“Are you so foolish as to believe that you can oppose the will of Fu Manchu?”
The Scoop: 1965, Not Rated, directed by Don Sharp and starring Christopher Lee, Nigel Green, Walter Rilla, Joachim Fuchsberger, Tsai Chin, Howard Marion-Crawford, and Karen Dor.
Tagline: Obey Fu Manchu or every living thing will die!
Summary Capsule: Fu Manchu… does stuff. It’s nifty.
Deneb’s Review: All right, I’m going to admit it – I have certain tastes that are not always thoroughly and absolutely and in every way totally PC. Yes, every now and then I like things that – Gasp! – might just possibly offend some people, and cause raised eyebrows among others.
Oh, I can see your looks of disapproval. The little daggers flying from your eyeballs do prick me sorely. Sure, judge me. Shun me. Spit on me. Whip me in the public square, hang ‘This Man Has Sinned’ around my neck, and send me to wander the city streets, lonely and unloved.
But dadgum it, I like me some Fu Manchu.
There are all sorts of reasons why I shouldn’t. I’m perfectly aware that his name has become associated with every outdated Asian stereotype imaginable, and that it immediately brings to mind innumerable racist caricatures of grinning Asians with lemon-yellow skin and huge teeth bowing and saying ‘ah-so’. I’m aware that he was practically the codifier for the stereotype of the so-called “Yellow Peril”, and that that was, to say the least, bad.
I’m aware of all that. But y’know what? I don’t care. Surrounded by questionable social baggage he may be, but as a character, I can’t help thinking he’s pretty cool.
Why? Well, to start with, he’s one of the most iconic villains of all time. There are only a few villains out there who can be immediately identified by a single characteristic. The Joker has his grin, Darth Vader has his heavy breathing, and then you have ol’ Fu, who is identifiable merely by his fingernails. Yes, grow your nails out a bit and wear a bathrobe, and you too can evoke the image of ultimate evil! (Hey, wait a minute – that description applies to me right now! Worship me, dammit, or I’ll do evil stuff!) The guy has a mustache named after him. Is there a Joker mustache? I think not.
Furthermore, he was one of the earliest such villains of his kind – one of the first supervillains, I suppose you could call him. Every one of his stories is jam-packed with fiendish plots, mad science and the like, stuff that would not be out of place in your average comic book (of which he has appeared in more than a few – he was on the cover of Detective Comics #1, fercryin’outloud). And say what you will about the character, but he evokes an impressively adventurous atmosphere. Read some of the original books, if you ever get a chance – they’re full of shadowy midnight chases, desperate fistfights, knives in dark alleyways, daring escapes, etc, etc. Such things will never go out of style, even if they come with some unfortunate trappings.
Ahem. Anyway. The point of all that was to establish that I kinda dig Fu Manchu, and make no bones about it.
Which brings us, of course, to The Face of Fu Manchu.
First, a brief primer for those of you unfamiliar with the basic set-up. Fu Manchu himself is an arch-villain of impressive proportions, a Chinese criminal mastermind whose aims are the usual sorts of things – power, world domination, etc. (He is in fact generally referred to as Dr. Fu Manchu, but he’s not in this case, so I’ll leave that out.) His schemes always seem to result in his crossing swords with Sir Denis Nayland Smith of Scotland Yard, along with his sidekick Dr. Petrie (who in the originals was a rather young and dynamic character, in contrast to Smith, but here is somewhat older, and has a more Watson-esque vibe going on). Their encounters inevitably end with Fu Manchu seemingly destroyed forever, only to appear hale and hearty in the next story with a fresh new sinister plan to be foiled.
At the beginning of Face, however, it seems that he’s finally bitten off more than he can chew. The scene opens in Imperial China (the exact date is never give, but presumably some time in the ‘20’s), where Fu (Christopher Lee) has finally been captured, imprisoned, and now faces his final fate – death by beheading. With Nayland Smith (Nigel Green) watching grimly, his sentence is read, his head is placed on the block, the executioner raises his sword, and – CHOP! One villain has left the building.
Cut to some time later, back in England. For finally doing away with his archenemy, Nayland Smith has received a promotion to Assistant Commissioner. It’s a nice, cushy desk job, but it doesn’t appeal to him at all, as he complains to Petrie (Howard Marion-Crawford) – he’d rather be out there where the action is.
Not to worry, though – he’ll get his chance soon enough. A crimewave is spreading across Europe, one carefully and masterfully executed. Furthermore, a respected scientist, one Professor Muller (Walter Rilla), has vanished, and the body of his chauffeur found discarded in the London streets, killed by strangulation with a Tibetan prayer-scarf. All clues seem to point to Fu Manchu. But that’s impossible, isn’t it? I mean, the guy’s head was cut off. With a sword. In front of multiple witnesses, including our protagonist. He couldn’t still be alive – could he?
