The Fu Manchu Cycle—1965-1969
1965 – 1969 / 96, 93, 91, 94, 92 min. / 2:33:1, 1:85, 1:66
Starring Christoper Lee, Tsai Chin
Cinematography by Ernest Steward, John Von Kotze, Manuel Merino
Directed by Don Sharp, Jeremy Summers, Jesús Franco
Arthur Henry Ward was born in Birmingham in 1883—at the age of 20 he adopted the pen name of Sax Rohmer, specializing in standard issue crime fiction and otherworldly tales of terror. In 1912 he folded both genres into one sinister figure from the East, a so-called “devil doctor” named Fu Manchu. The book covers alone were xenophobic horror shows and if there was any doubt the stories themselves were wildly racist, the author confirmed it in the description of his star villain: “the Yellow Peril incarnate in one man.”
An authority on philosophy, medicine, and idiosyncratic torture devices, Manchu made his debut in The Insidious Dr. Fu-Manchu which was quickly followed by The Return of Dr. Fu-Manchu and The Hand of Fu-Manchu. Not content with crushing the British empire from within the pages of a mere book, the power-mad Manchu unleashed a full-fledged multi-media assault in 1923 with The Mystery of Fu Manchu, the first of dozens of films built around his pernicious plans to—dare I say it—rule the world. Soon the doctor began to dominate radio, television, comic strips, and even the pop charts (the Rockin’ Ramrods released Don’t Fool with Fu Manchu in 1965). Eventually Manchu’s claws would extend far beyond his own domain, his profile inspiring a new wave of supervillains including an extraterrestrial doppelgänger in Ming the Merciless and a veritable body double in 1958’s Dr. No.
Manchu’s flamboyant character was ripe for star turns and scenery chewing, which convinced a parade of eager character actors—each whiter than the last—to don makeup as the Chinese hobgoblin; Irish-born Harry Agar Lyons racked up 23 appearances in the silent era films, Swedish-born Warner Oland starred in 1929’s The Mysterious Dr. Fu Manchu, Germany’s Henry Brandon took his turn in a theatrical serial from 1940, Drums of Fu Manchu, and fellow yanks John Carradine and Glen Gordon wore Manchu’s mustache on the small screen in 1952 and ’56: Carradine in an unaired pilot called The Zayat Kiss and Gordon in The Adventures of Dr. Fu Manchu which ran for 13 episodes. When the dust settled one actor stood apart from that crowd—Boris Karloff.
Karloff’s delicately malevolent performance in The Mask of Fu Manchu remains the most vivid of Manchu interpretations—and director Charles Brabin’s stylishly transgressive melodrama remains the pinnacle of the Fu films. Released in 1932, the ornately mounted shocker is a treasure chest of perversity, all the more startling because it was MGM—the most staid and ostentatious of film studios—that was behind the sordid enterprise (the art director was Grand Hotel‘s Cedric Gibbons and Fu’s catwalk-ready costumes were designed by Adrian who dressed Greta Garbo, Katharine Hepburn, and The Munchkins).
The studio energetically embraced the anything-goes pre-code recipe, in this case generous portions of Sadean violence and unspeakable pleasures laced with at least one or two controlled substances. The result served as a useful template for future Manchu films: the only way to do justice to Rohmer’s sick shenanigans was to court controversy (Karloff’s make-up included pointed ears), tweak the censors (Fu offers his own daughter as a bargaining chip), and wait for thrill-crazy ticket buyers to get in line—a go-for-broke attitude that gave The Mask of Fu Manchu its sleazy grandeur along with its box office success. But that model was for the most part ignored by subsequent movies featuring the doctor—including those of Harry Alan Towers, the producer and screenwriter of five Fu Manchu films starring Christopher Lee released between 1965 and 1969.
Lee assumed the mantle at a moment when Fu Manchu couldn’t have seemed more retrograde; pop art and camp were having their way with popular culture, past and present—Roy Lichtenstein’s supersized comic panels ruled the galleries and Hugh Hefner hosted parties featuring the 1940’s Batman serials as the main attraction (those literal hootenannies led to Chicago’s Playboy Theater scheduling the serials for Saturday matinees). Even Fu’s unofficial proxy Ming the Merciless was enduring stoned hecklers at campus revivals of Flash Gordon. And so it was that American culture had its tongue planted firmly in cheek just as The Face of Fu Manchu arrived in New York where ads sprung up touting “Fu Manchu for Mayor.” It was ballyhoo aimed purely at hipsters because the film itself was cut from very old cloth.
