“God save Fu Manchu, Moriarty and Dracula”. The Kinks Are The Village Green Preservation Society, 1968.
Now that everything pre-Millennial is being rigorously combed through for possible retrospective violations of an ever tightening political correctness code, with particular reference to actors playing characters of a different racial heritage from their own (i.e. acting), it’s an “interesting” time for Indicator to release a characteristically epic BD box set devoted to five Fu Manchu films produced in the ‘60s by the notorious Harry Allan Towers and starring Christopher Lee as the “Devil Doctor / Yellow Peril incarnate”… that’s “interesting” as in the old Chinese curse: “May you live through interesting times” (am I, as an occidental dude, even allowed to reference that one anymore?)
First things first… the fourteen Fu Manchu novels of Sax Rohmer (1983-1959, aka Arthur Sarsfield Ward, but known to his Mum, when he was growing up in Birmingham, as Arthur Henry Ward) are unashamedly Sinophobic, cashing in on contemporary (well, it’s never really gone away) hysteria over “The Yellow Peril” swamping Western, Christian, capitalist culture. The books are enthusiastically anti-Semitic, into the rotten bargain, but early comic strip, radio and film adaptations emphasised the Sinophobia, reaching a peak with MGM’s The Mask of Fu Manchu (1931), in which Boris Karloff (an actor who did have Asian heritage) as the title character, orders his minions to enslave white men and rape their women. Charles Brabin’s film was so “screamingly racist” (in the words of Christopher Frayling during a bonus interview here) that it was pulled from distribution after official complaints by the Chinese government and VHS copies were being cut as late as the 1980’s. During WWII the American State Department ordered Republic Pictures to shoot no more FM serials after Dreams of Fu Manchu (1940) for fear of offending China, then an ally against imperial Japan.
The series produced by Harry Allan Towers (above), though, are an entirely different kettle of koi carp. For one thing, after the author died (of… get this… Asian Flu) that inveterate adaptor of vintage literature bought the character rights rather than the story rights for the Fu Manchu novels from Rohmer’s widow, saving himself a savvy packet and simultaneously divesting his series of the novels’ racist baggage by penning new stories under his trusty “Peter Welbeck” non de plume. Here, the Doc is less of a ranting maniac and more of a Chinese nationalist, honourable after his own fashion and certainly (until a certain Spaniard got his busy hands on him) a man of his word (even if most of the words he speaks concern his ambitions for world domination, exceeded only by his desire for revenge on his ongoing nemesis… Assistant Commissioner of Scotland Yard, Sir Dennis Nayland Smith). Then there’s Christopher Lee, who obviously brings real physical presence and gravitas to the title role. Lee had already played orientals to impressive effect in two 1961 efforts, Hammer’s Terror of the Tongs (1961) and Rialto Film’s Edgar Wallace adaptation The Devil’s Daffodil, directed by Akos Rathonvi. Lee’s Fu Manchu is no Benny Hill “Cooky Boy” caricature, more a Blofeld-like supervillain. The influence of the early Bond films is unmistakable, though instead of 007, Fu’s up against Rohmer’s answer to Holmes and Watson, in the shape of Smith and his loyal companion Dr Petrie (played in all of these films by Howard Marion-Crawford). The series’ other ever present is Tsai Chin as the Doc’s daughter Lin Tang, an inscrutable chip off the fiendish old block.
