Dr. Fu Manchu, the original incarnation of the dreaded "yellow peril" was the creation of British author Sax Rohmer. Beginning in 1913 with the publication of THE MYSTERY OF FU MANCHU, Rohmer introduced the Oriental criminal mastermind to the world in a series of thirteen novels that ended in 1959 with EMPEROR FU MANCHU. These books have all been reprinted and I have all but the first one in my collection. Other Fu Manchu novels have been written by various authors since then. In all of the Fu Manchu adventures, he is opposed by two stalwart heroes, Sir Denis Nayland Smith of Scotland Yard and Dr. Petrie. They are the Holmes and Watson to Manchu's Moriarty.
The novels proved extremely popular in both the United Kingdom and the United States and it wasn't long before Fu Manchu found his way to the big screen. The first cinematic version was in the 1923 British silent serial THE MYSTERY OF FU MANCHU. American studios jumped on to the Manchu bandwagon with THE MYSTERIOUS DR. FU MANCHU (1929), THE RETURN OF DR. FU MANCHU (1930) and DAUGHTER OF THE DRAGON (1931), all of which featured non-Asian actor Warner Oland (who would go on to gain fame as Charlie Chan) as Fu Manchu.
The best Fu Manchu movie remains THE MASK OF FU MANCHU (1932). Produced by MGM, the film stars horror icon Boris Karloff as the evil doctor in a wonderful performance. He's aided by the lovely Fah Lo See (the incredibly sexy Myrna Loy), in his villainous schemes. The film is handsomely produced and it perfectly captures the visceral, giddy thrills of the best pulp fiction.
In 1956,Republic Pictures produced a thirteen episode syndicated television series, THE ADVENTURES OF FU MANCHU, starring Glen Gordon. I've seen a few of these. They're terrible.
One of the best uses of the character can be found in the pages of Marvel Comics MASTER OF KUNG FU, The comic book series ran from 1974 to 1983 and starred martial artist Shang Chi, who was also the son of Fu Manchu. The series started off slowly and rather unevenly but when writer Doug Moench and artist Paul Gulacy took over, the series soared. They played everything as if it was a James Bond film and produced some truly exciting and beautiful to look at, comics.
A series of Fu Manchu films were co-produced by Hallam Productions (UK) and Constantin Film (West Germany), beginning in 1965 with THE FACE OF FU MANCHU. I watched this one for the first time yesterday and I was profoundly disappointed.
The film stars yet another non-Asian actor as the title character. This time, it's the magnificent Christopher Lee who brings real menace to the screen and is far and away the best thing about the film. He's aided by the lovely Lin Tang (Tsai Chin) and a small army of rather ineffective dacoits (most of whom appear to be European rather than Chinese). The film starts on a promising note with the beheading of Fu Manchu in a Chinese prison. The execution is witnessed by Sir Denis Nayland Smith (Nigel Green) but as soon as he returns home to London it becomes evident that the man under the executioner's sword was a look-alike and that the real Fu Manchu is alive and well and hatching another nefarious plot.
Green, a veteran British actor (he was Hercules in JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS (1963), among other roles) is a good choice to play Smith. He's full of brusque bravado and brings a real physical presence to the role. But he's hampered by a script by Harry Alan Towers that is full of holes and stiff direction by Don Sharp.
The plot revolves around an attempt by Fu Manchu to gain a formula for a deadly toxin that can be produced from the seeds of a rare Tibetan flower. It has the makings of an entertaining, pulpy romp, but instead it plods along from one capture, escape and capture again until the final showdown in a Tibetan castle.
The script is a mess and there a couple of things that must be pointed out to demonstrate how sloppy this film is. Early on, Maria Muller (Karin Dor), the daughter of Professor Muller (Walter Rilla), the man who has the formula for the toxin, is menaced in her home. Someone tries to force their way into a room, an attempt that is rebuffed by Maria. While she struggles to hold the door against the unseen attacker, said attacker reaches in and places a piece of paper on a side table. The hand withdraws and returns with a large knife. The struggle intensifies until Carl Jannsen (Joachim Fuchsberger) arrives. They hear something in the laboratory and Carl goes to investigate. A fight between Smith and Jannsen ensues in which there's no attempt made to disguise the two stunt doubles. When the lights go on and explanations are made, the three leave the house. No mention is ever made of that piece of paper or the knife wielding attacker.
Later in the film, the heroes narrowly escape from Fu Manchu's lair under the river Thames. In one scene, they're in a dungeon like room. Next, they're on a boat on the Thames. They deduce that Fu Manchu must be headed to Tibet and presto chango, in the very next scene, they're sneaking into a Tibetan castle disguised as monks. Smith and Jannsen have brought gunpowder with them rather than flower seeds and they use the explosive material to blow up the castle (and presumably Fu Manchu and Lin Tang) at the end of the film.
But of course, Fu Manchu cheated death some how and returned in four more films from the same production companies, all of which starred Lee in the title role: THE BRIDES OF FU MANCHU (1966), THE VENGEANCE OF FU MANCHU (1967), THE BLOOD OF FU MANCHU (1968) and THE CASTLE OF FU MANCHU (1969). Lee has gone on record stating that the series shouldn't have been made because none of the subsequent films were as good as the first one. The first one is terrible so I can only imagine how bad the others must be.
The film exposes the inherent problem in all of the Fu Manchu narratives. The equilibrium of good vs. evil must always be in balance. Smith and Petrie must always defeat whatever Fu Manchu's current plot is (after suffering numerous setbacks and obstacles) but they can never truly destroy the evil fiend once and for all. After all, Fu Manchu is, if not the hero, the title character of these stories and when you have a villain as a protagonist, he cannot ever fully succeed in his mad schemes. He's stopped time after time but he always keeps coming back with bigger and badder plots to rule the world. It's a repetitious formula than can go stale very quickly. But in the hands of a writer and director that truly understands what makes pulp fiction work, there's material there for a satisfying Saturday afternoon adventure film.
Sadly, THE FACE OF FU MANCHU isn't that film.