A Brief Review of the Evil Genius on the Silver Screen
THERE have been a number of films, radio serials, television shows, comic strips, and comic books featuring the evil genius Fu-Manchu. For all of the perceived faults of racial stereotyping, Fu-Manchu has become as much a part of our collective fictional universe as Sherlock Holmes has. While Holmes has become an archetype of the deductive powers of a superior mind ferreting out evil, Fu-Manchu has become an archetype of evil genius, mostly working behind the scenes, to advance his nefarious schemes by any means necessary. While Holmes has his Moriarty, Fu-Manchu has his Nayland Smith. This filmography of Fu-Manchu traces the evil genius from the early silent films through to the latest incarnations.
The First Fu Manchu
The first appearance of Dr. Fu-Manchu on the big screen was in the 1923 British silent film serial The Mystery of Dr. Fu Manchu starring Harry Agar Lyons (1878–1944). These fifteen episodes were followed in 1924 by another eight episodes under the title The Further Mysteries of Dr. Fu Manchu. Each of these 23 episodes was about 20 minutes in length.
Warner Oland and The Mysterious Dr. Fu-Manchu
In 1929, Warner Oland (1879-1938) was offered the role of Fu-Manchu in the first “talkie” adaptation of the stories, The Mysterious Dr. Fu-Manchu. Oland, born Johan Verner Ölund was Swedish but because of his appearance had a number of roles playing Asians. He claimed that his vaguely Asian appearance was due to possessing some Mongolian ancestry, though his known ancestry doesn’t indicate that this was so. Oland is probably best remembered for his 16 films portraying the character of Honolulu Police detective, Lieutenant Charlie Chan.
The Mysterious Dr. Fu Manchu (1929) was followed by The Return of Dr. Fu Manchu in 1930, and Daughter of the Dragon in 1931.
Daughter of the Dragon starred Anna May Wong (1905-1961) in the titular role. Oland as Fu Manchu got second billing. Paramount Pictures did not have the rights to adapt Sax Rohmer’s then current book, The Daughter of Fu Manchu, and so this spin-off film was developed.
Because of his success in the Fu-Manchu films, Oland was cast as Charlie Chan in the detective mystery film Charlie Chan Carries On (1931) and then in director Josef von Sternberg’s 1932 classic film Shanghai Express opposite Marlene Dietrich and Anna May Wong.
Boris Karloff and The Mask of Fu Manchu
In 1932, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer released the most controversial of all of the Fu-Manchu films: The Mask of Fu Manchu. Fu-Manchu was played by Boris Karloff (1887-1969) while his daughter was played by Myrna Loy (1905-1993). Karloff was fresh off of his success playing the monster in Frankenstein. After “Mask”, he would go on to star as Imhotep in The Mummy.
The plot of “Mask” revolved around the quest for the mask and the sword of Genghis Khan, with which the world might be conquered. They would give Fu Manchu the power to control the “countless hordes” of Asians, and lead them into battle against the West.
In the climactic scene, Fu Manchu has taken possession of the mask and sword. He dons the mask and raises the sword in front of his minions, a Pan-Asian assemblage made up of Asians and Muslims. Buxom blonde Karen Morley lies in front of him, intended to become a ritual sacrifice. Fu proclaims: “Would you have maidens like this for your wives? Then conquer and breed! Kill the white man and take his women!”
During its initial release, The Mask of Fu Manchu was criticized by the Chinese government, and the Chinese embassy in Washington launched a formal complaint against the film for its hostile depiction of the Chinese. The speech where Fu Manchu tells his followers to “Kill the white man and take his women!” was singled out for strong criticism.
Fu Manchu was seen as a sexual deviant who engaged in ritual torture and had occult powers. The film suggests he is engaged in an incestuous relationship with his equally evil daughter Fah Lo See played by Myrna Loy.
Loy was originally typecast in exotic roles, often as a vamp or a woman of Asian descent, but rose to stardom two years later with her portrayal of Nora Charles in The Thin Man (1934). Loy later referred to The Thin Man as the film “that finally made me … after more than 80 films.”
Myrna Loy’s portrayal of Fah Lo See was criticized by many as being sexually depraved. Particularly singled out was the scene in which one member of the English party was whipped by two black slaves while Loy is exhorting them to whip “faster! faster!”
In the following scene, Fah Lo See drapes herself over the flayed man and looks as if she will take her pleasure with him before Fu Manchu interrupts her. These scenes of sadism and predatory miscegenation were quite scandalous at the time.
The Mask of Fu-Manchu was one of the films that came to mind when the argument for strictly enforcing the Motion Picture Production Code was advanced. Also known as the Hays Code, it spelled out what was acceptable and what was unacceptable content for motion pictures produced for a public audience in the United States. Originally adopted in 1930, it was not fully enforced until 1934.
The film’s re-release in 1972 was met with protest from the Japanese American Citizens League, who stated that “the movie was offensive and demeaning to Asian-Americans”.
