Mysterious Dr. Fu Manchu, The
U.S.A. Before 1950
Directed by Rowland V. Lee.

Fu Manchu is just minding his own business during the Boxer Rebellion when Major Petrie fires on his house, killing his family. Naturally, he seeks revenge. Warner Oland, soon to be Charlie Chan, plays the angry Fu.

"I'm sorry, I'm afraid my somewhat weird and oriental methods may have misled your occidental mind into believing that this is nothing but a gigantic melodrama" - Fu Manchu

It's not the first Fu Manchu movie ever, but it is the first one with sound. Our story begins in China, 1900, in the midst of the Boxer rebellion. The caption reads, "For the first time in History, nine nations united against a common enemy -- The Boxers, 'Society for Harmonious Fists.'" The captions continue: "One after another the white defenses of Peking fell -- the British Legation became the last stronghold against the Oriental horde."

Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that nine nations once again scrambled at the opportunity to carve up and divvy out more of China to themselves. The Boxers themselves were mostly just hacking apart missionaries, but finally their mission coalesced into a general anti-foreign thing. The Empress Dowager allowed them to do their thing, perhaps hoping the Boxers actually would scare off the foreigners. She even went so far as to declare war with the foreign nations in 1900, an incredibly poor decision which, although leading to a few hundred foreigners deaths, ended up pretty much emasculating China once and for all (or at least, for the next twenty years). Notice how, in the captions, we move quickly from the threat of the Boxers directly to the threat of the 'oriental horde,' before the opening credits have even cooled off. Forget the Boxers, its any and all orientals we need to be worrying about.

As the film opens, we see Dr. Eltham, under fire in the legation, get a trusted Chinaman to take his daughter in secret to his friend, the highly respected citizen Dr. Fu Manchu, apparently not evil yet. The minute he sees her off he eats a bullet. Fu Manchu (Warner Oland) receives the girl, who is crying fitfully, so he hypnotizes her to sleep. I must learn how to do that.

Meanwhile, the combined troops show up and save the legation, immediately parading through the streets, first a British band, followed shortly by the French, then the Americans. It seems everyone has brought their marching band to Beijing. Or actually, not quite everyone. Japanese and Russian contingents were also part of the group that lifted the seige of Peking.

But a last group of retreating boxers hid behind Fu Manchu's garden wall. Fu is not the least bit alarmed. "The white men are kind and generous. They would not hurt you, nor bring harm to the house of Fu," he says, just as a mortar shell gets lobbed into his living room, killing his wife Fai Lu and their child. Their blood splashes across the family emblem, of a dragon, on the wall. And that pretty much brings to a close the whole friendly Fu Manchu thing, as he turns on the deep, deep hate. "I have been blind," he says, stating the obvious. He swears to wipe out the perpetrators of the deed, father and son, to the third generation. And he looks to Dr. Eltham's daughter and cries, "This child shall be the means of my vengeance!"

Perhaps he is overreacting a bit. I mean, what made him think the foreigners wouldn't attack his house? After all, we're fighting against the oriental horde here, we don't have time for these little distinctions. We are not shown what happens to Peking after the victorious army arrives, which is, they split up the city and loot the crap out of it. Most Chinese were long gone at that point, having seen more than enough times what happens when the foreign army sweeps through.

Time passes, and a caption reads: "Many years and many journeys, unrelenting hate, a never ending search for revenge..." It turns out Fu has been busy killing the various generals who led the allied charge into Peking. He heads over to London, where he plans to eliminate General Petrie, his son, and grandson, a young Dr. Petrie (Neil Hamilton). He does a pretty bang-up job of it, too, despite the best efforts of Nayland Smith (O.P.Heggie) of Scotland Yard to stop him. For each victim, Fu paints another scale on his family emblem, erasing the blood. Vengeance by numbers.

The young Dr. Petrie is duped by Lia Eltham (Jean Arthur), Fu Manchu's daughter, now all grown up and dressing in sexy gowns. He even asks Fu Manchu for help in finding who is responsible for the death of his grandfather. Fu serves him the special, 'death' tea, but at the last moment Nayland Smith bursts in. Fu admits to the murders, and his daughter Lia can hardly believe it, apparently having been raised to do evil through hypnotism, and normally is just a nice person. She hugs Fu and begs him to tell her it isn't so, but he tosses her aside, crying, "I hate your detestable white skin!" Which isn't really keeping with his character. After all, I was under the impression he was getting revenge for his wife and child, nevermind who did the killing. But no, apparently it has metamorphosed into a hatred for whiteys, which is right where the audience no doubt felt it should be all along.

In the end, Fu Manchu gains the upper hand, and with Dr. Petrie captured, he hypnotizes Lia Eltham into killing him. "What western mind could have done this?" he gloats. And keeps on gloating. In quite simply the best scene of the film, the man just will not stop gloating. And so, the opportunity slips away, and Nayland Smith once again leaps to the rescue. Before he can put a bullet in Fu Manchu, the cunning devil drinks his own 'death' tea, and drops to the ground, dead. Or is he?

The Mysterious Dr. Fu Manchu is not a great film by any means. But it is more entertaining than many of the programmers being made at the time. Fans of Charlie Chan will certainly want to see Warner Oland playing the very opposite of his most famous role. I found his characterization of Fu Manchu to be very sympathetic, so much so that I found it hard to care about our heroes. The death of Dr. Petrie seemed, really, to be no great loss. Fu is toned down a bit from his book appearances, rather than aiming for the subjugation of the white race, he just wanted to kill those responsible for his wife and child's murder. The film itself seemed to be of two minds about this, however, at times seeming to tell its story straight, at other times dovetailing into Yellow Peril fearmongering and racial conflict.

The strangest part of the story is that we are expected to believe that Fu Manchu needed to hypnotize the white daughter he has raised to do his evil deeds. What for? When you're raising someone from infancy, you can mold them to some extent to your own image. There's no reason he couldn't have raised a perfectly healthy, loving, and murderous daughter without needing to fall back on hypnotism. But to audiences in the 1920s, this would be considered the more unlikely of scenarios. Obviously, the film seems to state, a respectable white woman couldn't possibly love or respect an asian man unless they were under hypnosis.

The narrative of the early Fu Manchu films, then, while not depicting Fu Manchu as overly, demonically evil, nevertheless created a forum in which the audience could play-act the conquering of their fears of the Yellow Peril and leave the theater feeling good about themselves. This no doubt contributed to their popularity, and it was only a year later that the sequel, The Return of Dr. Fu Manchu was released, with mostly the same cast.

Rating: Marginally Recommended (Marginally Recommended)

Posted by Peter Nepstad on April 07, 2004.

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