that year, the concept of the Yellow Peril had pretty much vanished, replaced as it was by the Red Scare (as a people, we are terrified of the colors that come together to make McDonalds). The British Empire was finished, Japan was our friend, and though Communist China was a major concern to the powers of the West, Russia and other Communist countries were of equal or greater concern. So the Chinese had to share the duties of playing the boogeyman of the West with other Communist nations. There were still plenty of tensions even between the West and friendly Asian nations. The United States was still grappling with an Asian immigration boom, and there was a bit of nastiness brewing in a little country known to most in the West as French Indochina. But for the most part, things were far more relaxed than they had been in the past hundred years. Which is why dusting off the hoary old visage of Fu Manchu for a new series of films seemed like rather a daft idea. And it would have remained so, had The Face of Fu Manchu not been clever enough to recognize the inherent goofiness of its own premise and arch-villain. Unlike the Yellow Peril serials and stories of the past, this was Fu Manchu for a new, swinging society — one that had started going nuts over the globe-trotting, smirking espionage adventures of the newly launched James Bond franchise. It was to these films, rather than the Fu Manchu films of the past, that writer-producer Harry Allen Towers and director Don Sharp were looking, and as a result, The Face of Fu Manchu bursts with energy and a sort of good-natured awareness of it’s own campiness — a self-awareness it never lets develop into farce or parody. Towers and Sharp knew that the entire concept of a Fu Manchu film in 1965 (“Not the Yellow Peril again!” one character exclaims in exasperation when the hero of the film mentions Fu Manchu) was joke enough, and the best way to satirize the entire concept of Fu Manchu and the Yellow Peril was to play the film straight and let the concept itself be the joke.

It was important that a Caucasian actor be cast. In the past, this had been done either because: 1) while there was no shortage of Asian actors in Hollywood during the 30s and 40s, there was a dearth of Asian actors who could speak precise and clear enough English to make the jump from silent films to talkies, or 2) Hollywood was just racist and didn’t really want to work with actual Asian actors. The truth is likely some combination of the two, as is so often the case. By 1965, however, there were plenty of American, Canadian, and British born Asian actors who spoke fluent English (often as their native language), but Towers and Sharp decided that in the case of Fu Manchu, the character should be played by a Caucasian because, in a way, the character was a Caucasian. There was no Asian like Fu Manchu. He was purely the creation of feverish Caucasian imaginations, and so it made thematic sense — as well as satirical sense — to cast a white actor in the part. And when that actor is Christopher Lee (last seen in fake eyelids in the early Hammer adventure film Terror of the Tongs when he was a relative unknown), who was by 1965 recognizable and internationally known as Christopher Lee, then it should have been obvious that there was a bit of a joke going on. No one could possibly look up at the screen and think they were watching anyone but Christopher Lee. There was no attempt at all to ever really pass Fu Manchu off as an Asian, or they would have gotten someone less well-known or layered more make-up on (his henchman are even worse, as they slap on some eye shadow and call that “Asian”).

The rest of the cast is comprised of well-known British character actors, and the quality of everyone involved should go a long way in telling you that, while they may all be out on a bit of a lark, this is still a big-time production. Set in the era of Sax Rohmer’s original stories, British acting stalwart Nigel Greene plays Sir Nayland Smith, the intrepid defender of all things white and British who has spent his life chasing Fu Manchu around the globe and now finally stands, during the credit sequence of this film, present at Fu Manchu’s capture and beheading at the hands of the most Caucasian looking Chinese government ever to preside over the Middle Kingdom. But something in the back of Nayland’s mind keeps him thinking that, although he’s seen Fu Manchu’s head roll, the evil criminal mastermind has somehow pulled a fast one and remains alive, in hiding, and plotting his next devastating attack on the white race. This seems to pan out when a famed scientist goes missing. Nayland ends up working with the scientist’s daughter, Maria (played by Karin Dor, an experienced vet of European gothic horror films who would go on to become a mainstay in Eurospy films, as well as playing a major roll in the 1967 James Bond adventure You Only Live Twice, featuring Sean Connery as the one white actor in the world even less convincing as an Asian than Christopher Lee), to track down her father and prove that Fu Manchu is indeed alive and behind the kidnapping.

Although the Fu Manchu character often results in this film being instantly discarded onto the rubbish heap of racist misfires, that sort of pre-judgment is unfair to The Face of Fu Manchu, which freely acknowledges its own absurdity and pokes a subtle fun at it that may, at times, be too subtle for modern audiences, bred as they are on broad farce and wacky obviousness. Not that I have any problem (sometimes) with farce or wackiness, but The Face of Fu Manchu comes from the school of thinking that holds that the best form of satire is one that doesn’t beat you over the head with the fact that it’s satire. Instead, it plays it straight, strives to be a damn good example of the type of film it satirizes, and lets the premise be the gag — in other words, the thought of having Christopher Lee play a towering Chinese guy is silly enough without heaping extra silliness on top of it. Now whether or not you accept The Face of Fu Manchu as satire, successful or otherwise, will have a lot to do with coloring exactly how you react to it. Because if you don’t see the joke the makers of the film see, then the movie is going to come across as old-fashioned and racist. But if you do accept that The Face of Fu Manchu is, at its core, poking fun at itself, then you can sit back and enjoy what turns out to be a completely absurd and thoroughly enjoyable blend of comic book super-villainy and sixties style espionage capers wrapped up in a turn-of-the-century cloak. The Face of Fu Manchu is briskly paced, full of action, and packed with all the secret passages, trap doors, and horrible tortures one expects from such a film.