Fu Manchu on the Radio
The Shadow of Fu Manchu was an adventure radio drama adapted from the first nine Fu Manchu novels by Sax Rohmer. The syndicated series aired from 1939 to 1940 in 15-minute installments. Fu Manchu was voiced by Harold Huber (1909-1959).
The Drums of Fu Manchu
In 1940, Republic Pictures released Drums of Fu Manchu. It was a 15 chapter film serial and is often considered one of the best movie serials ever made. Fu Manchu was played by Henry Brandon (1912-1990). “Drums” was one of the very few films made under the Production Code to allow the villain to escape at the end. Ostensibly this was because Republic was considering follow-up serials.
A 69 minute feature film version of the same name was created by editing the serial footage together. It was released in November, 1943. In this version, Fu Manchu dies in the end in a fiery car crash.
The Adventures of Dr. Fu Manchu
In the Fall of 1956, NBC aired a 13 episode television series called The Adventures of Dr. Fu Manchu with the evil doctor played by Glen Gordon (1914-1977).
The title scene of each episode showed Fu Manchu and Nayland Smith playing a game of chess with the narrator’s voice over saying:
“Black and white. Life and death. Good and evil. Two sides of a chess game. Two forces of the universe, one magnificent, the other sinister. It is said the Devil plays for men’s souls. So does Dr. Fu Manchu, Satan himself, evil incarnate.”
At the end of each 30 minute episode, after Nayland Smith and Dr. Petrie had foiled Fu Manchu’s latest fiendish scheme, Fu Manchu would be seen breaking a black chess piece as the closing credits rolled.
Christopher Lee’s Fu Manchu
Christopher Lee (1922-2015) is probably the Fu Manchu that most of us remember. Lee started acting after returning from service in World War II. His first major role was in The Curse of Frankenstein (1957), in which he played the monster, with his great friend Peter Cushing as Baron Victor Frankenstein. That role led him to play Count Dracula in the film Dracula (1958). It was known as Horror of Dracula in the United States.
He starred in five Fu Manchu movies during the mid and late 1960s: The Face of Fu Manchu (1965), 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). Tsai Chin plays the part of Fu Manchu’s daughter Lin Tang in these five films.
In The Face of Fu Manchu, Nayland Smith is witness to the execution of the criminal mastermind in China. However, when Smith returns to England it becomes apparent that an actor had been hypnotized to take the place of Fu Manchu and had been executed in his stead. The villain is back in London, working from a secret base underneath the River Thames. Fu Manchu is hatching a plot to kidnap an eminent scientist and force him to develop a deadly poison from the seeds of a rare Tibetan flower.
In 1983, Lee wrote of his five Fu Manchu movies: “The first one should have been the last one, because it was the only really good one.”
Lee went on to play such roles as Francisco Scaramanga in the James Bond film The Man with the Golden Gun (1974), Count Dooku in the Star Wars prequel trilogy (2002 and 2005), and Saruman in the Lord of the Rings film trilogy (2001–2003) and the Hobbit film trilogy (2012–2014).
Peter Sellers in The Fiendish Plot of Dr. Fu Manchu
In 1980, Peter Sellers (1925-1980) was featured in a double role as both Fu Manchu and Nayland Smith in the spoof, The Fiendish Plot of Dr. Fu Manchu. Sellers was no stranger to playing multiple roles in one movie as he had played three different characters in Dr. Strangelove (1964): US President Merkin Muffley, Dr. Strangelove and Group Captain Lionel Mandrake of the RAF. Director Stanley Kubrick later commented that the idea of having Sellers in so many of the film’s key roles was that “everywhere you turn there is some version of Peter Sellers holding the fate of the world in his hands”. The same can be said of Sellers’ dual roles in “The Fiendish Plot”.
The Fiendish Plot of Dr. Fu Manchu was released two weeks after Seller’s death. The plot is about the 168-year-old Fu Manchu, who must duplicate the ingredients to the elixir vitae (which gives him extended life) after the original is accidentally destroyed by one of Fu’s minions.
Burt Kwouk, Sellers’ longtime co-star in the five The Pink Panther films, makes a cameo appearance as the bumbling minion who accidentally destroys the elixir vitae, prompting the joke that Fu thinks he looks familiar.
Helen Mirren costars with Sellers as a police constable impersonating the Queen of England, who is kidnapped by Fu Manchu’s men. She falls in love with him and the investigation collapses into zaniness.
By the end of the film, Fu Manchu has developed more elixir vitae. Before taking it Fu Manchu warns Nayland Smith that his latest fiendish plot will destroy all of his enemies. He then takes the serum and is rejuvenated into an Elvis styled rocker.
Fu Manchu has had many and varied influences on culture. The original books were translated into many foreign languages, and the movies were also dubbed over into several foreign languages. While they may be socially problematic, they have become an important part of our collective fictional universe.
Sax Rohmer’s Fu-Manchu books can be found HERE.