With Don Sharp (“a lovely, make-do-and-mend director” in the words of assistant Ray Andrew) calling the shots, ably assisted by equally dependable DP Ernest Steward, inaugural entry The Face of Fu Manchu (1965) also benefits from a castload of such krimi regulars (the film is a UK / West German co-production) as Joachim Fuchsberger, Karin Dor and Walter Rilla alongside seasoned British pros like James Robertson Justice (“You can’t leave the museum littered with dead Chinese!”) Dublin doubles for London and indeed the Chinese courtyard where we find Nayland Smith (played by Nigel Green) attending the judicial decapitation, for “crimes beyond number” of the title character. Not for the last time in this series, reports of the Doc’s demise would turn out to have been seriously exaggerated…
Back in “London”, Nayland Smith is bored with his desk job, thirsting for action. He tells his friend Petrie of his nagging doubt that Fu Manchu is still alive and of course he is, having substituted a brain washed doppelgänger for himself on the chopping block. As you do. Before you can say “Evil plan to take over the World”, not entirely inconspicuous Burmese dacoits in martial arts outfits are kidnapping scientists and strangling people with Tibetan prayer scarves all over the capital. Fu’s got himself a Limehouse cellar HQ, very handy for drowning his enemies and leaving them floating around in the Thames. Dr Muller (Rilla) is forced to help the villain synthesise a deadly biotoxin from the black hill poppy (ironic stuff, considering the history of the Opium Wars) when Fu kidnaps his daughter Maria (Dor). Karl Jannsen (Fuchsberger) collaborates with our boys to try and save the Mullers but soon Fu is demonstrating the power of his dreaded lurgy by wiping out the population of seaside town Fleetwick, trailered in one of the ominous radio broadcasts he seems to favour. Meanwhile Lin Tang tops Myrna Loy’s Fah Lo See in Mask of Fu Manchu for sheer unabashed sadism, though she is frequently pulled up by her iron-disciplined father, a firm believer in the adage that violence is a tool rather than a toy. The explosive conclusion in Tibet is a little abruptly arrived at and concluded but by the time Fu Manchu has uttered his soon to become familiar threat that the world will hear from him again (and it usually does), all but the most demanding viewers will consider themselves well served by this satisfying Saturday matinee type romp.
Douglas Wilmer replaces Nigel Green as Nayland Smith in Brides of Fu Manchu (1966) another ripping yarn shot partly in Dublin but mostly studio bound, played out in the dungeons where Fu has made his new HQ and keeps his collection of kidnapped / hypnotised eminent scientists’ daughters. Their dads are thus obliged to chip in with their expertise on his project to build a sonic death ray which, after a decoy threat to Windsor castle, disintegrates a British battleship at sea. Westminster Abbey, stuffed with world leaders, is next on the Doc’s hit list but the BBC collaborate on blocking his deadly radio waves and the French foreign legion join an attack on his base, which blows up after Fu cranks the power too high, over the objections of his technical advisor Burt Kwouk. The UK film industry’s most prolific Chinese thesp is joined by familiar British character actors (e.g. Rupert Davis) and this being another co-production with West Germany, a further krimi contingent in the shape of Heinz Drache and Joseph Furst.
With Sharp otherwise occupied on IRA thriller The Violent Enemy and Towers’ Rocket to the Moon, Vengeance of Fu Manchu (1967) was directed by the similarly stalwart Jeremy Summers. Reflecting developments in the ongoing Bond franchise, this one’s a bit more self-consciously modern, edgy, violent and gimmicky than its predecessors. Seeking the leadership of international organised crime (represented by Horst Frank as an oddly accented American racketeer), Fu comes up with his most fiendish plan yet, to weaken world wide law enforcement by either bumping off or discrediting its major practitioners. Wilmer’s Nayland Smith is kidnapped and replaced with a surgically engineered, brainwashed ringer who promptly strangles his maid and is sentenced to death. With the real Assistant Commissioner out of commission, his associates (principally Peter Karsten’s Kurt) have to do most of the sleuthing and foiling. Maria Rohm, Towers’ long time companion, adorns the proceedings as Shanghai dive chanteuse Ingrid, though she’s actually lip-synching to the voice of Samantha Jones.