Well, of course he could. He’s Fu Man-freakin’-chu. For him, such obstacles as getting your noggin removed are no more than a brief inconvenience. Yes, Fu’s on the loose again, all right, and he – along with his equally-fiendish daughter, Lin Tang (Tsai Chin), and a small army of Burmese Dacoits who do his bidding – is wasting no time getting back into the swing of things.
You see, the Professor had been working on a rather deadly little concoction which our villain wants for his very own, as he has havoc-unleashing plans for it. Sure, Muller isn’t being terribly cooperative at the moment, but he, too, has a daughter, (Karen Dor) – might her being kidnapped as well help persuade him otherwise? It might. It just might.
In short, bad news as usual for Britain and the world (but mainly Britain). Horrors!
Can the good guys rescue the girl, save the day, and stop Fu Manchu before his fiendish plot is carried out? It’s not entirely out of the question.
All right, let’s get this out of the way – Face of Fu Manchu is, admittedly, a bit slow-paced in parts, and might come off as a tad too sedate to some. Oh, it’s got plenty of action, all right, and it functions perfectly well as an adventure movie, but it’s of an era and type of movie that believed in taking its time – if you go into it expecting something akin to a modern action flick, you will be sorely disappointed. The good stuff’s there, but it requires patience.
Assuming, therefore, that one possesses said patience, there are two questions that must be answered with a movie like this – 1, is it any good, and 2, are there offensive elements that one should look out for?
Let’s start with number one. Yes, I’d say it’s pretty good. In terms of basic quality, I’d even say it’s quite good. It’s well-made, the story is gripping, the period atmosphere is nicely evoked, the visuals are striking, it’s stocked with good actors, and, of course, there’s one of the all-time great villains on the scene just to give things that certain gravitas. How can you lose?
As for number two, my answer would be no, not really. It’s one of those movies that could so easily have gone wrong if the tone was just slightly off, but it wasn’t, so it didn’t. Basically, Face is perfectly aware that it deals with some fairly creaky material that could be potentially offensive if ‘twere examined closely – so it doesn’t. It just plays it completely straight, and that’s the genius of the thing – by not poking fun at the material, it effectively pokes fun at itself, thereby, paradoxically, milking the premise for every bit of genuine entertainment value it possesses. So by not playing up its entertainment value, it becomes more entertaining, and by not addressing the unfortunate issues, they circumvent themselves – sort of the apotheosis of the concept that “if you ignore it, it’ll go away”.
What? Too deep? Ahh, you philistines. Let’s put it another way – the movie knows it’s silly, and makes the best of it by playing it perfectly seriously, a’la the best of British humor.
This makes for an interesting combination of straight-faced absurdity and old-fashioned excitement. For instance, Fu Manchu’s Dacoit servants seem to be a rough mixture of actual Asians and balding white guys. The first time you notice it, it’s strange, the second, it’s puzzling, and by the third, you are unlikely to notice it at all. Likewise, there is a car chase sequence which features a lot of the typical screeching around corners, getting cut off by approaching trains, pedestrians diving out of the way, etc. – all very exciting, except for the fact that these are ‘20’s cars they’re driving in, so the top speeds being reached are probably somewhere around 40 MPH or so. So you can either take it seriously or not, and it works either way – quite clever, really.
There is, unfortunately, one thing that I, personally, did find just a little offensive, and that’s the ending. I won’t give it away, but let’s just say it involves a solution on the part of the good guys that is… somewhat dubious, and could probably be done another way. Mind you, I’m not saying everyone will react this way to it – in fact, I’m fairly certain that none of the people I’ve seen it with have done so – but I have, so there are probably others who’ll have the same reaction. Maybe I’m being oversensitive; I dunno. Either way, it wasn’t a deal-breaker for me, just something to take into account.
So, OK, how’s Fu Manchu, then? He’s quite well, thanks. Christopher Lee plays him as a creature of eerie calm and ultimate control – more or less exactly as the books described him. You can see why people would be afraid of this guy – he manifests an air of understated superiority that is less egotism and more a simple assumption of fact. While your average wannabe-world conqueror might bellow and rant about how he is destined for greatness, Fu will quietly inform you of what he intends, then go ahead and do it. It doesn’t matter how many times you beat him – this guy always has an escape plan, and always bounces back, and if the game goes on long enough, he will win, and both you and he know it. Spooky.
