❉ We revisit the Fu Manchu Cycle and look at Sax Rohmer’s creation’s place in pop culture.
“Fu Manchu’s legacy endures and it’s easily possible to see his fingerprints on various memorable fictional villains… It remains to be seen whether any television or film-makers will ever bring Fu Manchu back to our screens properly, and I wouldn’t hold my breath for it, although it would be marvellous to see him finally played by a genuine Chinese actor…”
‘Tell me, Mrs Fu Manchu, are the rumours really true? Is it North to South, like all the rest? Or Mysterious East to Decadent West?’ – William Rushton
When Sax Rohmer created Fu Manchu, whose first tale was told in 1913, he probably didn’t realise quite how much of a ball he’d set rolling. Forged in a volatile amalgam of xenophobic paranoia of the ‘Yellow Peril’, and pulp adventure of a very British kind, the brilliant, dastardly, and demented Doctor hatched a multitude of terrifying schemes aimed at bringing The Empire Where The Sun Never Sets to its knees. Many decades later, he’d achieved such an iconic status that he received the ultimate accolade of titans of terror: he was made into a joke.
In the 1970s, your local newsagent would be only too happy to sell you Trebor’s Fu Mun Chews, with which the maleficent, enigmatic warlord was made over into a conical-hatted, bespectacled, buck-toothed amiable idiot, the ‘King Of Kung Chew’, hand wagging in a comedy ‘kung fu’ gesture, as he fought to protect his beloved chewy sweets from an array of comically-named adversaries such as Nik Won Chew. Peter Sellers, in one of his very worst films, 1980’s The Fiendish Plot Of Dr Fu Manchu, turned him into a ridiculous caricature, desperately seeking an elixir of eternal youth before ending up rejuvenated as the new Elvis Presley, the mighty adversary reduced to a Las Vegas lounge act. Even Basil Brush and ‘Mr Roy’ North, in one of their weekly serials, Bulldog Basil Of The Secret Service, made a running joke of the Chinese mastermind ‘that silly old Chu Fan Moo and the Ying Tong iddle-i-po…’
Like Dracula, Frankenstein’s Monster, and the Wolf Man meeting Abbot and Costello, he’d been made funny. Made affable. Made safe. It is, perhaps, the only way to truly slay the dragon. Making the point clearer still, within five years of each other, the Sixties saw two notable British films featuring villainous characters who owed a lot to his illustrious ancestry: Joseph Wiseman’s Dr No in the first Bond film in 1962, a dignified, urbane, evil genius with a very dangerous plan; and Leo McKern’s Clang in Help! from 1966, a pompous, bungling, superstitious fool with too much power.
Before then, it had been a very different story. Fu had been treated with respect, and the not-so-good Doctor had made his way to the big screen in various incarnations, noteworthy examples being his portrayals by Warner Oland and Boris Karloff. However, he’d been absent for many years from that place, until 1965 came calling, and a certain small British independent studio that’d made its name via a combination of solid swashbucklers and amazingly successful horror films saw, in Fu Manchu, a perfect meeting-point of their two main money-spinners. With seasoned hand Don Sharp on the directing duties, and Christopher Lee in the title role, Hallam Productions and Constantin Film were ready to re-introduce the World to The Face Of Fu Manchu.
I’d heard a fair amount about this legendary villain of Fiction by the time that I was eight or so years old: he was still a cultural touchstone for my parents’ generation, and my maternal grandfather, a great fan of fantastic literature and films, had his own fond memories of the man, and quite probably even a fair few battered paperbacks of his nefarious exploits on the crammed bookshelves of his Deptford flat. So, when the BBC decided to screen Sharp’s film in an early-evening, weekday slot, I was keen to see it.
In the very first scene, Fu is being led out into what looks like the courtyard of a castle, somewhere in the Mysterious East, or at least a brave attempt by a soundstage at Bray. He’s been captured and tried off-screen, pronounced very guilty indeed, and sentenced to death by the authorities for his crimes. Without ado, he’s marched to a chopping-block, and efficiently decapitated. Although there’s a certain discretion, his headless corpse can be seen at the back of the frame as the opening credits roll. Less than five minutes in, and the big villain is already dead. I’m outraged and fascinated. You can’t start a Fu Manchu film like this…can you?
