Dr. Fu Manchu: Chinese Supervillain

Insidious Fu MAnchu Cover

Please welcome guest writer Craig of Viking Samurai who’s written this post as part of the Great Villain Blogathon hosted by Ruth of Silver Screenings, Karen of Shadows & Satin, and Kristina of Speakeasy  — see all the movie baddies at any of these three blogs 

“Imagine a person, tall, lean, and feline, high-shouldered, with a brow like Shakespeare and a face like Satan, a close-shaven skull, and long magnetic eyes of the true cat-green. Invest him with all the cruel cunning of an entire Eastern race, accumulated in one giant intellect, with all the resources of science past and present, with all the resources, if you will, of a wealthy government – which, however, already has denied all knowledge of his existence. Imagine that awful being, and you have a mental picture of Dr. Fu-Manchu, the yellow peril incarnate in one man.”

That is how Dr. Fu Manchu (Fu) is described in The Insidious Dr. Fu Manchu, by his arch-nemesis Denis Nayland Smith. Fu is a pulp character created by Sax Rohmer, a Chinese supervillain, who first appeared in 1913, and continues to be featured in new stories. As described above, he is basically a Bond-type villain, with vast resources, an army of henchmen, and ridiculously elaborate plots for world domination. Supposedly, Dr. No was based on Fu.

Fu first appeared on theater screens in 1929, in The Mysterious Dr. Fu Manchu, portrayed by Warner Oland. He has subsequently been played by many other actors, including John Carradine, Christopher Lee, and Peter Sellers. He was even played by Nicholas Cage, in a spoof film trailer Werewolf Women of The SS (I would link the video, but it is NSFW). For the purposes of this article, I viewed the aforementioned film, as well as The Vengeance of Dr. Fu Manchu.

220px-Mysteriousfumanchu

The Mysterious Dr. Fu Manchu is basically a series of vignettes from the first Fu novel, The Insidious Dr. Fu Manchu, which in turn, was a compilation of stories originally published in pulp magazines. Unlike in the stories, where he didn’t appear until several tales in, here Fu is present from the beginning. While the books give no particular motivation other than furthering the cause of his criminal organization, and hindering western imperialism, the first film makes revenge his motivation. He starts out as an altruistic physician who is friends with the English, believing in their inherent goodness. During the Boxer Rebellion, a couple of the Boxers take refuge in his home. In their efforts to kill the refugees, the British accidentally kill Fu’s wife and daughter. He then vows revenge. His hatred is such that he makes a slave of an English girl sent to him for protection.

The plot of this film is essentially that Fu is assassinating officers who were involved in putting down the Boxer Rebellion. When his assassinations move to England, we are introduced to Denis Nayland Smith and Dr. Petrie. Petrie’s father, who was stationed in China during the rebellion, is the next target, and Smith arrives just in time to foil the attempt on his life. From there, Petrie assists him in his efforts to stop further attacks, eventually catching up to Fu.

As in the books, Smith is a prototypical James Bond, though he was supposedly originally modeled after Sherlock Holmes, which makes Dr. Petrie modeled after Dr. Watson (as with Watson in the Holmes stories, the Fu are written in first-person by Petrie). While the stories give no first name, here his name is Jack. Also as in the stories, instead of simply having a minion shoot, stab, or strangle a target, Fu uses outlandishly elaborate methods of assassination. Another similarity to Bond villains is that instead of simply killing the hero, he explains the exotic way he is going to kill him, and boasts of his brilliance in managing to get the upper hand, providing Smith with the time to escape, and defeat him.

Warner Oland - Fu MAnchu

Especially considering the time during which it was filmed, The Mysterious Dr. Fu Manchu is very well made. The only real issue that I had was Oland’s portrayal of Fu. While audiences apparently liked his performance enough for him to do a sequel, he just didn’t seem to fit. Oland, who went on to play Charlie Chan, portrays him as though he was rehearsing to play Chan. While he was fine, he just didn’t have the malevolence the character requires.

Vengeance of Fu Manchu Poster

On the other hand, Christopher Lee’s performance was more in line with how the character was portrayed in the stories. In The Vengeance of Dr. Fu Manchu, Fu is back with yet another outlandishly complicated plot. This time, it is to exact vengeance on Smith and to unite all of the world’s criminal organizations, under his leadership. The key to the plot is to discredit Smith, and other leaders in law enforcement, by framing them for murders. This involves kidnapping Smith, who, as a result is either mostly absent, or has only passive involvement until the end. This is largely a film in which Dr. Petrie and other detectives save the day.

Christopher Lee - Fu Manchu

Being a Shaw Brothers production, it is entertaining, and fairly well-made. There are some things that are quite anachronistic, such as convincing plastic surgery, but one must take into account that we are dealing with a supervillain. The pacing does drag at times, and a few characters’ accents are inappropriate for their nationality, these are not fatal flaws.

Lee effectively projects the quiet malevolence that one would expect of Fu. His ruthlessness is established in the first minutes of the film, and his mercilessness never abates. He is only in the film for about a quarter of its duration, and he makes the best of every minute.