Received critical wisdom has it that after the solid “Hammer-looking” Face, this series declined markedly with each successive entry and it’s been suggested that Towers spent progressively more of each film’s budget on wining and dining himself and favoured members of his cast and crew. In point of fact, the first three entries are roughly comparable in quality and Vengeance, shot partly in Ireland but also at the Shaw Brothers’ studios in Hong Kong, arguably tops the claustrophobic Brides in terms of production values, scenic locations and thrills / spills. Summers was initially signed up to make another three Fu Manchu epics for the producer but when contractual undertakings clashed, Towers had an oven baked (maybe half-baked) alternative ready to go. Depending on your cinematic tastes, its arguable that the rot really set in with Blood of Fu Manchu (1968)… what’s indisputable is that the series now took a sexadelic swerve into a completely parallel universe, the unparalleled universe of Spanish cult director extraordinary, Jess Franco. Towers had already called Franco in to rescue The Face of Eve (1968) when Summers left that one uncompleted. Did dear old Jess ever really rescue a picture? He’s certainly finished off more than a few. Whatever, with him safely ensconced in the Fu Manchu directing seat, this series would never be quite the same again. Blood… is unrecognisable as the work of the director who made e.g. Succubus, the same year. Despite some sub-Bava lighting effects and signature shots of scantily clad women suspended in chains, there are no pretensions to auteurism here, just Jess taking the money (surreptitiously spending much of it shooting scenes for several other movies he’s got in development) and running. Though “Peter Welbeck” remains the writer of record (and Towers was no doubt happy to pay himself for writing it), this one bears the unmistakable stamp of a thousand other Franco screenplays jotted down on the back of a fag packet. One of Daniel White’s more listless scores does nothing to help.
Now based in some Amazon ruins, Fu has resynthesised an ancient Inca poison that will be administered to world leaders via the kisses of beautiful women whom he has kidnapped and brain washed (this one was released in The States, to general indifference, as Kiss and Kill, increasing suspicion that the Fu Manchu brand was losing its box office allure). Nayland Smith (now played by Richard Robin Hood Greene), having copped a mouthful of poison, is incapacitated and unseen for most of the picture (though he re-emerges with a blazing machine gun during its alleged climax). In another wage-bill cutting move Lee’s Fu, having set all this dastardly shit in motion, also disappears for much of its running time. Lin Tang is brought so far to the fore that she’s even seen sitting on Fu’s throne at one point (she’s following her father’s footsteps, she’s following her dear old Dad!) Nor does he discourage her from enjoying the whipping of captives, as he did in the first film. Shirley Eaton apparently never knew that she’d been cut into this one from footage shot for The Girl from Rio (another Franco / Towers Rohmer adaptation released in 1969) so she never got paid for it. Maria Rohm and Franco himself pop up in the cast and during the protracted absence of Lee and Greene from the screen, much of the narrative centres on the oafish antics of bandit Sancho Lopez, another questionable racist stereotype played by Ricardo Palacios (who looks like a refugee from a bad Spaghetti western, though he actually appeared in some of the very best ones). Marion-Crawford’s Dr Petrie is present and correct but he’s been reduced to a bumbling comic relief character, hacking his way through the Brazilian jungle in search of a nice cup of tea. When he does occasionally show, Lee brings something less than 100% conviction to the delivery of his lines, but with doozies like: “Let him wait like an ant on an anvil!”, who can blame him?
The world did hear from Lee’s Fu Manchu one more time, in Castle of Fu Manchu, but it’s anyone’s guess if they knew WTF he was on about. Scrabbled together with finance from the UK, West Germany, Italy, Spain, Lichtenstein and Turkey (anywhere but The States, which Towers was studiously avoiding while he waited out a vice charge) this one was largely filmed in Istanbul. As ever, Franco demonstrates skilful deployment of his “more bang for your buck” locations, but narrative wise this one makes its wobbly predecessor look like The Magnificent Ambersons. The general idea is that Dr Fu has cracked the formula for freezing large expanses of water instantaneously, threatening world shipping routes. He demonstrates this by freezing “the tropical waters of the South Atlantic” (er… are you sure about that, Doc?), something conveyed to the viewer by stock footage copped from Roy Ward Baker’s A Night to Remember (1958). Elsewhere he causes a massive dam to burst, rendered by further footage theft, this time from Ralph Thomas’s 1957 effort Campbell’s Kingdom. At least Burt Kwouk’s scenes have been pinched from an earlier entry in the Fu Manchu series, if not one that Franco himself directed. The active ingredient in Fu’s ocean-freezing formula is (what else?) opium (is there nothing that stuff can’t do?) and to secure a sufficient supply of it, the Doc goes into partnership with Turkish dope mogul Omar Pashu (Jose Manuel Martin) whose evil henchwoman is played by a Fez-wearing Rosalba Neri (we don’t see enough of her but hey, can you ever really see enough of Rosalba Neri?) It’s not much of a spoiler to tell you that Nayland Smith (Richard Greene again) ultimately thwarts these megalomaniacal shenanigans. This time the mandatory closing promise / thereat that the world would see Fu Manchu again rings hollow. Despite planning for a sixth entry, Harry Alan Towers decided that Jess Franco had singlehandedly achieved what nobody else ever managed… to kill off Fu Manchu (though no doubt the penny-pinching producer himself had a significant hand in the Doc’s untimely demise).
