Drums of Fu Manchu

08/06/2020 06:41

Film: Drums of Fu Manchu

Year: 1940

Director: John English and William Witney

Writer: Franklin Adreon, Morgan Cox, Ronald Davidson, Norman S. Hall, Barney A. Sarecky and Sol Shor

Starring: Henry Brandon, William Royle and Robert Kellard



Now I’m going to be honest, I was a bit apprehensive to check this out due to the four and half hour long runtime. This is a serial that was released weekly for it’s original run. Now on the Internet Movie Database this isn’t showing as horror, but it did on Letterboxd when I did a search of horror movies from 1940. With that, I decided to make it part of the Journey Through the Aughts segment on Journey with a Cinephile: A Horror Movie Podcast. The synopsis is the nefarious Dr. Fu Manchu (Henry Brandon) searches for the keys to the tomb of Genghis Khan, in order to fulfill a prophecy that will enable him to conquer the world.

I feel like I should start this recap off that I really didn’t know a lot about this character of Fu Manchu. I knew what the facial hair was and learned that it got its name thanks to this character. It appears to be based off novels written by Sax Rohmer as a criminal mastermind. I’ll get into that, but wanted to share this before getting into this movie.

We get brought up to speed that Dr. Fu Manchu is a ruthless man who has studied the ancient ways of the orient, but is a modern man. He wants to take over Asia which would put his plans for world domination into motion. In order to do so, he needs the specter of Genghis Khan. There’s a prophecy that whoever gets it that year, will unite the people of Asia under one leader. In order to discover its location, Fu Manchu is in Los Angeles as he needs 3 scrolls for the location.

Also in Los Angeles is Sir Dennis Nayland Smith (William Royle). He was just in Asia, learning of the prophecy and has been trying to stop Fu Manchu. Nayland attempts to see his friend, Dr. Flinders Petrie (Olaf Hytten) where a member of Fu Manchu’s dacoit tries to stop him. They know that Fu Manchu is there and they’re out to stop him before he can obtain the information he needs that will lead him to specter. Also helping them is Allan Parker (Robert Kellard). Their search leads them to Prof. Edward Randolph (Tom Chatterton) and then to his daughter, Mary (Luana Walters), who is bringing one of the scrolls to LA.

It becomes a giant game of chess as Fu Manchu, his daughter Fah-Lo-Suee (Gloria Franklin) and his henchmen the dacoit try to learn this information and steal the artifacts. At every turn they come face to face with Nayland, Allan, Dr. Petrie and Mary as they do. There is danger as well as move to countermove every step of the way that will take them all over the city and then to Asia as it is a race to this specter.

Now as I alluded to at the beginning of this, I did cut a lot out and really simplified this into that recap. To be honest though, we get a lot of the same each chapter of this story. From chapter 2, we would get a cliffhanger where one or a few of our heroes would be in peril and you’d have to see how they would get out of it. If I’m going to be honest, this would probably be more enjoyable to see weekly, but binging through this in a few sittings got to be rough. It is just so much of the same over and over again.

I don’t want you to think that I completely hated this though, as that is not the case. I knew that Fu Manchu was a character, but never realized who this character really is. As I’m watching this, I’m realizing that this was probably the basis of characters you’d seen in James Bond films/books along with there are things that Dr. Evil does in Austin Powers. This does translate again as borrowing from James Bond, but to my knowledge, a lot of this predates those. The way these two characters talk are similar and even some of the traps are eerily similar as well. It would surprise me to learn that the Marvel villain of the Mandarin being based off this character as well. The villain itself is great in that it taking the ways of the past and having someone who is versed in the present which I thought was cool. He’s even using toxins and what not for mind-control. Also I dig that his word is important. Dr. Fu Manchu is a really good villain, aside from the troupe that probably got its start around this time where he talks too much, gives away his plan and then ruins it.

With my praise out of the way, I do have to point out the racism of the character as well. Personally, I don’t care that we have a villain that is not white. There’s nothing wrong there in my opinion. Part of my issue though is that we have Henry Brandon, a white person playing the character. An argument could be made that having him play the role is better to not hate the race, but that’s not the result of what happens. I did see this was discontinued due to the racist portrayal, including things like using the term Orient. I don’t like giving a pass for the reason it is 80 years old, especially since we haven’t come that far with the protests that are going on at the time of writing this.

Now I have said that I did have slight issues with things becoming repetitive. Every chapter really seems to follow the same formula with almost being its own contained story in a grand scheme of a much larger story. In general, I like what they’re doing. I’ve studied Gengis Khan, so I like incorporating that as it is not known where he was buried. Needing to find all of these different scrolls and artifacts to discover the location is cool to me. As I said though, the issue for me is that it makes our characters look dumb to reveal things. Our heroes will say things out loud, when they should realize that Fu Manchu has ways of learning things. I know it is to progress the story, but it doesn’t work when you continue to go to that well so many times, especially Nayland who has been chasing him for years from what I gather.

That will take me to the acting. Even though I don’t like that Brandon is not the correct race, I think he plays this villain well. I give him credit for being an early take on the character for historical purposes. His performance I’d still rank ahead of others for sure. Royle, Kellard, Hytten and Walters are all solid as our heroes. We really get a lot of Nayland and Allan, the latter falling into a lot of traps. They’re fine in general. Franklin falls into the same boat as Brandon for not being the correct race, but I can’t continue to harp on that. It would have been nice to get more characters of color to be in this, but I did like the cameo by Dwight Frye. The rest of the performers I thought worked for what was needed at times.

Moving next to the effects of the movie, this is still pretty early in cinema. They really don’t blow me away, but they did go practical. There were times where I could tell things weren’t real. We do get some good effects though mixed in. I would say that I’d give this an average score only because it is hit or miss at times, but they still took the time and effort which gets a pass.

The last thing to go over would be the soundtrack here. For the most part it is fine. They do well in picking selections that fit the mood of the scene. I do really have to give credit though to the drums. This tends to play at the end of chapters as the danger ramps up. I don’t know how the characters are able to hear it, but this is something that Fu Manchu plays to build tension. It did get my anxiety going so I will give credit for that.

With that said, even though I was anxious about the runtime and it did drag at times, overall this is pretty solid. It is interesting seeing an early villain that could influence things like books, movies and comics going forward. There needs to be credit given there. It does have some built in racism as well which does hurt it unfortunately. I do think that it goes on too long at times and just lessens the impact for me. The acting is good I would say, despite my issues with certain actors in roles. The effects aren’t great, but they tried at least. The soundtrack is effective with the drums that are used and the rest just fit. I would say that this is above average. Seeing a version where they trimmed stuff to make this more of a feature length would intrigue me to be honest.


My Rating: 6.5 out of 10