Christopher Lee as Fu Manchu (Part 1)
When the late Sir Christopher Lee is mentioned we immediately think of Count Dracula —the role he is forever linked to. However, he also portrayed other notorious literary villains. In celebration of Christopher Lee’s career, I’ll be taking a look at five of his films where he played the nefarious Sax Rohmer character and criminal genius Dr. Fu Manchu (first appearing in the novel The Mystery of Dr. Fu Manchu / The Insidious Dr. Fu Manchu, 1913). The Lee movie series spanned from 1965, beginning with The Face of Fu Manchu and ended in 1969 with the The Castle of Fu Manchu. I don’t entirely agree with most critics (and C. Lee) citing that the series progressively deteriorated. The final films directed by Jess Franco (to be reviewed in Part 3) are colorful campy fun. In Part 2, I’ll take a look at the disappointing The Vengeance of Fu Manchu (1967). Starting the retrospective, let’s take a look at TFOFM (1965) and The Brides of Fu Manchu (1966).
I saw someone beheaded…
Commissioner Nayland Smith, Scotland Yard
TFOFM opens with the title character being beheaded in front of Nayland Smith. Later, we even see Fu Manchu’s death mask. It reminds me of the time 007 (Sean Connery) got swiss-cheesed in a roll-up bed in the opening moments of You Only Live Twice (1967), the first Bond film with an oriental setting. TFOFM plays a lot like a Bond film, with diabolical villains and dashing heroes, dames in distress, kidnappings, escapism, rappelling monks, secret tunnels, weapons of mass destruction, action, globe-trotting, fancy cars and even a water-torture device. Lee’s Fu Manchu is reminiscent of Joseph Wiseman’s Dr. No —a role Ian Flemming recommended for Christopher Lee.
In the novel, Dr. No stole a million in gold from the Tongs, but they caught him and chopped off his hands, but Dr. No survived a shot to the heart, due to his affliction with Dextrocardia. Lee played another Chinese villain and leader of the Red Dragon Tongs in the underrated The Terror of the Tongs (1961), which likely inspired casting of Lee as Fu Manchu. Coincidentally, a red dragon tapestry appears in Fu Manchu’s lair in TFOFM.
TFOFM has a terrific international cast. Interesting, actresses Karin Dor and Tsai Chin both appear in You Only Live Twice and TFOFM, with Chin reprising her role as Fu Manchu’s evil daughter Lin Tang in all of the Lee Fu Manchu films. Early on we are introduced to long-time Fu Manchu advisaries Dr. Petrie (Howard Marion-Crawford) and Nayland Smith of the Scotland Yard, played with vibrant gusto by South African actor Nigel Green (Jason and the Argonauts, 1963), who incidentally would have made a terrific Sherlock Holmes. Smith’s performance makes this one of the best of the entire series.
TFOFM has a fine story with Petrie and Smith investigating strange strangulation deaths by way of prayer scarfs linked to Dacoits and other Fu Manchu tomfoolery, culminating in the discovery of the virulent Tibetan “Black Hill” poppy toxin soon to be unleashed upon Western civilization. I also like producer/writer Harry Alan Towers’ (Count Dracula, 1970) screenplay. Case-in-point: Carl Jannsen’s (Joachim Fuchsberger -who looks and sounds a lot like James Mason) escape from the Dacoits is all the more believable because earlier on we see him giving Nayland Smith his cookies. Both scenes are superbly choreographed fight sequences with interesting photography worthy of a Bond film.
Here we have Lin Tang consulting with her father….
TFOFM was helmed by veteran director Don Sharp (1921-2001), who is recognized by horror and sci-fan fans for The Kiss of the Vampire (1963), Rasputin: The Mad Monk (1966), Curse of the Fly (1965) and others. He worked with Christopher Lee a total of six times, including the film Dark Places (1973), which I have never seen, and the Jimmy Sangster-penned The Devil-Ship Pirates (1964), where Lee plays an eye-patched pirate captain! Christopher Lee enjoyed working with Sharp and described him as a “really brilliant chap who will soon do great things” and “[He] did a wonderful job directing. I’ve been fortunate in my association with him…” However, Lee wasn’t so happy about the dreary Irish weather which was “damp and cold” resulting in a painful inner ear infection, and makeup appliances which were “unbearable. It took a minimum of three hours for my eyes”. (Johnson & Miller, 2004).
