Mask of Fu Manchu, The
U.S.A. Before 1950
Directed by Charles Brabin.

Boris Karloff as the most demonic Fu Manchu before or since. He seeks the tomb of Genghis Khan, and puts people in elaborate torture mechanisms for the sheer pleasure of it.

The opening scene sets the tone for this outrageous, politically incorrect action picture. An expedition is about to go to the edge of the Gobi desert, and there find the lost tomb of Genghis Khan. Nayland Smith fills in the leader, Sir Lionel. "Do you love England?" Nayland asks. "Would you be willing to die for her?" The ineffably British Sir Lionel says, "Yes, certainly. What is it this time?" It is a race to the tomb, between the British and Fu Manchu, to recover the artifacts inside: the mask and sword of Genghis Khan. "If Fu Manchu wears that mask across his wicked eyes, puts that scimitar into his bony, cruel hands, all asia rises." But on the other hand, if Sir Lionel gets to them first, well, they are just interesting archeological specimens that will go into the British Museum. "Bring those pretty things...back to England!"

Things start off on the wrong foot when Sir Lionel is immediately abducted by some dacoits in the British Museum, disguised as mummies. As if, were a guard to see the mummies shambling around, he would be much less likely to say anything than if he saw some Chinese men walking about. "Oh, just the mummies again. Carry on."

Soon, Sir Lionel's daughter Sheila (Karen Morley) and her beau, beef brickhouse, actually Terry Granville (Charles Starret) get an expedition together to find the tomb without him, and hopefully find him as well. His daughter is certain he won't tell Fu anything. But all knowing Nayland Smith isn't so sure. "They have ways in the east...of shattering the strongest courage."

Cut to the east, coming up with ways of shattering the strongest courage. In fact, if there are three things this movie is really all about, its torture, torture, torture. Welcome to Fu Manchu's S&M House of Pain. When we first meet Fu Manchu, it is obvious we've left the friendly, somewhat paternal look of Warner Oland far, far behind. Now we have Boris Karloff, and his makeup job does not suggest so much an Asian as the devil himself. He leans in front of a little fun-house mirror, for no apparent reason, and drinks an evil-looking potion, smoke curling around his face, the mirror distorting his already hideous appearance.

Fu Manchu has a little chat with Sir Lionel, and eventually decides to start up some torture. But my favorite thing about this Fu Manchu is that he doesn't just torture people. No, he has pet names for his various tortures, and a special room for each one. I imagine a huge palace, each room with its own inexplicably slow killing device. For Sir Lionel, he picks the "torture of the bells," and no, it isn't a Saved by the Bell marathon. He straps Lionel down under a giant bell, and it starts ringing, a deafening ring. He explains how he will stay there until his ear drums turn to jelly. He emphasizes that he will soil himself and Fu will just let him sit there in his saggy pants. This is some nasty stuff -- I don't recall ever hearing a maniacal villain mention sitting in your own poop as part of his torture, no, typically a person can be strapped down for days and seemingly never have to go. Once the torture is underway, Fu rubs some grapes in his face, lets him drink a little salt water, and other deliciously evil gags.

Meanwhile, the grave robbers have arrived and can hardly wait until they "dig out the jolly old skeleton itself." You just have to love their deep understanding and respect of the culture. They enter the tomb of Genghis Khan, and the poor, half naked, savage Chinese men who were digging for them grovel at the foot of the Khan. "Thousands still worship in his name, " they say, picking the place clean.

The film just keeps getting better and better. Fu holds a banquet, where men dressed in every possible oriental costume you can imagine, from Zanzibar to Japan, are in attendance. In an elaborate exaggeration of Chinese custom he savagely denigrates his daughter (Myrna Loy) before introducing her to the crowd. She appears and announces that Ghengis Khan is returning to lead the orient against the west. Everyone cheers.

Our western representatives in China try to get out of town with the goods, but are soon trapped in an abandoned house. Nayland arrives and admires the mask and scimitar of Fu Manchu, and thinking about how much people will blindly worship these items, wonders aloud, "Will we ever understand these eastern races? Will we ever learn anything?" I don't know, but with an attitude like that HE certainly won't. Would he feel so smug and superior if they uncovered a piece of the one true cross, I wonder?

