Fu Manchu refrigerator magnet PIN

The Mask of Fu Manchu

Dr Fu Manchu was the star of a series of really good English detective/spy novels by Sax Rohmer, eventually resulting in several movies.  The best known film version was The Mask of Fu Manchu, made in 1932 and starring Boris Karloff as the evil Chinese genius. 

This movie is highly entertaining, but inevitably dumbed way down from the books.  Karloff apparently spent 2 1/2 hours a day getting into the Fu Manchu makeup, but he looked good and scary.  They had some good looking visuals.  The bell torture scene was quite nice. 

Boris Karloff as Dr Fu Manchu in the labThe best thing visually, though, was a brief early scene in the lab.  In the books, he's known as an opium smoker.  They didn't quite go there, but he's bent over his Bunsen burners and test tubes and then knocking back some kind of vial of some smoky concoction.  It looked like a specially engineered good time.  Plus, he had some kind of curved mirror over the table inches from his face, giving a grotesquely distorted image of his already sinister face as he's drinking that smoky vial of good time juice. This image immediately struck me as a perhaps conscious reflection of the distortion of all things Eastern in this character.

They had the broad idea from the books of Fu Manchu as an evil Chinese genius set on world domination, but the character and style are much different beyond that.  The character in the novels is basically a spy operative, working in the shadows to tip the balance of world political power from West to East -and not necessarily to him personally.  Whereas here, he's largely playing to blunt superstitions in a comic book appeal to suddenly raise up a 100 million Easterners to overthrow the white man, and kill them all. Mwa, ha, ha, ha!  He is pretty much the first archetype of the super-villain.

The basic device of that is that the British have discovered the long lost tomb of Genghis Khan.  My vague knowledge was that Genghis Khan was simply a powerful military guy who took over half the world.  In this movie though, apparently all the yellow people actually worship Genghis Khan as a god. In the scene where the British archaeologists  actually go into his tomb, suddenly a bunch of the natives rush in past them to prostate themselves before his remains.  The British just want to put the relics in a museum so that the English can "go look at them on holiday."  Whereas, Fu Manchu figures that if he can just lay hands on Genghis Khan's magical mask and sword, he can raise up a mighty army of 100,000,000 yellow people to take over the world!

In the novels, Fu Manchu was freaky-deaky - but essentially a sober man of science.  Here, you could take it, charitably, that Fu Manchu was simply playing to the known superstitions of his own people in a demagogue way.  But it pretty much appears that he himself believes that these relics have magic power, like the Arc of the Covenant in the Indiana Jones movie.  Movie Fu Manchu becomes more a blunt, crazy cartoon villain rather than the multi-faceted character of the books.

Fu Manchu, the yellow peril incarnateOne of those dumbing downs of the movie was the total loss of nuance in his cruelty.  Novel Fu Manchu was certainly ruthless and cruel, but mostly not particularly malicious. His violence and cruelty were largely means to an end, not mere sadism.  In the first story of the first full-fledged novel, after an Englishman he was torturing for information was rescued and under armed guard, Fu Manchu wrote him a note letting him know that he'd gotten the information otherwise and was thus of no further interest.  He praised the man for his courage and bravery and wished him a speedy recovery.  He understood his adversaries - clearly better than they understood him.  He just wanted to tip the scales of political dominance from West to East. Whereas this movie Fu Manchu repeatedly states his goal of wiping out the white man. 

The movie also discards Dr Petrie, the narrator of the early books, and more importantly the Egyptian slave girl Karamaneh under some kind of brainwashing and mind control over whom the good doctor pines.  Her alternate obedience and dangerous resistance make an intriguing continuing subtext.  That's all lost in the movie.

For a femme fatale, the movie gives Fu Manchu a daughter, who we first see being openly offered to an Englishman - in exchange for telling him where Khan's grave is, of course.  This offense against fatherhood is further exasperated by his amusement at the daughter's casual whoredom with a brainwashed Englishman used simply as a boy toy.  Novel daughter becomes a rival seeking power against her dad - much more interesting than the mere whoring the character does in the movie.  Then again, it's good fun to see Myrna Loy in total whore mode leading the poor helpless guy around.

The whole Fu Manchu character and scenario are nowadays routinely condemned for racism.  You can't very well deny that charge, what with the character constantly described as "the yellow peril incarnate in one man."  But I'd argue that this is substantially mitigated in the book by depth, nuance and unique personality of the character.  Can't make such an argument here.  But then, did the makers of the movie really intend for this to be understood as a representation of typical Asians, and was it taken as such by audiences?  I pretty much doubt that on both counts.

I'm afraid that this description comes out more as me slamming on the movie, which I don't really intend.  I enjoyed the movie very much.  I'm just saying that you should really read some Fu Manchu  if you're interested and THEN see this movie as an addenda.  I would liken this - on a substantially lower artistic plane - to the book vs movie versions of Ayn Rand's The Fountainhead

The Mask of Fu Manchu, 1932


Fu Manchu and his long fingernails


Fu Manchu torture scene


Boris Karloff



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