It’s not a nice way to treat a mayoral candidate but The Face of Fu Manchu begins with its title character dead before the credits roll, his head chopped off during a very public execution. While the axe-man and officials depart the rainswept scene, Inspector Nayland Smith stands by long after Manchu’s body and his head have been separated—just to make sure they stay that way. Smith is well to do so because thanks to the poor sap sacrificed in Manchu’s stead, the doctor himself pops up several minutes later already hard at work on his new scheme—a Goldfinger-like plot to use poppy seeds and poison gas to level London.
This 1965 adventure is at least generous to Lee in his debut as Manchu; he’s surrounded by a genre fan’s dream cast with Nigel Green as the long-faced Smith and the Astaire and Rogers of Edgar Wallace films, Joachim Fuchsberger and Karin Dor, who play lovers ensnared in Manchu’s plans (four of Towers’s five Manchu films were British-German productions which accounts for the continuing presence of some of Deutschland’s finest thespians).
A pity, then, that Don Sharp, with better than average Hammer horrors to his credit like Kiss of the Vampire, delivers an experience hobbled by slow-footed action scenes and dim-witted comic book dialog courtesy of producer Towers (writing as Peter Welbeck)—the tired repartee is delivered with such deadpan earnestness it sounds like an episode of the Batman tv show without the laughs. Christopher Lee certainly looked the part of a mysterious crime lord—if anything, the flowing robes and ornamental headdresses made him seem even taller than his already commanding height.
Lee’s performance, with its strong overtones of his turn in Dracula, Prince of Darkness, was an act he would repeat throughout the series—he’s very still and mostly silent as he nearly floats from scene to scene—and when he does show his face, he lets his glower convey his intentions rather than his words. Lee was pleased with Sharp’s initial film but after that, it seems Dracula fatigue settled in: “My confidence in The Face Of Fu Manchu was justified. The picture did well. The Brides Of Fu Manchu was tosh. The Vengeance Of Fu Manchu took me to Hong Kong for some excellent golf. The Castle Of Fu Manchu introduced me to golf in Barcelona.” If Lee grew bored with the series he kept it to himself on screen. At least he had a like-minded partner in crime; Lin Tang, Manchu’s ruthless offspring played by the Chinese actress Tsai Chin—best known as Auntie Lindo in The Joy Luck Club.
In Sharp’s 1966 sequel The Brides of Fu Manchu, the doctor has the bright idea to use radio waves in his quest for world domination—but he needs an expert’s help—his solution is to kidnap the daughters of eminent scientists in order to convince them to finish the job. Douglas Wilmer takes over as Smith while this entry’s Krimi contingent is represented by Heinz Drache of The Monster of Blackwood Castle and The Indian Scarf. Despite harboring shortcomings already ingrained in the series, Brides is something of a bright spot; though Sharp’s approach to action sequences hasn’t improved, the plot turns are lively and the “brides” themselves, each in various states of dishabille and ready to pose for a Man’s Life cover, get a chance for payback in the amusingly knock-about finale—for once Manchu’s talons meet their match in these sharp-clawed pussycats.
The Vengeance of Fu Manchu, could just as well been called The Face of Nayland Smith because Jeremy Summers’s 1967 entry is basically an inversion of The Face of Fu Manchu; the irrepressible madman kidnaps Smith and sends his pre-fabricated duplicate out on a murder spree. Though Towers is repeating himself (not a capital crime in an adventure series) the producer laces his story with one or two unexpected moments and Summers directs in a perfunctory but capable fashion (Summers fared better in a film that now appears as wistful as its title song, Ferry Cross the Mersey starring Gerry and the Pacemakers—though not so much with the dreadful House of a Thousand Dolls, even with Vincent Price on board as a combination magician/white slave trader. How do you screw that up?)
