Directed by Charles Brabin
“My friends, out of courtesy, call me Doctor.”
Why Did I Get This?
This disc was a gift in the post from friend of Late Reviewer and Special Feature contributor John Featherstone during the first year of the pandemic, due to a shared fondness for Boris Karloff and some of the darker movies from the 1930s.
A few months after a virtual watch-a-long, we signed up to a socially-distanced viewing of a brilliant documentary called Casting Fu Manchu by artist and filmmaker Eelyn Lee, which looks at the fact the supervillain has never been played on screen (in major movies, at least), by anyone of East or South East Asian heritage. The documentary features terrific auditions, for want of a better word, from Asian performers interpreting the character their own way and discussing their experience of working in the film industry. It was an eye-opening watch, and if you can find it I’d highly recommend seeking it out.
This is the point where I’d usually post a link to the movie’s trailer, but sadly there doesn’t appear to be one available on YouTube. There are a bunch of clips available though, so if any of this Late Review gets you curious about it, you know where to go.
The Late Review
As always, the Late Review will go into detail about the film from start to finish, so if you’re looking to avoid potential spoilers, scroll down to the next heading.
A British Secret Service agent (Lewis Stone), an eminent Egyptologist (Lawrence Grant), his daughter (Karen Morley), and her partner (Charles Starrett), race to find the lost tomb of Genghis Ghan before the evil Fu Manchu (Boris Karloff), and his daughter (Myrna Loy), can recover its historic contents to take over the world.
I love a pre-Code film, especially one that features Boris Karloff. There’s something about them that feels grimy in a very specific way – not like the griminess of 1980s horror movies or anything from the 21st Century though. These later films often seem to be offering up their unpleasantness simply to get noticed, whereas the films of the 1930s feel more like they were just reflecting some of the attitudes of their time while also experimenting with exactly what you could and couldn’t do on film.
Does looking at them through the lens of history make the views and xenophobic or racist caricatures they express any more acceptable? No, I don’t really think so.
That being said, people far more intelligent, eloquent and well-informed than me have written thousands of words or made fascinating documentaries on this topic, so I’ll simply point you their way while acknowledging that there are some big, racist elephants in the room and try to discuss my experience with the film itself in isolation.
As far as plots go, it’s a fairly straightforward race for the Macguffin – in this case, a golden mask and sword which once belonged to Genghis Khan, that Fu Manchu believes will rally the entire Eastern population behind his dastardly plan to overthrow the West using an electrical death ray.
You’ve got your stock characters too – the cunning British Secret Serviceman Sir Denis Nayland Smith, the stuffy but determined historical expert Sir Lionel Barton who is immediately captured and tortured by Fu Manchu. His disappearance, naturally, means his daughter Sheila and her fiance Terry race across the world to try and get him back, before taking on the evil mastermind themselves, with the help of a couple more brave historians (Jean Herscholt and David Torrence).
Almost 100 years on, it feels like a tried and tested formula, and being completely unfamiliar with Sax Rohmer’s source material, I wonder how ingrained in popular culture this kind of plot was. I understand Nayland Smith was a recurring character in the Fu Manchu novels, and I imagine they fell into some kind of rhythm as the franchise went on. I’d be curious to read them, but can’t see myself rushing out to snap up the entire series.
One of the elements that stood out on first watch and again this time is how great some of the sets are – Fu Manchu’s lab is a treasure trove of crackling electrical gadgetry, Genghis Khan’s tomb is brilliantly designed and lit, and the British Museum set (complete with ninjas hiding in sarcophagi disguised as mummies), is terrific too – including a wall-sized map of the world which is pretty stunning.
Sadly, though not entirely unexpectedly, few of the heroes make as much of an impression as the villains. Karloff sounds like he’s having a whale of a time, his unmistakable voice syrupy and rich under the heavy and culturally inappropriate makeup. His first appearance next to a massive, warped mirror while electrical equipment crackles around before producing a steaming glass of… something, is amazing, though on second viewing I found myself minded of M’s baffled response to Bond’s elaborate coffee machine – “Is that all it does?”
Karloff’s Fu Manchu takes a perverse pleasure in torturing his captives in elaborate ways (also echoed by future Bond villains), strapping and starving them under an enormous ringing bell, tying them to a seesaw surrounded by hungry crocodiles (complete with a proto-Live And Let Die escape method), or to a chair between two slowly-approaching walls of spikes.
He eventually strips Terry down to a loincloth and injects him with a serum developed from the venoms of various exotic animals (tarantulas, snakes, lizards – the sort of stuff lying around 1930s movie studios that audiences had never seen before), and while doing so, takes a brief moment to stroke his naked chest while smiling then storming out of the room.
But it’s his dastardly daughter Fah Lo See who has grander designs for Terry, and Myrna Loy’s performance makes it very clear just what she has in mind. Her gasps and cries as she watches our hero get flogged by two nearly-nude slaves leave us in no doubt that she’s aroused by the violence she inflicts (think Goldeneye’s Xenia Onatopp massacring Russian desk jockeys at Severnaya and you’re pretty much there).
Weird too is Fu Manchu’s relationship with his daughter. At one point, she’s offered to Barton as a bribe to get the location of Ganghis Khan’s tomb, while she’s referred to by her father at various points throughout the film as “ugly and insignificant”, “beautiful”, “most modest” and “very gentle”. I don’t know if this is a callback to the books? It stuck out to me as odd, but seemed so intentional it couldn’t just be wild variations through lazy writing – maybe a comment on the patriarchal system Fu Manchu promotes, I guess, but again, just felt inconsistent.
Less inconsistent is the pretty problematic language used by the evil doctor as he rallies his troops before his Carmen Miranda headpiece and elaborate sword. Throwing around phrases like “Conquer and breed! Kill the white man and take his women!” can’t have sounded good at the time, but sound even worse now, as do some of the costumes and speech patterns of the bit players while the good guys are snooping around.
Naturally, as with all good adventure films, the good guys escape and save the day while the evildoer meets his match at the end of a massive golden sword. Loy’s character seems to disappear about ten minutes before the end, which again felt odd – I wondered if perhaps they intended to keep her for a sequel, but that doesn’t appear to be the case, so maybe once she’d served her purpose to enslave Terry the writers just couldn’t work out what to do with her and dropped the character completely.
So the priceless relics end up at the bottom of the ocean, the bad guy gets killed and everyone sails home laughing and joking as if their father and friends haven’t just met awful, bloody ends and they haven’t experienced torture.
Yes, this is a problematic film for many reasons. But take away the demonisation of the Chinese and East Asian people, and it becomes a fairly standard adventure romp.
This is the second time I’ve seen this film, and I don’t think it will be the last – to say it’s enjoyable isn’t necessarily accurate though. It’s a time capsule of attitudes, acting styles and genre that I find a fascinating watch, even if I find myself wincing or cringing at every other character or line reading.
Despite his culturally inappropriate appearance, Karloff is great and Loy is a fascinating watch. Weirdly, hearing Karloff’s wonderful voice making various threats through his makeup made me realise what an obvious choice Christopher Lee was to take up the Fu Manchu mantle a few decades later. Doesn’t make it any better that the role just went to another white guy known for portraying villains, but I guess there’s some kind of continuity of using imposing actors with unmistakable voices.
Is there any way this could be remade today? Not easily, no. It would take a lot of work to ensure Fu Manchu wasn’t just a racist caricature and while that would be the right thing to do, I’m not confident that any major studio would be willing to do so, knowing the inevitable backlash and political (not to mention financial), risk they’d be taking.
A curio, then. Very much of it’s time.