Of course, as I soon found out, when you’re a super-criminal, there are always routes open to you to bend the rules in your favour. Fu hasn’t been executed. He’s somehow substituted a look-alike patsy to take his place for the chop, and is very much alive, well, and making his next moves to Limehouse in London to set his latest scheme into motion, with the World believing him dead. His latest plan, it transpires, involves a particularly lethal new nerve gas that he’s laid his hands on, and he plans to use it on any nation that doesn’t submit to his, and by extension China’s, demands (for Fu, in his own eyes, and in those of his more impressionable readers, back in the day, is China). Most importantly, of course, Fu has his sights set on Great Britain.
Which is, obviously, where we meet properly those sterling defenders of Victorian/Edwardian values, police commissioner Nayland Smith and his brilliant medical colleague, Doctor Petrie. They’re effectively Holmes and Watson re-fashioned into something more suited to the action and fear-packed assignments which any confrontation with Fu will, inevitably, become. Smith in particular has the detective acumen of his predecessor Holmes, combined with the more muscular approach of Sapper’s Bulldog Drummond, his descendant. He’s an interesting figure, formed from the strengths of both of those characters, but with any potential unpleasantness (at least by the standards of the day) filed carefully off. He has Sherlock’s brainpower, but not his arrogance: Drummond’s two-fisted action hero stylings, but none of that fellow’s somewhat sordid and sleazy clubland hero background. He’s an attempt at combining brawn and brain into a somewhat sexless, even ascetic, individual, devoted solely to trying to do what’s right, a distilled modern version of the brave knight sans peur et sans reproche. – or, ironically, the classic Chinese warrior-monk.
Petrie is a far more basic character – he is very much Watson with the name changed to protect the intellectual property rights – but his prodigious medical knowledge is at least called frequently into valuable service (and, in the books, he’s revealed to have much greater insight into human psychology than Smith: the latter believes steadfastly that Fu, for all of his villainy, is ultimately of sound mind, maybe can even be reasoned with; the former has already realised and accepted despairingly that ‘that towering intellect…was quite hopelessly insane’). And, pitted against the would-be conqueror and his alluring-but-terrifying daughter Li Fang – who appreciates and often instigates the inflicting of fear and pain in ways that teeter constantly on the brink of some perverse gratification, rather than rigorous scientific curiosity – and a seemingly unending army of his fanatically-loyal dacoit henchmen, their work is cut out for them again and again to ensure the survival of the nation (oh, and the rest of the World).
The Face Of Fu Manchu is often unfairly dismissed as ‘workmanlike’ – not entirely inaccurate, as it’s not one of Hallam Productions/Constantin Film’s most prestigious productions – but it’s packed full of memorable set pieces which capture the pulp origins perfectly: the opening mock-execution, drownings of unfortunate victims in water tanks held in a sinister underground lair, the casual nerve-gas slaying of the entire population of a remote country town by Fu just to make a point, as well as pitched battles seemingly every few minutes. It all builds to a fine showdown in the wilds of Tibet-as-played-by-somewhere-near-Greater-London, and – apart from Lee – benefits from a strong cast including Nigel Green (one of our most undervalued character actors) as Smith, Howard Marion-Crawford as a solid Petrie, and the gorgeous, sinister Tsai Chin as Li Fang. It’s also pleasing to see a supporting cast containing a genuinely large number of actual Oriental actors. All told, it makes for a strong start to what had the potential to become a series of adventures to rival Dracula or Frankenstein.
Which makes it all the odder, and sadder, that Hallam decided not to make any more Fu Manchu films. The main cast – apart from Green, who was replaced for the remaining four films of the cycle by the almost-as-good Douglas Wilmer and Richard Greene – remained, and Don Sharp did return to direct the first follow-up, The Brides Of Fu Manchu: but the production shifted to Europe, which didn’t quite seem to grasp Fu’s world as well as the British, and the remaining three films – The Vengeance Of Fu Manchu, The Blood Of Fu Manchu, and The Castle Of Fu Manchu – were all directed by others: Jeremy Summers for the first of the three, and the remaining two from the notorious exploitation film-maker Jesus Franco, which could have produced some very interesting results: however, with the possible exception of the half-decent Vengeance, the other follow-ups could, fairly, be described as workmanlike at best. Franco seemed determined to try to make cod-Bond films out of the Fu stories, but he was doing well if he even managed to occasionally reach the level of Vincent Price’s Dr Goldfoot spoofs. The lead actors all did their best with poorly-rendered stories which didn’t really understand the characters or the world that they inhabited, but it was a losing battle, and the series ended with a definite whimper, rather than a bang beyond the level of the most underwhelming stock-footage explosion.
