Fu Manchu Films


Every now and then I get an impulse to immerse myself in pulp and nothing is pulpier than the evil incarnate Fu Manchu and his machinations to take over the world. The character has been around now for over one hundred years and though it is unlikely that he will be making appearances any time soon due to the current social taboos, his name is still one that certainly brings up vivid images in most people.

His first appearance was in a Collier’s Weekly serial starting in 1912 from the lurid pen of Sax Rohmer. Sax Rohmer (real name Arthur Henry Ward – 1883-1959) was a journeyman journalist who had been assigned to do a write-up on who the Big Crime Boss in the Limehouse area of London was. Limehouse was famous at the time for its seedy nightclubs, low life residents, opium dens, brothels, crime and poverty back in the early 1900’s. In other words, the good old days! It was said about Limehouse “thieves all – to a man” and likely the women as well. Its name derives from the fact that once upon a time lime kilns were set up to make pottery there. It edges deeply into Chinatown and was partly the setting of the film Piccadilly with Anna May Wong.

One night while investigating, Rohmer saw an expensive car pull up to a club and a tall Chinese man get out followed by his minions into the club. This sparked an idea for his character – that and the fact that a few weeks previously he and his wife had a session with the Ouija board and the letters spelled out “Chinaman”. Rohmer was a believer in the occult as was Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. That was all Rohmer needed. He modeled his story very much on Sherlock Holmes with the hero being Nayland Smith and his narrator being the good doctor Petrie and of course Fu Manchu taking the place of Moriarty. The difference of course was a big one because Fu Manchu was not only an evil criminal genius he was also intent on taking over the world and destroying the White Man.  Though Rohmer’s intent was no doubt to create a literary villain unlike any before or really since that has so captured the imagination of the public, you could also look at Fu Manchu as the antidote to European colonialism that had subjugated much of Asia and had brought China to a supine position. In that sense he is a freedom fighter.

Rohmer was both feeding into and reinforcing the prejudices of his day against the Asians or as was the common term of the day, The Yellow Peril. Today many fear the Muslims, back then it was the Asian hordes and their crafty inscrutability. To my surprise I found out that the term was originated by none other than Kaiser Wilhelm II in 1895 after he had a dream in which the world was being invaded by Asians with Buddha leading the charge. Clearly, he had too many sausages and sauerkraut for dinner. This was of course the same Wilhelm who was a grandson of Queen Victoria and helped militarize Germany and led it into WWI. So not a great resume really. Of course, the fear and discrimination against Asians began long before Wilhelm had his dream, most egregiously in the United States when Chinese came over first during the gold rush in the 1850’s and after that they worked on the western section of the Transcontinental Railroad. They were hired because the original workers quit when the work became too dangerous going over the mountains and also because of the low wages they were willing to accept.

The Chinese immigration generated a public outcry and fear in California and there were riots against them with lynchings and various laws passed to discriminate against them. The main one being the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 which suspended any further immigration by the Chinese and made it impossible for Chinese immigrants to become U.S. citizens. It was not repealed until 1943 when we and the Chinese were allies against the Japanese. Horace Greely famed for his “Go West” advice to America also had this lovely sentiment “The Chinese are uncivilized, unclean, and filthy beyond all conception without any of the higher domestic or social relations; lustful and sensual in their dispositions; every female is a prostitute of the basest order". All this fear though the Chinese were a tiny percentage of the population. Sound familiar? Everything new is old again in America. Think about where the descendants of those original Chinese are likely today – owning businesses, doctors, lawyers and so on. 

A few historical events also lent credence to the West’s fear of Asia. The Boxer Rebellion that began in 1899 led to the slaughter of many Westerners in China as well as the 55 day siege in Peking and this was all played up to huge effect in what was called “Yellow Journalism”. The Boxers were a cult of Chinese who wanted to rid the country of Western and Christian influence and thought themselves invulnerable to bullets. They weren’t. The reprisals against the Chinese – especially from the Germans – was horrific. At the same time the rise of a militaristic Japan with its successful war against Russia in 1905 only increased the Yellow Peril dread in the West. It was the first time an Asian country had defeated a European nation and it sent some shockwaves through the world. A new power was ascending in the East.