The last of Towers’s Fu films were directed by Jesús Franco, a man blessed with one of the most inexplicable careers in movie history. Though lacking in anything but the most basic filmmaking skills he churned out over 200 films—and like Manchu himself it could be said Franco made movies with a vengeance because he was clearly out to murder his audience. His main weapon was a superpower wielded by more than a few directors but Franco perfected it—the ability to bore you to death. He seemed to sleepwalk from one set up to the next and no amount of frenetic, incoherent editing could enliven his product.
Franco’s efforts, The Blood of Fu Manchu and The Castle of Fu Manchu, at least benefit from their luscious locations; Blood was filmed in Madrid and Rio de Janeiro and Castle in Istanbul and Barcelona, and the views are as pretty as a picture postcard. Blood finds Manchu infecting women with a snake venom that creates zombified sex-kittens capable of silencing a man with one kiss. Castle is fittingly the last gasp of the Towers series as Manchu plots to freeze the ocean in a power grab for world domination that’s barely worthy of a Batman villain. The movie’s saving grace is the unexpected appearance of Rosabla Neri decked out in a pinstripe suit and fez—peculiar but very fetching.
Indicator’s new Blu ray release, The Fu Manchu Cycle, 1965-1969, is pretty as a picture postcard too. The transfers for all these films are really quite striking and a couple, The Brides of Fu Manchu and The Vengeance of Fu Manchu, are luminous. Cosmic Joke Dept.—Franco’s Blood of Fu Manchu looks ravishing, the best of the lot. The films run the gamut of aspect ratios—2:35.1 for Face, then regresses to 1:85 and 1:66 for the remainders. And then there are the extras—documentaries, commentaries, trailers, image galleries, Super 8 adaptations—that are formidable enough to make any film lover—whether a fan of Fu or not—sit up and take notice. The stand-outs being:
A short and sweet interview with Christopher Lee conducted in 1965 with the Irish television program Newsbeat.
Sir Christopher Frayling, author of The Yellow Peril: Dr Fu Manchu & The Rise of Chinaphobia, speaks about the work of Sax Rohmer in 2020’s Underneath the Skin—it’s a scholarly but blunt discussion and neatly positions Rohmer’s work in its historical context.
From 1994, an interview conducted by David Robinson with Christopher Lee. The chat centers around the actor’s life and times and it’s a treat—a veritable one-man show as the Lee works his way through his career only stopping for anecdotes about his directors and fellow actors. A must for any Lee fan.
Though the Manchu books were remarkably popular they went on hiatus between 1941 and ’48 due to America’s alliance with China during the war. Doubleday, Rohmer’s U.S. publisher, refused to publish what was seen, even in the best light, as racist propaganda during that period. After the war it was back to business as usual, for better and for worse. An excellent new presentation from Kim Newman goes into the fraught racial politics of Rohmer and the Fu Manchu novels in Pages of Peril.
Jonathan Rigby weighs in with a winning new presentation on the early career of Christoper Lee in Tall, Lean and Feline.
A feature-length film presentation, The Ghost of Monk’s Island, directed in 1963 by Jeremy Summers for the Children’s Film Foundation. The foundation was a quasi-Disney company formed in 1951 devoted to movies for the little ones blending Our Gang and the Hardy Boys in titles like 1953’s The Dog and the Diamonds about some puppy-loving kids and jewel thieves, and 1963’s Go Kart Go featuring a band of scrappy street kids (shades of the Rascal’s Auto Antics.)
An excellent new video essay from from Stephen Thrower on Jesús Franco and Harry Alan Towers called The Men Who Killed Fu Manchu? which sheds light on Towers’s own superpower—he was a dealmaker par excellence.
Bless Indicator, they’ve included a full episode of the silent serial starring Harry Agar Lyons from 1923; The Mystery of Dr. Fu-Manchu: ‘The Fiery Hand’
A new interview with Rosalba Neri featuring lovely memories of Franco, Maria Rohm, and the making of The Castle of Fu Manchu; From Alicante to Istanbul.
A 2008 interview with Harry Alan Towers
Another complete episode from the silent serial The Further Mysteries of Dr. Fu-Manchu from 1924: ‘The Coughing Horror’
The cherry on top is a beautifully illustrated 120-page book with a terrific essay from Tim Lucas on all things Fu including his thoughts on Harry Alan Towers and Sax Rohmer,
There are a plethora of other treats and you can read the complete rundown here.