As for the others, Tsai Chin does quite a good job as Lin Tang – at any rate, she makes you believe that she’s Christopher Lee’s daughter, which is no mean feat in and of itself. If anything, it’s a bit of a shame that we don’t see more of her – she’s got a serious sadistic streak that at times makes you glad it’s Fu who’s in the driver’s seat, not her. Sure, she’d probably do all the same things, but she’d relish it. She’s quite the compelling presence.
On the side of the good guys, Nigel Green is rather stiff and reserved as Nayland Smith, but then, that’s exactly what the role calls for – one needs a contrast between him and the over-the-top villain, after all. He seems to spend two-thirds of the movie pacing restlessly and wondering what the devil Fu Manchu is up to now – which makes it all the more effective when he does spring into action. Marion-Crawford’s Petrie is basically only there to give him someone to talk to – the film’s real action hero is Carl Jannsen (Joachim Fuchsberger), the boyfriend of Maria, Muller’s daughter. He gets to do a lot of running around and punching Dacoits in the face. Maria herself is basically your average damsel in distress, but she gets a few moments where she proves there’s more to her than that. It’s not a role that would make your average feminist weep for joy, but hey, it was 1965 – you take what you can get.
(Incidentally, this is just a little thing, but I must say, I rather enjoy having so many German characters on the side of the angels here. Germans are so often the villains in these sorts of movies that it’s positively refreshing having the Germans be the ones to gasp “you fiend!” Yeah, stick it to the bad guys, German folks! We enjoy your pretzels and sausage!)
So, in the final analysis, do I think Face of Fu Manchu is worth watching? Yes. Yes, I do. I suppose some people might be offended by it, but it’d probably be more at the concept of Fu Manchu than the actual execution – any offensive elements in it are kept to the absolute minimum, and there’s lots of fistfights and derring-do and the like to make it worth your while. As long as you’re OK with the tone of older movies and aren’t expecting something off of MTV, see it. I doubt you’ll regret it.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to find a light source and make threatening shadows with my hands. Why? Because I can.
- The movie went on to have four sequels – The Brides of Fu Manchu, The Vengeance of Fu Manchu, The Blood of Fu Manchu, and The Castle of Fu Manchu, the latter two directed by the infamous exploitation-movie director Jesus Franco. Of the five, Face is generally considered to be the best.
- Fu Manchu has never been portrayed by an Asian man onscreen.
- The movie was made by Constantin Films, a German production company, and was a British/German co-production, which explains all the German characters in it.
- Fu Manchu only named his daughter Lin Tang in this particular incarnation of things –she is known in the original as Fah lo Suee (which was only a childhood endearment; her real name is unknown). Various other portrayals of her have given her the names Ling Moy and Karamaneh (who in the books is actually a different and entirely unrelated character, albeit also in the employ of Fu Manchu).
- To drum up publicity for the film, Constantin Film had a sizable amount of posters produced which read ‘FU MANCHU FOR MAYOR’ and featured a large snapshot of Lee in character. They then had them put up all over New York City, which was in the middle of an electoral race at the time. Apparently, this led to Fu Manchu getting a large number of write-in votes.
- Although a good chunk of the movie takes place in London, it was shot in Dublin, as this made it easier to replicate the period feel.
Chief Magistrate: Executioner – in the name of Imperial China, death to Fu Manchu!
Fu Manchu: Now the wheel of fate has turned full circle.
Hanumon: Who is he?
Lin Tang: Nayland Smith – the man my father hates most in all the world.
Fu Manchu: Are you so foolish as to believe that you can oppose the will of Fu Manchu?
Dr. Petrie: Not the Yellow Peril again!
Fu Manchu: Vanity. Jealousy. They bring us much that we need.
Nayland Smith: There’s a man who I thought was dead – now I believe he’s still alive. He’s cruel, callous, brilliant… and the most evil and dangerous man in the world.
Fu Manchu: Attention! Attention! This is Fu Manchu. Stand by for an important message.
Nayland Smith: Do you always greet your visitors so roughly?
Fu Manchu: Where one can go, another may follow.
Sir Charles: Wait a minute! You can’t leave the museum littered with dead Chinese!
Fu Manchu: My will is yours, even unto death.
Nayland Smith: And so, once again, the hunt is on.
Fu Manchu: What progress has been made?
Female Dacoit: None, master. He does nothing but sit around all day.
Sir Charles: He’s probably lost all sense of time and thinks it’s Christmas. I’m afraid you’ve drawn a blank.
Fu Manchu: The world shall hear from me again.
If you liked this movie, try these:
- Dr. No
- Fellowship of the Frog
- Dick Tracy’s Dilemma