It also boasts some great performances, though you wouldn’t expect anything less from such a solid bunch of pros. Lee is hilariously pitch perfect in the lead role, adopting all the stereotypical mannerisms and appearances that Sax Rohmer wrongly envisioned the Asians to have. Matching him squarely is Nigel Greene as the stick-up-his-ass defender of the white race. Dor is wonderful as well, and my only complaint about the cast is that Tsai Chin, who plays Fu’s equally evil daughter (and would go on to appear in a few Eurospy films, before appearing in You Only Live Twice as the girl Bond is in bed with when he gets “killed” during the pre-credit sequence), isn’t given a chance to shine. She’s a good actress, and the character of Lin Tang is just as — perhaps even more — open to ripe satirization than Fu Manchu himself.

The setting of the film is occasionally problematic, and if you’re the sort who gets bent out of shape over anachronistic costumes, weapons, and cars in a sixties pulp action movie about an eight-foot-tall Chinese criminal mastermind with a penchant for kidnapping scientists, then The Face of Fu Manchu might give you pause. The makers of the film play pretty fast and loose with authenticity, but considering the subject matter and the fact that Sax Rohmer’s original stories were practically warped fantasy lands unto themselves, I’m not going to get too concerned about guns that don’t belong in the era. There are also some plot holes here and there, including the small one of how Fu Manchu escapes his own execution. A double is obviously employed by Fu, apparently because eight-foot-tall Chinese guys are a dime a dozen, and the Chinese government apparently verifies the identity of the greatest villain in the history of the world before Hitler using the method of, “Now you promise you are the real Fu Manchu?” If Harry Allen Towers was writing reality instead of Fu Manchu movies, then we’d be seeing Saddam Hussein hijacking our broadcast airwaves to taunt us with news that we had only hanged his double, and even as we speak, the real Saddam is plotting to hold the world ransom by kidnapping the top scientist in Sweden to force him to invent a lipstick that would kill the leaders of the world when they kissed their mistresses. Not scary to George W. Bush, maybe, but imagine the bullet Bill Clinton dodged!

Oh wait…Saddam did use a lot of doubles, didn’t he? And the moustache…great Scott, man! SADDAM HUSSEIN IS FU MANCHU!!!

Don Sharp (who had recently directed Hammer Studio’s superb Kiss of the Vampire), working with cinematographer Ernest Steward (who would go on from this film to work as a cinematographer on the exceptionally enjoyable Deadlier than the Male, as well becoming a regular cinematographer for The Avengers television series), paints a gorgeous picture, full of nice sets and vivid colors. The action (if not the actual location shooting) wanders from China to London, and finally to Tibet for the explosive showdown between Nayland and his army of good guy Asians (played by actual Asians) against Fu Manchu and his evil Asians. Producer Harry Allen Towers also wrote the screenplay, which is clever and enjoyable without ever becoming annoyingly jokey. Towers was still early in his career both as a writer and a producer, but this film helped springboard him to fame and fortune, enabling him to produce a whole slew of Fu Manchu movies, European sexploitation films, and those Gor films, among countless others. His films may not be respectable, but frankly, if you’re a regular Teleport City reader, chances are you’ve not only seen a Harry Allen Towers films; you’ve probably also claimed it to be one of the greatest movies ever, at some point.

I wouldn’t call The Face of Fu Manchu the greatest movie ever, but it is a damn good film. If you don’t accept it as satire, then yeah, the racial implications may be a little hard to swallow. At the same time, it’s awful hard for me to imagine anyone sitting down to watch something this utterly daft and coming out of it with a newfound paranoia regarding sinister eight-foot-tall Chinese dudes. Satirical or not, what I definitely find The Face of Fu Manchu to be is a rollicking good adventure yarn, full of fist fights, car chases, exploding monasteries, underwater lairs, and fiendish traps. A good-natured sense of humor permeates everything, even though the actors themselves play it dead serious, and the overarching feeling of amiability and excitement is as infectious as the snappy Gert Wilden soundtrack. The film was a big success, and that meant more would follow. Some of those retained the lavish look, knowing wink, and sense of fun and adventure that make The Face of Fu Manchu such a delightful films.

Others in the series, however, were directed by Jess Franco, and we shall come to those in due time.

Release Year: 1965 | Country: England, Germany | Starring: Christopher Lee, Nigel Greene, Joachim Fuchsberger, Karin Dor, James Robertson Justice, Howard Marion-Crawford, Tsai Chin, Walter Rilla, Harry Brogan, Poulet Tu, Eric Young | Screenplay: Harry Allen Towers | Director: Don Sharp | Cinematography: Ernest Steward | Music: Christopher Whelen