So the Sax Rohmer books and their depiction of a Super Villain Chinese man intent on destroying the West found a welcoming public. Here is some dialogue from his first book, The Mystery of Dr. Fu Manchu:

No white man, I honestly believe, appreciates the unemotional cruelty of the Chinese.

The sinister genius of the Yellow Movement.

The phantom Yellow Peril said Nayland Smith to-day materializes under the very eyes of the Western world.

And Rohmer describes Fu Manchu as thus – notice there is no mention of the famous moustache

"Imagine a person, tall, lean and feline, high-shouldered, with a brow like Shakespeare and a face like Satan, a close-shaven skull, and long, magnetic eyes of the true cat-green. Invest him with all the cruel cunning of an entire Eastern race, accumulated in one giant intellect, with all the resources of science past and present, with all the resources, if you will, of a wealthy government – which, however, already has denied all knowledge of his existence. Imagine that awful being, and you have a mental picture of Dr. Fu-Manchu, the yellow peril incarnate in one man."

The Fu Manchu books were enormously popular and Rohmer wrote three of them between 1913 and 1916 – then oddly discontinued the series until he took it up again in 1931, discontinued it during WW2 when the Chinese were our allies and took it up again in 1948. In total there are 14 Fu Manchu novels. I have only read the first two and they are in typical fast moving serial form – something happening all the time, Nayland Smith in and out of danger, Fu Manchu almost captured but escaping and the loyal Dr. Petrie (named after Flinders Petrie, the curator of the Egyptian wing of the British museum, a subject that fascinated Rohmer) always by Nayland’s side. They are not badly written at all and Rohmer has a very good knack of writing the action scenes in a breathless and imaginative manner. More so in fact than the films. As in many of the films that followed, Rohmer began the tradition of Fu Manchu seemingly dead at the end of the book, only to reappear in the next one. It should be mentioned that Rohmer wrote a ton of other pulp fiction, but none of it gained the audience that the Fu Manchu books did. Ironically perhaps, Rohmer died from the Asiatic Flu in 1959, so the Yellow Peril did him in after all!

The success of the books of course led to radio, TV, comics and films. Over twenty Fu Manchu silent shorts were made all starring H. Agar Lyons in a serial from 1923-1924, an Irishman and thus beginning the tradition of Fu Manchu being played by a white actor. I don’t know if any of these films have survived. The first Fu Manchu talkie in which a white actor gets to do his best Pidgin English (even though the character Fu Manchu in the books graduated from some of the great universities in the world) was a set of three films from Paramount beginning in 1929. They all starred Warner Oland as Dr. Fu Manchu. Oland was originally from Sweden but immigrated to the U.S. when he was a teenager and began acting in silent films around 1915. Because of his somewhat Slavic looks he got to play all sorts of ethnic types and had already portrayed Asians in a few films. After his role as the evil Chinese man Fu Manchu, Oland was to go on to some fame by portraying the Good Chinese man, Detective Charlie Chan, in sixteen films until his death in 1937 from pneumonia after suffering bouts of alcoholism and dementia. Maybe he played one Chinaman too often.

