Drums of Fu Manchu (1940)
Film review #468
Directors: William Witney, John English
SYNOPSIS: Villain Fu Manchu intends to locate the sceptre of Genghis Khan, and use its ancient powers to conquer all of Asia. When his Father is killed by Fu Manchu in pursuit of the sceptre, Allan Parker teams up with Sir Dennis Nayland Smith and his assistant Dr. Flinders Petrie, who have fought Fu Manchu in the past. Teaming up with the British army stationed in Asia, they hurry to find the sceptre and Genghis Khan’s tomb before Fu Manchu can do the same…
THOUGHTS/ANALYSIS: Drums of Fu Manchu is a 1940 serial by Republic Pictures comprised of fifteen chapters, and based on the series of novels by Sax Rohmer (Drums of Fu Manchu is the ninth novel in the series, but the serial borrows plot points from the whole series). The serial starts out with Fu Manchu outlining his evil plans to conquer Asia, using the power of the sceptre of Genghis Khan. In order to track it down, he leaves a trail of death and destruction in his wake as he tracks down the clues to his location. Allan Parker is caught up in Fu Manchu’s schemes as his Father is killed by Manchu’s henchman, and looking to get revenge, Allan teams up with Sir Dennis Nayland Smith, Fu Manchu’s old adversary. The plot of the fifteen chapters unfolds in typical serial fashion, as each chapter inches the plot forward as the heroes and villains engage in a back-and-forth of schemes and counter-schemes to try and outdo each other. Where the serial stands out is its varied settings and action sequences, which are fairly well thought out and keep things interesting. The serial borrowing the best bits from the series of novels probably helped in generating ideas for the fifteen chapters. There is, however, a fair amount of repetition in the serial, particularly in the fact that a lot of the plot is driven forward by one side overhearing the other’s plans, and a counter-scheme being devised. It’s a bit predictable, but that’s very much a staple of the format. The serial does fortunately have a very definite sense of direction, and each chapter edges the plot forward a little towards a goal that is defined from the outset, and simple enough to follow.
The characters are all fairly standard for a serial, with Allan Parker being the typical action-based male lead who does all the stunts and fistfights. Nayland Smith is the protagonist of the novels, but takes a supporting role here, as these serials always require a more action-based lead. The usual lack of female characters are also featured in the serial, with Mary Randolph being the sole female lead who appears very infrequently and provides no contribution to anything other than being the daughter of another more important character. There’s also Fu Manchu’s daughter who plays a role as a minor villain. Obviously the most interesting character is Fu Manchu himself, a villain that has become somewhat cultural icon…for better or worse. His iconic image is fairly recognisable, and he has been the focus of quite a few movies across the decades, meaning his image has become this recognisable figure. As you might expect however, this image is mired in controversy, and has cemented a specific image of “orientalism” in the west for many years (obviously Fu Manchu wasn’t the first character to do this, but his is one of the most enduring). He is played, as most southeastern Asian characters are, by a white man in make-up to “look” Chinese. His attitudes and actions also accentuate a “foreignness” that portrays a difference and opposition to western values. He is definitely one of the more interesting villains seen in a serial, but it relies on some very problematic depictions.
Drums of Fu Manchu is regarded as one of the best serials that was produced, and it easy to see why: the action sequences are varied and intense, and there’s a lot of effort put into the serial in all of its aspects. A lot of consideration is put into depicting Fu Manchu as evil, particularly in the harsh lighting shots that create shadows across his face and give him a very malicious look. A rather unique aspect of this film is the ending, in which Fu Manchu actually survives and escapes the plunge to his doom, promising revenge. It was actually against the film regulator’s guidelines to have film villains survive at the end, presumably as it was morally important to show villains getting justice for their crimes (even if that justice is being hurled off a cliff…). Apparently, an exception was made because the novels had Fu Manchu escaping at the end, and also that the series very much had the potential for a sequel in which Fu Manchu could ultimately meet his end. I think there definitely would have been a sequel, but apparently the U.S. state department put a stop to it because the Chinese ambassador to the U.S. had formally complained about the depiction of Chinese people, and China was also an ally in World War II against the Japanese. This is also probably why the villains in wartime serials were typically Japanese from that time forward. Overall, Drums of Fu Manchu is a good example of the serial format, but comes with a big caveat in its problematic depictions of Chinese people and Asian cultures. The plot has direction, the action sequences are varied and well executed, and there’s generally a good amount of consideration and effort in most of the film’s production. It is easy to see why it is one of the strongest examples of the serial format, although as with the rest of them, it suffers from a fair amount of repetition.