Face of Fu Manchu, The
Europe 1965
Directed by Don Sharp.


Christopher Lee takes his turn as the evil Fu, threatening Nayland Smith with a heaping dose of mayhem and death.

Not the Yellow Peril again!" Dr. Petrie exclaims. But yes, I'm afraid so. But where has it been? It's been over thirty years since Boris Karloff took Fu Manchu to demonic extremes in The Mask of Fu Manchu. There was the whole matter of WWII in between the two films, a time when China was ostensibly an American ally. But once China fell to the Communists, Fu was back in fair play. There was a serial, The Drums of Fu Manchu, which was unexceptional, and a TV series played in the 50s for around a dozen episodes. But it wasn't until the British Hammer Studios was dusting off all the old horror monsters for a fresh technicolor look to great success, that Fu Manchu made his triumphant return to the big screen. And who better to play him than the man who was recreating the old Boris Karloff roles of Frankenstein's monster and the Mummy, Christopher Lee? Well, probably there were quite a few better people to play the role. But Christopher Lee got it, and ran with it.

The movie begins with Nayland Smith being called to China to witness the execution of Fu Manchu. The Executioner has a bushy, hairy chest and horribly messed up eyes, perhaps the result of an eye makeup job gone wrong. The head mandarin cries, in a mostly British accent, "Executioner! In the name of Imperial China -- Death to Fu Manchu!" Lightning. Thunder. Drums. His head rolls.

But of course, he isn't dead. Instead, he is busy cooking up a plan for world domination, and if he can swing it, death to Nayland Smith. The first piece of the plan is kidnapping Professor Muller (Walter Rilla), a German scientist. His next step, to kidnap the scientists daughter, Maria, to make sure he will behave. But here, Nayland Smith is on to him. With the help of Maria's fiancee, Carl Yansen, stop a few abduction attempts, but finally fail and Maria is kidnapped.

At the Fu household, the torture gets underway. There's a bit of whipping, led by Fu's daughter Lin Tang (Tsai Chin), but it just doesn't feel as naughty as the extended S&M in The Mask of Fu Manchu. Fu then takes everyone downstairs where he illustrates his deviously inexplicable killing device. "Water comes through, here," he explains, helpfully, giving the whole demo like he's showing off his new Lexus. He wraps it up with the vaguely threatening, "Where one can go, another may follow." Learn that from Confucious, I wonder?

Mr. Yansen explains to Nayland Smith what the evil doctor is up to this time -- he and Prof. Muller had learned how to distill a vicious poison from the Black Hill poppy of Tibet. Nayland Smith, ever the authority, of course has heard of the famous poppy. They disguise themselves as orientals, not difficult to do, considering Christopher Lee is trying to pass, and sneak into Fu's lair, where after a sloppy fist fight, they manage to save the day. Or, almost -- Fu Manchu and his daughter have slipped out, to Tibet, where they are going to retrieve more poppies to distill more poison. Nayland follows, and in true British fashion, blows up an entire Tibetan town just to kill Fu Manchu. As the village goes up in smoke, we hear the voice of Fu Manchu rise up over the tumult: "The world shall hear from me again!"

This film, more than any other Fu Manchu film, perfectly maps the battlefield between east and west. The evil east, led by Fu Manchu, is more than just China, instead it is a mysterious and threatening conglomeration of eastern nations. Fu Manchu is Chinese, but the Tibetans are in on his plans as well. Nayland Smith learned of him through his time in Burma. And Fu Manchu's ruthless henchmen are "dacoits," a British term which refers to a brigand of India and Burma, who in this case worship the goddess Kali by strangling their victims (referred to historically as thuggee, from which is derived our modern term thug).

Faced against the east is the all-knowing west, utilizing its knowledge as power, wielded in the hands of one man: Nayland Smith. His is, however, able to clearly distinguish between good orientals and bad. He has a servant girl, named Lotus, who is clearly oriental. She demonstrates how a 'good' oriental behaves by being a servant to the white man. Is everyone enjoying this yet?

Witness now the subtle play between the east and west. Fu Manchu, a doctor of several sciences, the most brilliant oriental mind known to man, as Nayland Smith is fond of reminding everyone, has to capture a western scientist to do his work for him, he doesn't know how to do it himself. And what is the doctor working on? Black Hill Poppies, collected from Tibet. So Fu Manchu affirms the paradigms by which the west views the east: the east has vast and strange lands and customs, and it is up to the west to enter those areas, investigate them, and come to a scientific understanding. This is what Prof. Muller has done.

Prof. Muller explains to Fu Manchu that the complete secret of the Black Hill poppy was obtained during the Younghusband expedition and included in that expeditions papers. Being a Great Game fanatic, I knew at once he was referring to the Younghusband expedition to Tibet in 1905, the purpose of which was to open Tibet to the west. The script here implies it was somewhat of a scientific expedition, but that would be a stretch. Younghusband led several hundred troops through the mountains to Lhasa, where he hoped to gain an audience with the Lama. No westerner had ever set foot in Lhasa before this time, and the Tibetans were understandably reluctant to let him pass. But with perseverance and modern arms, Younghusband slaughtered hundreds and he marched onward.

A particularly vicious slaughter came when the defending Tibetans, who believed they wore talismans making them immune to gunfire, attacked Younghusband's army. They opened fire, and didn't stop until every Tibetan in sight was dead or wounded. They all felt pretty bad about it afterwards, and went about trying to re-attach arms and legs and in general comfort the wounded, which just confused the Tibetans more.

Moving on, Younghusband gained entry to Tibet, but the Lama wasn't there. It's too bad, really, since in the script here they explain that the Lama gave him the secret to the Black Hill poppy. But in fact the Lama had fled, and fled quick. The Chinese, eager for the British to make a speedy departure, hastily appointed a new Lama and sent him over to sign the usual one-sided, unfair treaties so everyone could pat themselves on the back and go home.

Ironically, at the end of The Face of Fu Manchu, Nayland Smith leaves a chest full of nitro-glycerin in a Tibetan town. "Enough to blow the whole place sky high!" It does, and the Tibetans die in droves. Ahhh, feels like old times.

In addition to being a wonderful example of Orientalism, The Face of Fu Manchu is great entertainment. Some classic villainy is provided by the opium warehouse owner Hanumon (Peter Mossbacher), who is of no identifiable ethnicity and talks with the most bizarre accent imaginable. I am afraid he thinks he is being Chinese. And there's the damnably British Dr. Petrie, played with Dr. Watson clearly in mind by Howard Marion Crawford. And then there is Fu Manchu and his daughter Lin Tang, interrupting the Charleston to bring you an important radio announcement.

The Face of Fu Manchu was a hit when it was released, and it has every reason to be. Audiences didn't take it seriously, and had a blast. Part of the publicity for the film was a write-in campaign for Fu Manchu for mayor in New York City. The film was a bigger success for Christopher Lee than even his Dracula pictures. And like Dracula, he would go on to play Fu Manchu in more films than any other actor. Next up was The Brides of Fu Manchu.

Rating: Recommended (Recommended)

Posted by Peter Nepstad on April 28, 2004.


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