Film was going through the birth pangs of the transition from silent to talkies and these three films are very stodgy, earthbound with clunky dialogue and considerable overacting. In The Mysterious Fu Manchu (1929) the writers took an unusual angle on Fu Manchu by making him first a good kindly man who goes insane after his wife and son are killed by the British during the Boxer Rebellion. He swears vengeance on all the military men he holds responsible and their offspring to placate his ancestors. At the beginning point of the film, he has killed nearly all of them through nefarious means and only has Dr. Petrie and his father to deal with. And Nayland Smith of Scotland Yard as well. Dr. Petrie is played in the first two films by Neil Hamilton who was of course to play Commissioner Gordon in the Batman TV show thirty seven years later. Dr. Petrie’s love interest is a surprising actress, one of my all-time favorites – Jean Arthur. Her character was kidnapped by Fu Manchu as a child and been brought up to do his bidding when hypnotized. So far Arthur had managed to have a miserable career in silent films, playing in dozens of B Westerns and had a reputation as a terrible actress, which certainly these first two films only reinforce. She is truly awful. It wasn’t really until six years later that she struck it big as the wisecracking tough female reporter in Mr. Deeds Goes to Town. From there her career took off until she retired after Shane. She was known for being a recluse, refusing publicity – and called America’s Greta Garbo.

The Return of Fu Manchu (1930) begins right where the first one left off. It is Fu Manchu’s funeral and Nayland Smith attends because of his respect for Fu Manchu and for what a friend he was to the “white man” before his tragedy. Of course, Fu Manchu is not dead and once again plots to kill Dr. Petrie in as complicated a way as he can. Like all mad geniuses he just can’t kill him outright. What fun would that be? They kidnap Petrie’s fiancée (played again by Jean Arthur without a lot of acting improvement) and send a note to Petrie saying basically – to save her you must come – of course it is a trap – the Chinese would never bother to save a mere woman but you white men are weak and I know you will come. Yup.

The third film in the series and the best – The Daughter of the Dragon (1931) is fascinating only for the two real Asian actors in the film – Anna May Wong and Sessue Hayakawa. I have written before about Anna May Wong, the first great Asian actress in Hollywood – born in 1905 in Los Angeles – and sentenced for most of her acting career to playing stereotypical Chinese roles as the Dragon Lady or seductive or submissive roles. When the role of O-Lan in The Good Earth went to Luise Rainer she was crushed. Sessue Hayawaka, who plays a Chinese detective in the film, was born in Japan, almost committed seppuku at a young age after disappointing his father and came to the USA to study at the University of Chicago. That didn’t work out and he drifted into acting and became a huge star in the Cecile B DeMille film The Cheat in which he plays romantically opposite a white woman – quite shocking for the times. He went on to become a silent screen star, but once the talkies came along his star – like so many others – began to fade but he continued acting and no doubt some of us know him as Colonel Saito from The Bridge on the River Kwai (which you can visit in Thailand of course). He is the hero in this film as Nayland Smith makes no appearance.

This third film pretends that the first two in the series did not exist as it treads over the same territory and one major character killed in the first film is back as is Fu Manchu. In The Daughter of the Dragon Anna plays Ling Moy an “Oriental dancer” of renown who has received word that the father she has not seen in 20 years is in London and wants to meet her. She is thrilled only to find out upon seeing him that he is dying and he has a small request. A favor for dear old dead dad. Kill the rest of the Petrie male line. Being a good Chinese girl she immediately agrees by saying “The Blood in mine. The Hate is mine. The Vengeance is Mine”. A promise is a promise. Her plan is a slow one – no quick death for the son – first she must make him love her but she says to him “Will my hair ever be blonde? Will my skin ever be white?” Wong had just returned from her triumphal entrée into the European film industry and Paramount struck a three picture deal with her. This was the first one. Now one wonders what is worse – putting an Asian into a Dragon Lady role or as in the next Fu Manchu film having a Caucasian play Fu Manchu’s daughter. Wong was to be later harshly criticized by Chinese for taking these roles to which she replied “that is what was offered to me”.

In 1932 MGM put out their version of Fu Manchu with The Mask of Fu Manchu and I thought this was a little gem of a film and is the reason I went on this Fu Manchu binge. Coming off of his success as the Monster in Frankenstein in 1931, Boris Karloff was off on his amazing career playing villains, monsters, ghouls, the criminally insane and in this film Dr. Fu Manchu. As Fu Manchu he is after the sword of Genghis Khan because this will allow him to dominate the world and only Nayland Smith stands in his way. Fu Manchu has the aid of his devious and amoral daughter Fah Lo See, played by a young Myrna Loy in total camp mode. Loy played all sorts of vamps until she got the role as Nora in The Thin Man in 1934 and began her reputation as every man's ideal wife (mine anyway) – she could trade quips and mix martini’s as fast as a card shark can deal. This perfect wife hit its ideal in the great film – one of my personal favorites – The Best Years of Our Lives in 1947. Here she is wonderfully willing to do the bidding of her father to seduce, torture or kill as any good Chinese daughter will do.