Unfortunately, while Fu is a great villain, he has fallen out of favor or at least prominence in recent decades. While books continue to feature him, the last movie (that I can locate) where he is a central character is the horrid The Fiendish Plot of Dr. Fu Manchu, starring Peter Sellers in the title role. These days, it seems that the mustache that is named after him is apparently more popular than the character it is named after. The funny thing is, that in the stories Fu was actually clean-shaven.

After some research, I have not been able to find any definitive reason as to why there have been no Fu movies made in so many years, but I do have my theories. First, society has advanced by leaps and bounds since the first stories were published, making them seem quaint, and the stories probably do not lend themselves to being modernized.
Secondly, and more probably the more likely cause of Fu falling out of favor is political correctness. (Note: I generally avoid politics in my reviews, as does Kristina, but the following are my fairly objective observations, which seem to fit with the topic.) At the time the character was created, Asian countries were rising to geopolitical power, causing fear in Europe, thus “The Yellow Peril”. Fu is a ruthless, sadistic, diabolical villain, and very Chinese. While most supervillains, particularly from Bond and Austin Powers are most often vaguely European, Fu is specifically Chinese. Of course, people take exception to such an evil person being a specific ethnicity, and we live in times where we dare not offend. While I do sympathize with such unease, Fu is an undeniably awesome villain. The fact that Sir Christopher Lee played him should be all the proof that one needs to realize the coolness of Fu. I’m of Scottish descent, and what prominent villain do we get? Fat Bastard, from Austin Powers, that’s who.

Fat Bastard

Along similar lines, all of the actors that I am aware of who have played Fu have been Caucasian. Some groups do take issue with this practice, and refer to it as “yellow face”. This practice appeared to be widespread throughout the movie industry, at least through the ‘70s. Examples of this practice, besides Fu are Charlie Chan, Mr. Moto, Marlon Brando in Teahouse of The August Moon, and Mickey Rooney in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. I won’t defend this practice, and suspect that the reason it was done was because of budgetary reasons, studios using the best actors available. Once again, not being Asian, I can only say that if it were my ethnicity portrayed by someone of another, if their performance was good, respectful, and not a caricature, I would not see a problem. In fact, the only portrayals of Fu that have not been done respectfully (Sellers and Cage) were done purely for comedic purposes.

Fu Manchu is a great supervillain, and influential in such lore, has been played by many great actors, and Nicolas Cage, and really is due for a comeback. The fact that period pieces such as Sherlock Holmes, stories in the same vein as the Fu stories, seem to have been at least somewhat successful lately, tells me that the time is right.

All of the films mentioned above are available on YouTube:

The Mysterious Dr. Fu Manchu (The quality is not great, but I guess that we should be thankful that it was preserved at all): http://youtu.be/ytZDepcxjMA

The Vengeance of Dr. Fu Manchu: http://youtu.be/FOo5Yy1j5C0

If you feel a compelling urge to suffer: The Fiendish Plot of Dr. Fu Manchu: http://youtu.be/lR8In_TOhvk

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10 thoughts on “Dr. Fu Manchu: Chinese Supervillain”

  1. Good overview of the character. I’ve read a handful of the books and thought they were good pulpy fun. The best movies for me were the Karloff version and the first two or three Lee efforts.

    1. Thanks for the great comments. I had heard that Karloff was the best, but couldn’t find any full movies on YouTube, that didn’t require payment.

      It is a shame that PC has killed so many great characters. Karloff’s Mr. Wong is another great one, but I couldn’t recall the name. I actually got to first see Chan, Wong, and Moto movies on a TCM marathon. They had a scholar whining about yellow face, between the movies.

      I haven’t seen the Avengers film, but the Scots did at least have the first James Bond.

  2. I grew up on the Lee films and enjoyed the first 3 of his 5 efforts. Karloff was really fun as well with Myrna Loy! Nicely done and yes it’s the politics of today that has spelled the end of many characters you have mentioned. Too bad as many of these films (Chan especially) have much to offer.

  3. I can’t help but agree about politics being the reason Fu has died a death in the movie world. The phrase “the yellow peril” probably has something to do with it.

    You’re wrong about one thing though, the Scottish do get other villains, apart from Fat Bastard. How can you forget Sean Connery in the movie version of The Avengers??

  4. Dr. Fu is the baddest of the bad! Add to that Nayland of the Stiff-upper-lip, and one has some great adventure! I’d love to see new movies made; there are plenty of great Chinese actors that could give us a great Asian Moriarty…I’d love it!

  5. I greatly enjoyed your write-up, although I admit I’ve never seen any of these films. I certainly think you’re on target with the reasons why there haven’t been any versions in recent years. I sure would like to read more about why you say the version with Peter Sellers was so bad! Maybe the subject a future post? Good stuff!

  6. I have only seen a couple of these films, but am curious to see a few more (even if just to see Sellers). I liked the Karloff with Myrna film, even with its flaws. Fu Manchu certainly has a look that makes him a great villain. I think it is time for a reboot here.

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