Here Fu Manchu has his hand on a valve that unleashes the Thames River into an iron water torture device. Biochemist Professor Muller (Walter Rilla) and daughter (Karin Dor) are held restrained in horror….
It’s a shame that Nigel Green didn’t reprise his role in any other Fu Manchu films. Next to Peter Cushing he might have been one of Lee’s greatest foes. Green comes across as competent and resourceful. He’s a cerebral character, but also handles his own as a rugged field operative. Remember Green as Hercules in Jason and the Argonauts (1963)? As film historian Danny Peary (Cult Movies, 1981) points out “Hercules, too, is portrayed (well, I think, by Nigel Green) as a man of believable strength and physical proportions” and “not as a musclebound hero but a man of average build who relies on his wits rather than his brawn.”
My print of TFOFM comes from a WB Archive Collection DVD. This is a no frills pressing presented in a wide angle letterboxed format. The print is acceptable (better than countless bootlegs I’ve fallen victim to), but nothing to write home about, with a few minor splice jumps early on. The audio sounds fine through an Oppo BPD-103D player and Samsung HDTV.
The world shall hear from me again….
Dr. Fu Manchu, The Face of Fu Manchu
TFOFM ends with a prophetic warning from the titular villain. The Brides of Fu Manchu (1966) starts where the last one left off, with Fu Manchu and daughter presumably dead, and Nayland Smith and associates riding away in the Tibetan landscape. However, Fu Manchu (Lee) and Lin Tang (Tsai Chin) are not dead and have captured another scientist (Rupert Davies, seen in Dracula Has Risen from the Grave (1968)) and his daughter (Carole Gray, Island of Terror, 1966). Along the way Fu Manchu has also collected the nine brides of Fu Manchu. Each of these brides are connected paternally to various scientists with unique skills needed to fabricate yet another nefarious weapon of mass destruction. This time it is a Tesla-inspired death ray and Nayland Smith and friends must find a way to stop Fu Manchu.
Here Lee, Burt Kwouk (Kato from the Pink Panther series) and Rupert Davies look at a conceptual model of Fu Manchu’s death-ray! Compare the death-ray scenes to some of the radar-toppling sequences in Dr. No (1962).
TBOFM retains much of the same supporting cast and crew. Lee and Chin are back in the lead villain roles, and Howard Marion-Crawford returns as Petrie. Douglas Wilmer (Jason and the Argonauts, 1963; The Golden Voyage of Sinbad, 1973; and a dandy Sherlock Holmes 1960’s BBC-TV) is fine as Nayland Smith (although I disagree with Tom Johnson and Mark Miller saying he is superior to and “less stiff” than Nigel Green). The film also adds German actor Heinze Drache who acted opposite Christopher Lee in Circus of Fear / Psycho-Circus (1966) and Burt Kwouk (Goldfinger, 1964 -yet another Bond alumni) as one of Fu Manchu’s henchmen. According to Johnson and Miller (2004), TBOFM was shot back-to-back on some of the same locations with Lee and Drache, and other crew, as Circus of Fear.
Director Don Sharp and producer/screenwriter Harry Alan Towers also returned and crafted a memorable if not superior sequel. There’s a lot to like in this film, with sc-fi elements (the Tesla death-ray), and a story that reminds me of a Fleischer Superman cartoon, a colorful cast of international talents, high production values, and one humdinger of a snake pit. Some folks consider this the highlight of the series.
After seeing TBOFM, Lee described the film as a “tame travesty” and was progressively displeased with tampering of the Sax Rohmer stories. My print of TBOFM comes from a WB DVD Double Feature with Chamber of Horrors (1966). The print looks fine, but unfortunately appears to be cropped.
Part 2 will look at The Vengeance of Fu Manchu (1967).
Literatue Cited: The Christopher Lee Filmography. Tom Johnson and Mark A. Miller, 2004, McFarland.