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The Face of Fu Manchu (1965)
Tonight's Feature Presentation

THE FACE OF FU MANCHU (1965)

Starring: Christopher Lee, Nigel Green, Joachm Fuchsberger, Karin Dor, James Robertson Justice

Written By: Harry Alan Towers, Sax Rohmer (characters) Directed By: Don Sharp

The Short Version

As a character archetype, the power of Fu Manchu cannot be denied.

Add to that the power of Christopher Lee, and the results cannot help but be interesting.

Even this sanitized take on Fu Manchu, however, is racist.

The good guys are a waste of space.

Watch it for Lee and his character and accept the rest as necessary set dressing.


The Long Version

What Kind Of Cheese Is It?

STALE GOLDFISH CRACKERS.

There’s something classic here, but mostly, it’s mediocre and stale.


Pairs Well With...

DOMAINE DU CANTON.

Ginger liqueur that brings the spirit of China to any drink… except that it is absolutely not at all Chinese.

“Where one can go, another may follow.”


It has often been suggested that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Professor Moriarty can be considered the ultimate prototype of what would become the James Bond villain.  While there is definite merit to this argument, it is also fair to say that the prototype was further refined into something even closer to its final, over the top form twenty years later when Sax Rohmer created the insidious character known as Dr. Fu Manchu.  (Indeed, the Ian Fleming character of Dr. No is a near direct lift.)

But while there is no question that Fu Manchu is one of the greatest and most influential arch villain characters of the past century and a half, the fact is that his true character is almost unknown to the modern Western audience, with his name being better known as a descriptive term for a style of facial hair than anything else.  I suspect that there are two reasons for this.  One, the world of Sax Rohmer’s stories and most of their derivatives is so incredibly racist (the heroes are described as fighting for “the entire White Race” against “the Yellow Peril”) that there were already protests being made about them in the 1930s, and two, while Fu Manchu and one or two of his henchpersons are interesting characters, the heroes are not, and the stories tend to run flat.

With that said, if you do want to have a go at Dr. Fu Manchu, you can do much worse than the Seven Arts series of films from the 1960s starring the great Christopher Lee.  The first of these is The Face of Fu Manchu, and it pretty well epitomizes what one needs to know to understand the character and his world, for better and for worse.

The tale begins in China, where it quickly becomes apparent that the audience is about to witness an execution.  A Chinese government official steps forth into the square to announce that with thanks to a foreign observer (a Brit we shall come to know as Nayland Smith, played by Nigel Green, The Masque of the Red Death), a dastardly fiend has been caught committing high crimes against the State, and that it has been decreed that this fiend shall pay the penalty of death for his crimes.  The fiend?  None other than Fu Manchu (Christopher Lee, Horror of Dracula).

Silently, Fu Manchu descends into the square, lowers his head, and a sword comes down to lop it off.  Roll opening credits.

Flash forward in time.  Nayland Smith is back in London, but he can’t escape the specter of the Yellow Peril that was Fu Manchu.  Despite having personally witnessed the man’s execution, he feels uneasy, as though strange events currently unfolding in Britain bear the mark of his old nemesis.  Could it be that Fu Manchu has somehow survived the grave and come to the UK to wreak havoc and destruction?

Wouldn’t be much of a movie if that wasn’t the case, don’t you think?

The Face of Fu Manchu is about as basic of a mass destruction/megalomania plot as one can get.  Arch villain insinuates his way into enemy territory, proves that he can cause death on a grand scale, and threatens to unleash terror upon the world unless his demands are met.  It is, as noted, the blueprint followed by nearly every James Bond villain, and tens of thousands of others, for that matter.  In the case of this film, it’s even more apparent, since it came out after the James Bond series that the literary Fu Manchu had made his mark upon made its first appearances on the screen.  The basic framework is, in essence, action thriller comfort food.

With that said, though heavily (and I do mean heavily) sanitized from its original literary form or even previous film incarnations, the stage upon which The Face of Fu Manchu is set is a racist one.  To modern eyes, it’s pretty distasteful, and that alone will be enough to turn many audiences off from the experience.  Ultimately, this will be a matter of personal taste to deal with; either one can look past the stain and accept the era/world for what it was, or one can’t.  What I will say is that of all of the Fu Manchu presentations out there, the Seven Arts series of which this film is the first really is the “cleanest” one will get.

Understanding that, one gets to the best part of The Face of Fu Manchu, which is invariably the best part of any Fu Manchu story in any form: Fu Manchu himself.  The character truly is a wonderfully crafted villain: brilliant, cunning, and razor sharp.  He is nearly everything one could hope for in a conniving megalomaniac, and the attention given to his character is the one element of this film’s screenplay that can be called ‘outstanding.’  This is augmented by a powerful performance from Christopher Lee (who is, of course, not Chinese, but we’ve already been down this road), who lends great authority to the role, and who magnifies all of the great qualities of the character of Fu Manchu while neatly de-emphasizing any of the negatives.  Without question, it is Christopher Lee’s performance in the title role that serves as the single most compelling reason to watch The Face of Fu Manchu.

As for the rest of the film… calling it “mediocre” is something on the kinder side of fair.

The Face of Fu Manchu suffers the same problems that typify Sax Rohmer’s literary series.  The great villain exists within a great framework, but the storytelling is incredibly weak.  The plot moves along as though it’s travelling along a conveyor belt, with key moments happening “because it’s time” rather than “because one thing has led to another.”  Due to the nature of the tale being told, this flaw is especially obvious: the top-billed hero is almost completely useless, always reacting to the plans of Fu Manchu and never actually figuring out the arch villain’s schemes until the very end.  On those occasions prior to the final ten minutes when someone on the side of the angels is required to figure things out, the task always falls to a third-tier supporting player, making one wonder just what use Nayland Smith really is at all.

And when Nayland Smith does finally get the jump on Fu Manchu… if one really considers what his plan entails, one can’t help but wonder if we’re really dealing with two villains here.  (I’d have to spoil the ending if I were to explain.  Just watch and I think you’ll understand.)

On the technical side of things, any performances not put in by Christopher Lee range from “adequate” to “just reading lines,” and the direction, while not bad, doesn’t exactly lend any excitement to the proceedings.  What does stand out is the cinematography: The Face of Fu Manchu is a much nicer looking film than one would expect, and the “prettiness” of the picture makes it that much easier to sit through the parts that don’t involve the title character.

When all is said and done, I want to recommend The Face of Fu Manchu.  Why?  I want to recommend it because I appreciate interesting characters, and the influence of Fu Manchu as a character in the century since his first appearance on the printed page simply cannot be denied.  He is one of the final major stepping stones leading to the James Bond villain, and a superb megalomaniac.  Unfortunately, he exists in a deeply flawed world no matter where he goes, and that world is not only culturally distasteful to modern sensibilities, but also, in most cases, not very well written in general beyond the specific element of the signature fiend.  Considering all of the appearances of Fu Manchu in literature and on screen, The Face of Fu Manchu is probably the most accessible and palatable to digest of them all.  As such, it is worth seeing once, but only with the understanding that essential as its title character may be to the modern adventure pantheon, the story within which he exists is utterly mediocre.

Bottom line, if you’re at all curious about one of the great characters of the past hundred years, then The Face of Fu Manchu is definitely worth a look.  Just don’t expect any real greatness, because you’re not going to find it.

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- Reviewed by Ziggy Berkeley, January, 2013


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