Fu was gone, and apparently he wasn’t coming back. The Kinks once sang, ‘Long live Fu Manchu, Moriarty and Dracula!’ and while Moriarty and Dracula have returned again and again, poor old Fu has remained consigned to apparent limbo to this day. Why? After all, he, Moriarty, and Dracula all had similar origins as fearsome representatives of various nations seen as Great Britain’s biggest enemies of the day – Dracula, the savage Eastern European, an early example of his very own kind of Red Menace: Moriarty, the brilliant, covert Irishman, only a twist away from the dread Fenian threat of the nascent IRA; Fu, as already stated, ‘with the brow of a Shakespeare and the face of Satan’, the very Yellow Peril incarnate. And, I suspect, in that simple statement lies the reason for Fu’s dormancy.
The whole issue of ‘yellowface’ is a massive and complex one, and I don’t intend to begin to tackle it here, but it provides an easy explanation as to why Fu hasn’t returned. Dracula and Moriarty are not, clearly, Other. The former, scrupulously learning the English language and familiarising himself with Bradshaw’s railway timetables: the latter a secretive, intellectual figure who only gives away his Irishness when he opens his mouth (and even then, not in every portrayal). They’re somehow safely generic, in their appearances, at least. They fit in. They look like us. From his very skin colour onwards, Fu is obviously different. Obviously, an outsider. And that difference is equated, pretty directly, with his evil, and his hostility to our way of life. ‘Yellowface’, in popular culture at least, is a way to reduce an entire people to the level of zany comic relief or merciless villainy, and even more so when it appears in the form of Caucasian actors ‘yellowing up’. Lee’s performance is respectful of the source material, and he brings his customary presence and dignity to the role, but in these days it still can’t help but feel awkward. Condescending. Even a tad bigoted.
And yet… and yet. While the man himself hasn’t reappeared, his legacy endures (Christopher Lee was delighted, some years later, to see fly posters in New York bearing the likeness of his portrayal, and exhorting the populace to ‘Vote Fu Manchu For Mayor’), and it’s easily possible to see his fingerprints on various memorable fictional villains of comparatively recent years: the urbane Li H’Sen Chang of Doctor Who – The Talons Of Weng Chiang, the brutal Colonel Moon of Die Another Day, and, best of all, James Hong’s almost-Fu, the playful-yet-commanding Lo Pan of Big Trouble In Little China. It remains to be seen whether any television or film-makers will ever bring Fu Manchu back to our screens properly, and I wouldn’t hold my breath for it (although it would be marvellous to see him finally played by a genuine Chinese actor, and ideally bringing his deadly lycopodium powder, capable of suffocating men in fast-spreading, fungal shrouds, with him, now that special effects could do it justice!), but, somewhere in the Mysterious East, there is yet a remote mountain fastness, where hard-faced dacoits have one hand perpetually at the hilts of their knives and hatchets, ever-ready to strike in service of their master: where his beautiful, lethal daughter schemes her half-scientific, half-sadistic schemes of torture as an art; and where Fu Manchu himself, immortal, inscrutable, inexorable, lays his latest plans to conquer the Globe for the glory of Evil. And where that imperious, merciless face forms from the mists of Chaos to declare once more…
‘The World shall hear from me again!’
❉ The Fu Manchu Cycle 1965-1969 (Limited Edition) is now available from Powerhouse Films, RRP £49.99. CLICK HERE to order directly from Powerhouse/Indicator.
❉ Ken Shinn is a lifelong fan of all things cult and is a regular contributor to We Are Cult. His 55 years have seen him contribute to works overseen by the likes of TV Cream and the British Horror Films Group, as well as a whole batch of short stories of the fantastic, with his first novel on the way. Whatever the field, he intends to enjoy Cult in all its forms for many years to come.