Could the world’s cinemas feasibly hear from Fu Manchu again in these more “woke” times? One imagines some kind of major revamp would be in order. As a pragmatic jobbing actor, Burt Kwouk was always cool regarding his appearances in this and similar fare. Tsai Chin later said that she felt she’d let her race down by appearing in the Fu Manchu flicks, though no doubt if an occidental actress had played her character, that would now be seriously frowned upon as well. You can’t win, really… just ask that perennially underachieving would be world dominator, Dr Fu Manchu. No matter… his cinematic crusade to rehabilitate the international prestige of Chinese would be achieved (and then some), scant years later, by a certain Bruce Lee.
All films have been handsomely restored from 4K scans of the original negatives. The first three are international BD premieres, the Franco films making their first UK appearances on blu here. Each film is introduced by the BFI’s Vic Pratt. Audio commentaries come courtesy of Stephen Jones / Kim Newman, David Flint / Adrian Smith and Jonathan Rigby. There are archival audio interviews with Don Sharp, Ernest Steward and Jeremy Summers, video ones with Lee (including with the Guardian’s David Robinson and a short piece from the Dublin location of Face), also AD Anthony Waye and clapper loader Ray Andrew on their never-a-dull-moment experiences working for the late Harry Alan Towers. There’s also an entertaining experience with the man himself, who owns up to a “confused” love life (apparently his long-standing partner Maria Rohm sanctioned or disallowed his one night stands on the basis of the proposed conquest’s star sign!) The wonderful Rosalba Neri (below) also talks enthusiastically about working with Franco, whom she remembers as “a genius”.
Kim Newman reflects on Rohmer’s Fu Manchu novels, Jonathan Rigby on Christopher Lee’s early career, Stephen Thrower on the Franco / Towers collaborations and Christopher Frayling outlines the whole “yellow peril” controversy attaching to Fu Manchu on screen. Two silent Stoll Picture shorts from 1923/4, starring H. Agar Lyons as the Doc – The Fiery Hand and (renewed topicality, here) The Coughing Horror – also included here as extras, illustrate just how far back the arguably dishonourable tradition extends (and each is presented with an optional new score by the band Peninsula). If you need the mood lightening a bit after that little lot, this set also includes Jeremy Summer’s Children’s Film Foundation short The Ghost of Monk’s Island… what, no Sammy’s Super T-shirt?!? You do get the requisite shedload of trailers, TV spots, alternative credits and titles, image galleries plus Super 8 presentations and colour test footage of Lee and Tsai Chin from Blood of Fu Manchu. The limited (to 6,000 numbered units) edition also packs an exclusive 120-page book with a new essay on these films by Tim Lucas, appraisals of the eventful lives and careers of Sax Rohmer and Harry Alan Towers, an examination of the work of Fu Manchu creator, new writing on The Ghost of Monk’s Island Stoll Pictures’ silent Fu Manchu serials, archival newspaper articles, pressbook extracts, contemporary critical responses and full film credits, also an exclusive double-sided poster and five replica production stills.
Phew, did I leave anything out?