The Greatest of all Pulp Fiction Villains? Or Anti-Asian Propaganda?
The Drums of Fu Manchu Keep Beating…
By Don Stradley
Fu Manchu lasted longer than the rest – a mysterious figure created more than a century ago by a British pulp writer, a colorful project for actors ranging from Warner Oland to Peter Sellers to Nicolas Cage, one who incited heated discussions about harmful cultural imagery – because he was more fascinating. Other Asian movie icons (Charlie Chan, Mr. Moto, Mr. Wong) were dismissed as silly stereotypes by the 1960s while Fu Manchu carried on, his only concern being the total annihilation of his enemies. It is difficult to say where Drums of Fu Manchu, a 15-chapter Republic serial now available on The Film Detective, stands in the pantheon. As the famous villain, Henry Brandon rivals anyone who has donned the drooping mustache. Like a snake that appears suddenly in the sunlight, he’s hypnotic. He drips with menace.
Early on in Drums, we learn that Fu Manchu was believed to be dead, but has returned with plans to conquer all of Asia. In this suspenseful serial from 1940, directed by the stellar team of John English and William Witney, all “the illustrious one” needs to reach his goal is a mythical scimitar once belonging to Genghis Kahn. The style here is all rain swept streets, big sedans, and noir shadows long before the word was coined, with gadgets worthy of Flash Gordon, fist fights worthy of Batman, death devices worthy of Edgar Alan Poe, plus train wrecks, plane crashes and even a giant octopus. Fu Manchu also has a few dozen minions to do his bidding – he treated them all to lobotomies, turning them into zombies – as well as a daughter who is nearly as deadly as her papa.
It is a typical serial of the era, though Republic put more money into the production than usual (meaning the acting was better and the scenery didn’t fall apart). Brandon is tremendous as Fu Manchu. His eyes are always in a dead stare, framed by angled eyebrows that slash across his forehead like lightning bolts; he is strangely reptilian. Brandon was only 28 at the time, but was already a veteran of playing heavily made-up characters (At 22 he was the hairy villain in Laurel and Hardy’s Babes in Toyland). Modern audiences might object to another instance of “yellowface,” where a white actor portrayed an Asian, but Brandon was part of a theatrical tradition where actors often wore disguises to play ethnic characters, a Frenchman one week, a German the next. To play an Asian was just an extension of what he’d done at the Pasadena Playhouse and on Broadway.
Fu Manchu was a great role for any actor whose stock in trade was villainy. In 1932 when he was hot off of Frankenstein, one of Boris Karloff’s first assignments was to star in The Mask of Fu Manchu for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Karloff, who had already played a number of ethnic parts during the silent era, took the role immediately. Yet Karloff’s interpretation drew protests from the Chinese government and many Asian groups. The concern was that Karloff’s malevolent portrayal would help spread anti-Asian sentiment. This is the gremlin in any discussion about Fu Manchu, and the discussion has been going on from the first time Fu put a white victim on the torture rack.
English author Sax Rohmer conceived the character as early as 1911. He had planned to set a murder mystery in London’s Limehouse district, an area with a growing Chinese population. Rohmer said he was inspired by seeing a tall Chinese fellow emerging from a Rolls Royce, a man he claimed was, “the living embodiment of Satan.” After his death, Rohmer’s widow claimed her husband believed the Chinese would indeed rule the world one day. But was this his real feeling or just a way to whip up interest in the bogeyman he’d created? Rohmer was an excellent self-promoter, eloquent and eccentric, and he pushed Fu Manchu hard. In the coming years, along with Rohmer’s 13 Fu Manchu novels – translated into a dozen languages - there were movies, comic books, comic strips, as well as radio and television shows featuring the Chinese scoundrel.
Detractors have insisted Fu Manchu stemmed from Rohmer’s own racial paranoia, and that he profited from the Westerner’s fear of a Chinese takeover. Rohmer’s defenders argue that his novels are so absurd and hallucinogenic that charges of racism can’t be taken seriously. Rohmer denied any racial anxieties, and even dropped the character after a personal appeal from the Chinese government, a respite that lasted only a few years. The books, in turn, inspired great loyalty among readers. Syndicated columnist Andrew Tully praised the books more than once during the 1960s and ‘70s, calling them “an indispensible part of growing up,” adding that Rohmer’s tales kept him in a “state of almost constant, though delighted, terror.” Ian Fleming cited Rohmer as an influence on his James Bond novels.
After Drums of Fu Manchu, the U.S. State Department suggested movie studios lay off the character, since America was now allied with China against the Japanese. The moratorium was short-lived. Starting in the mid 1960s, British film financier Harry Alan Towers produced no less than five new Fu Manchu movies with Christopher Lee wearing the mustache. The Lee movies created a round of protests from Asian groups, as did The Fiendish Plot of Dr. Fu Manchu (1980), which drew picketers to theaters in San Francisco, Los Angeles, and New York.
Was Rohmer genuinely afraid of the Chinese? Was he exploiting the xenophobia of his day? We do know he wanted to kill the character off after only a couple of novels, but publishers encouraged him to keep Fu Manchu alive. After Rohmer’s death, his assistant and friend, Cay Van Ash, was hired to write more Fu Manchu books well into the 1980s. More recently in the 2010s, Titan Books of England published the entire Rohmer series.
As the archfiend himself might shout from the depths of his underground lair, FU MANCHU WILL NEVER DIE!!!