Sax Rohmer’s singular creation, Dr. Fu Manchu, makes a much belated appearance on Blu-ray
Despite a prolific output starting in the 1910s and ending with his imminent departure from this mortal coil in 1959, Sax Rohmer didn’t exist. He was (and remains) the brainchild, a fictional persona, a pseudonym created by Arthur Henry “Sarsfield” Ward, a working-class Brit blessed with a semblance of writing talent and a seemingly uncanny ability to tap into the attitudes, prejudices, and biases of English-speaking audiences, specifically, though not entirely, a series of novels starring Rohmer’s primary literary creation, Dr. Fu Manchu, a Chinese-born supervillain of brilliant, unfathomable mind and fiendish, amoral plots who embodied, if not outright personified, the “Yellow Peril,” a racist idea that exploited unfounded Western fears of Asians and Asian culture (often stereotyped or distorted beyond recognition).
For Rohmer, writing about Fu Manchu and his exploits was simply the easiest, best means of amassing a personal fortune, but for his readers, it fed into, amplified, and often magnified racist beliefs and ideas. That, of course, didn’t stop Rohmer from softening or altering his depiction of Fu Manchu, not as long as there was a waiting and willing audience for his work. And once his novels reached saturation popularity, adaptations in the still nascent cinematic medium were all but a certainty. After two silent-film serials based on Rohmer’s novels, the advent of sound during the pre-code era give Rohmer’s creation another life, first in the Rowland V. Lee production of The Mysterious Dr. Fu Manchu, starring the Swedish-born Warner Oland as the title character in 1929 and second, the aptly named The Return of Dr. Fu Manchu.
An obvious product of the early sound era, The Mysterious Dr. Fu Manchu introduces Oland’s iteration as a deliberately slow-talking figure prone to faux-aphorisms and a not unexpected talent for hypnotism, including his ward, Lia Eltham (Jean Arthur), a young English girl Fu Manchu originally saved during the Boxer Rebellion but who, through a subsequent twist of fate (i.e., the loss of his wife and son to an errant artillery shell), becomes the instrument of his vengeance on the men he considers responsible for his loss. Despite Oland’s enervating presence in the title role, a typical choice made by contemporary studios when casting Asian-themed films (i.e., Caucasians in yellow face for the lead roles, Asian-Americans in the supporting ones), Fu Manchu’s motives are both universal and unexpectedly relatable.
Of course, Rohmer and Lee expected the audience to side against Fu Manchu and his extra-judicial efforts to obtain revenge, but given his original place in the film as an erstwhile ally or, at worst, refusing to take sides during the Boxer Rebellion (a decision he wrongly believes will spare his family from hardship or worse), it’s difficult not to root for Fu Manchu to succeed or at least evade capture by the end of the film. The inclusion of a wan, bloodless romance between the perpetually semi-comatose Lia and Dr. Jack Petrie (Neil Hamilton), the youngest member of the Petrie clan, and due to his family’s involvement and/or tangential responsibility in the deaths of Fu Manchu’s family, one of the title character’s targets, does little to soften or change the idea that Fu Manchu isn’t morally or ethically wrong.
While the Fu Manchu we meet in the first film commands an army of sorts in London, he’s far from the more familiar supervillain he would become in later entries in Rohmer’s series and the multi-media adaptations that would follow in the coming decades. Fu Manchu’s antagonist, Inspector Nayland Smith (O.P. Heggie), makes more than a token appearance here, turning The Mysterious Dr. Fu Manchu into a rudimentary procedural, though the lackluster plotting, the stilted, unsophisticated direction, and the relatively small/low stakes does the dull, unengaging Smith character few, if any, favors. Lacking his opposite’s brilliance, Smith is also seemingly one or two steps behind Fun Manchu at practically every turn.
The Return of Dr. Fu Manchu improves slightly on its predecessors’ story- and cinematic-based deficiencies, but Fu Manchu’s motivation (i.e., revenge) remains practically unchanged, making the sequel at times feel more like a stealth remake. Lee’s direction improves the second time around, though the limitations of the early sound era result in drably static dialogue scenes, little editing or cutting within scenes to enhance visual interest and keep audiences engaged, and little of the dynamic, experimental camera movement that the best, most memorable entries of the silent era offered moviegoers just a few years earlier.
In the end, the two films included on the Blu-ray set are best seen not as as cultural or cinematic landmarks (far from it), but as cultural or archeological artifacts, best viewed critically as examples of a hopefully bygone, less enlightened era, one which, through continued effort and measured introspection, we will leave where they belong, in the past and not in our future.
The Mysterious Dr. Fu Manchu and The Return of Dr. Fu Manchu are available as part of a Blu-Ray set released by Kino Lorber.
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