Fu conspires to force Beef Brickhead to bring the sword to him in exchange for Sir Lionel's life, but with the help of a Van de Graf generator, determines that the sword is false. There's only one thing for it: Slab Stalwart gets a good whipping, with Fu's daughter egging them on and watching every lash. You get the feeling that a good whipping is her answer to anything. Double cross her? That calls for a whipping. Didn't like dinner? Time for a whipping. Late home from work? Whip, slap, whip. Father and daughter whip up a mind control poison for Terry Tonnage, and he's soon captivated by Fu's daughter, and does the bidding of Fu himself.

It's not long before Nayland Smith is also captured by Fu Manchu. Echoing every megalomaniacal villian after him, Fu explains, "If it were not the easy way out, I would kill you now."

Instead, it's torture time. There's the 'Room of the Golden Peacock.' And the 'Room of the slim, silver fingers.' And an unnamed croc pit that Nayland Smith finds himself in. Sir Lionel's daughter screams at Fu Manchu, "You hideous, yellow monster!" but it rolls right off him. Probably used to that kind of abuse.

In the end, Fu Manchu dons the mask and holds the sword of Ghengis Khan while a hoarde of bloodthirsty orientals cheer him on. He goes on at length, in a monologue which includes, if you have the version with special restored footage, comments like, "We will crush our enemies and take their women!" But of course, our heroes escape, murder everyone in sight, and head home laughing. Mission accomplished.

Beyond the horrifyingly tasteless script, mention must be made of the make-up and sets. Certainly Boris Karloff's makeup job garnered a lot of press attention at the time the movie was made, and remains the most elaborate job done for a Fu Manchu film. The sets and costuming are equally fantastic. The film is a feast for the eyes. Take for example Fu Manchu's poison operating room, an elaborately complex room where domes in the floor contain various poisonous reptiles. Along the walls, on pillars of different heights, stand muscular, half-naked black men (for no discernable reason). Various beakers and smoking potions fill out the scene.

The Mask of Fu Manchu is an achievement. Yellow peril fearmongering? You're soaking in it! But at the same time we are taking this long soak, a modern viewer can't help but view the heroes as a bunch of ignorant louts. So what is left is Boris Karloff, and Myrna Loy, and torture after torture after torture. Karloff is classic as the evil doctor, using no discernable accent other than his own pronounced lisp. Myrna Loy is gorgeous, and it's easy to see why directors often cast her to perform in yellowface instead of hiring actual Chinese-American talent such as Anna May Wong. The only standout among the heroes would be Karen Morley as Sheila. Her acting is way over the top, probably more suitable for silent film, but entertaining nonetheless. Her character is little more than the 'white damsel in distress,' who must be saved from the evil orientals. Sadly, her career would be ruined in the fifties when she was one of many hollywood actors and actresses who were blacklisted for leftist political views. She was saved from the Yellow Peril in film only to fall to the Red Menace in life, twenty years later.

As for the actual tomb of Genghis Khan, its whereabouts are still unknown. But a masoleum has been built in Inner Mongolia for visitors to see anyway, and this is where the ashes of the Khan's clothing and other items, and debatably of the Khan himself, has resided since 1954. Interestingly, in the late 30's, the Japanese were moving to invade Outer Mongolia. Japanese propagandists fixed on a legend that stated Genghis Khan was from across the sea, and so claimed that he actually originated from Japan. The Japanese wanted to obtain the ashes and build a shrine to that effect, and so perhaps take Outer Mongolia without a fight, claiming that the Mongolian people were in fact joining the birthplace of their ancestors. The ashes were smuggled away before the Japanese were able to get their hands on them, however, and subsequently the Japanese were soundly defeated by the Mongolians in 1939 when they attempted to invade their territory. The Mask of Fu Manchu then, seems eerily prescient in light of these later historic occurances, as it appears that Fu Manchu was not the only one who thought he could raise an army and unite all of Asia under him by obtaining the relics of Genghis Khan.

Rating: Highly Recommended (Highly Recommended)

Posted by Peter Nepstad on April 28, 2004.

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