Fu Manchu hit TV as well with a 1956 series of 13 episodes that only lasted a season and is not all that bad. Nor all that good. It is actually out on DVD.

The Fu Manchu franchise hit its zenith with the five British-German productions in the 1960’s starring the legendary Christopher Lee as the diabolical Fu Manchu (perhaps not co-incidentally during the Vietnam War and rising tensions with China). A film was released each year from 1965-1969 and they are nearly all solid films with good production values and enough silliness that at times slips into campiness to keep you engaged. All the films pretty much follow the same general plot lines – Fu Manchu has a new plan to conquer the world – in one a sound wave that can destroy ships, in another a group of girls who can kiss you to death, in yet another crystals that can freeze the ocean, poison gas from the air– and only Nayland Smith (played by three different actors in the series) can stop him. If I had to be a victim, I would take it by kiss thank you. These two continuously do a dance of seduction with one another – neither one anything without the other – both incapable of killing their nemesis in the end because then there would be no challenge left for them. At the end of each film it appears that Fu Manchu has met his end but he always rises in time for the next film with the eerie words “The world has not seen the last of Fu Manchu” ending the film.

Both have their assistants – Smith his loyal Petrie played by Howard Marion-Crawford in stalwart British upper lip fashion in all five films. This Petrie (as opposed to the books) is only slightly more competent than Nigel Bruce in the Basil Rathbone Holmes films. That has always irritated me because clearly the Watson of the books and Petrie as well are very competent men and certainly good writers! Not at all the dimwits that film portrays them as. Fu Manchu has his daughter Lin Tang to do his bidding and his killing. She is played by Tsai Chin, who had an interesting career. Born in Shanghai she witnessed both the invasion by Japan and later the Communist takeover. She left China in 1960 to study acting in England and began receiving small roles – other than the daughter of Fu Manchu she made appearances in two Bond films - very far apart – in You Only Live Twice – the assassin – in 1967 and nearly forty years later as Madam Wu in Casino Royale. But she is perhaps best known as one of the mothers in Joy Luck Club. She is amazingly still acting and was recently in the TV series Agents of Shield as May’s mother. Quite a life.

The final two films in the series – The Blood of Fu Manchu and The Castle of Fu Manchu – were directed by Jess Franco who is much better known for his Euro-Exploitation films with such fare as Succubus, 99 Women, Venus in Furs and so on – and on - and on – he is credited with over 200 films as a director. One might be surprised that Franco would take on two fairly conventional films but he was always in need of money to make the films he really wanted to. The Blood of Fu Manchu is definitely spiced up with some nudity, slightly more graphic violence and even elements of a Spaghetti Western as Fu Manchu plots from the jungles of South America. But The Castle of Fu Manchu is an unadulterated mess that is nearly incoherent and often uses stock footage apparently to save money and even snips out a scene from the Titanic film, A Night to Remember. It is a rather sad ending for an enjoyable series and when Fu Manchu pops up at the end when his plans are once again squashed to announce again that the world has not seen the last of him, you are rather relieved that in fact it had for the most part. Other than a comedy from Peter Sellers in 1980 called The Fiendish Plot of Dr. Fu Manchu, we have heard very little from Fu Manchu and the Yellow Peril. Perhaps time and events had caught up with him and it certainly would no longer be politically correct to have a film like this. Maybe we are ready for the next Boogie Man. How about a diabolically evil Muslim intent on spreading Islam and the dreaded Sharia Law all over the world? That should sell.