THE ARCHIVIST VOLUME XXIII: Christopher Lee — A Late Tribute To A Late Legend

by Ryan Lewellen

The Archivist — Welcome to the Archive. Following the infamous “Format Wars” (R.I.P. VHS), a multitude of films found themselves in danger of being forgotten forever due to their admittedly niche appeal. Thankfully, Warner Bros. established the Archive Collection, a Disc On Demand and Streaming service devoted to some of the more idiosyncratic pieces of cinema ever made. Being big fans of the label, we here at Cinapse thought it prudent to establish a column devoted to these unusual gems. Thus “The Archivist” was born — a biweekly look at some of the best, boldest and most batshit motion pictures the Shield has to offer. Some of these will be recent additions to the collection, while others will be titles that have been available for awhile. With over 1,500 pictures procurable on Warner Archive (and more being added every month), there’s no possible way we’ll get to all of them. But trust me when we say we’re sure going to try.

Welcome back to The Archivist.

God, do you hear that sorrowful tone? I didn’t even give you an exclamation point on that sucker. Well, that’s because this week is the first, official, “farewell” episode to a great performer. Sir Christopher Lee was so many people: a real-life secret agent, an actor best known for playing an incomparable array of villains, and an opera and heavy metal musician. Movie fans will undoubtedly remember him for years to come as Saruman, but long before the 2000s, he was Dracula in a series of Hammer productions, and even longer before, he was Fu Manchu in five feature films. Based on a series of novels by British Author Sax Rohmer, Fu Manchu is considered to be the first supervillain of fiction. He is also, unfortunately, an ethnic stereotype, and the namesake for the eponymous facial hair arrangement.

Political incorrectness and moustaches notwithstanding, two titles from the 60s Fu Manchu franchise are on the Warner Archives label, and almost certainly the most interesting films in the collection starring Christopher Lee.

If only either movie was any damn good…


Christopher Lee made his first appearance as the mustachioed menace in 1965… and died. No origin story here. Fu Manchu is already an established world threat, and Scotland Yard’s Nayland Smith (Nigel Green) has defeated him. Yet, somehow seeing his arch nemesis beheaded just doesn’t quite convince the calculating Smith this is the end of Fu Manchu. Indeed, his instincts serve him well, as it is discovered the old reprobate had hypnotized a double, and is concocting a scheme to take over the world with the help of an airborne toxin.

As the 96-minute feature drags on, there just isn’t much to appreciate. Lee has relatively little screen time, and the capable Green (who played one of my favorite versions of Hercules in Jason and the Argonauts) isn’t given much to work with as the film’s leading man. There are a couple charming B-quality moments, but the plodding pace, void of wit, action, and interesting characters can’t keep one’s interest for long.


In the third installment of this series, I had hoped I would catch these films reaching their stride. This was not the case, in yet another film which provides little entertainment. Christopher Lee returns as the title character, this time creating a Franken-double of Nayland Smith (played here by Douglas Wilmer) to replace the kidnapped detective, while forming a worldwide mafia of outstanding criminals.

Does that sound like a pointless plan? It is! It works perfectly, and with Smith’s phony twin going on trial for the murder of his assistant (the surgeon performed the implausible plastic surgery only on the stand-in’s face — why did no one check the imposter’s finger prints?), Fu Manchu needlessly waits until the peusdo-Smith is executed to kill the real detective, which, of course, allows him to make a daring escape.

Vengeance is even less fun than Face, and only offers a couple smirks in the form of the two ridiculous songs performed by a side-character, whose subplot serves the film about as usefully as a Republican legislator does an educator. There is some weak karate fighting done by a Chinese detective, but that too is stale. The films neither deserve, nor showcase the talents of the late Christopher Lee, and make the viewer (this viewer, at least) wonder what the big deal is when it comes to Fu Manchu. He is equally dull and offensive.

This isn’t quite the tribute I imagined for such a great dude.

RIP Christopher Lee.

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