“We’re fighting a thing we can’t understand, with everything against us.”
An archaeologist (Lewis Stone) travels to Mongolia with the daughter (Karen Morley) of a kidnapped colleague (Lawrence Grant), hoping to rescue the contents of Genghis Khan’s tomb from the clutches of evil Fu Manchu (Boris Karloff) and his grown daughter (Myrna Loy).
British author Sax Rohmer introduced the fictional master-criminal Dr. Fu Manchu in a series of novels published near the beginning of the 20th century, and he quickly became the embodiment of “Yellow Peril”, tapping into Westerners’ fears about Asian “Others”. This early cinematic adaptation, while not the first, remains perhaps the best known, given that cult horror star Boris Karloff was cast in the title role (affording him one of his first starring roles). While there’s much to enjoy and admire about the film — including creative direction, eye-popping set designs, glittering costumes, and Karloff’s bizarre but compelling performance — it’s unfortunately, as DVD Savant labels it, “almost pornographically racist”.
A 1992 video release removed some of the most offensive dialogue (“Would you all have maidens like this for your wives? Then conquer and breed! Kill the white man and take his women!”), but these scenes have all been restored in the recent DVD release, so modern viewers can see for themselves how riddled with vitriol it truly is: “Men of Asia! The skies are red with the thunderbolts of Genghis Khan! They rain down on the white race… and burn them!” Just as disturbing as these racist rants are the seemingly endless scenes of torture inflicted by Manchu on his various victims, which literally dominate the final 20 minutes or so of the film; while his devices are indeed ingenious, they’re fetishized to the point that your tolerance will likely be sorely tested (mine was).
Watch for Myrna Loy in her last performance as an “exotic temptress”, playing Manchu’s sadistically predatory daughter (she herself is reported to have said, “Say, this is obscene!” when reading the script).
Note: Fu Manchu wouldn’t appear again on-screen until over 30 years later, in the Hammer Studios production The Face of Fu Manchu (starring Christopher Lee in the title role). Read Wikipedia’s article on this infamous character if you’re curious to read about other cinematic adaptations.
Redeeming Qualities and Moments:
- Boris Karloff as Fu Manchu
- Tony Gaudio’s cinematography
- Creative direction
- Cedric Gibbons’ baroque sets
- Adrian’s “exotic” costume designs
No, though I do believe it’s worth a look simply for Karloff’s performance, and the impressive visuals. And, as DVD Savant notes, it’s recommended “to anyone living in denial about the reality of racism” in the early 20th century. Listed as a film with Historical Importance (which I won’t deny) and a Personal Recommendation in the back of Peary’s book.