The Mask of Fu Manchu
the mask of fu manchu | charles brabin | irene kuhn | edgar allan woolf | john willard | boris karloff | lewis stone | karen morley | adventure | sci-fi | based on | novel | sax rohmer | united states | charles starrett | myrna loy | jean hersholt | fu manchu
Film: The Mask of Fu Manchu
Director: Charles Brabin
Writers: Irene Kuhn, Edgar Allan Woolf and John Willard
Starring: Boris Karloff, Lewis Stone and Karen Morley
This was a movie that I discovered on Letterboxd when looking for horror movies from 1932. This follows a bunch of shorts that I’m assuming are technically serials before movies that were shown in the theater. These started back in 1923. What I also found interesting is that the first movie in the series was from 1929, which I hadn’t seen yet. A couple years ago I did watch Drums of Fu Manchu from 1940. This was a serial that was combine into a movie. Upon watching this, I think that one borrowed from this and I even believe it might pick up where this one left off if I’m honest. To get into this one though, our synopsis is Englishmen race to find the tomb of Genghis Khan before the sinister Fu Manchu (Boris Karloff) does.
We start with Nayland Smith (Lewis Stone) calling Sir Lionel Barton (Lawrence Grant) into his office. Lionel is an archaeologist where Nayland is a secret agent of sorts. He tells Lionel that they need him to recover the scimitar and mask of Genghis Khan before Fu Manchu does. The reason is that the legend states whomever finds the mask will get Asia to rise under the wearer’s banners. Lionel agrees to help.
Lionel then goes to tell his counterparts. There is Terrence Granville (Charles Starrett), Von Berg (Jean Hersholt) and McLeod (David Torrence) among them. Lionel somehow has discovered where the tomb of Genghis Khan is. He tells his guys. He then tries to leave and he is kidnapped. He is taken to Asia and brought to Dr. Fu Manchu. Fu Manchu wants to know where the tomb is and bribes Lionel for the information, but he won’t give it over. Fu Manchu decides to torture him to get it instead.
Back in England, Sheila Barton (Karen Morley) is worried about her father. She seeks out Nayland with Terry who reveals that he believes Fu Manchu has him. Our group goes to where Lionel said the tomb of Genghis Khan was and an evacuation begins.
Fu Manchu will stop at nothing to get this scimitar and mask. He uses his daughter, Fah Lo See (Myrna Loy), when necessary. Lionel is a bargaining chip among other things. Our heroes cannot allow Fu Manchu to get these items or the fate of the world could fall into peril.
That should get you up to speed a bit more about the plot as well as our characters. Where I want to start is if this movie is horror or not. To be honest, I don’t think it is, but for the time it came out, I can see it being put there. We have a diabolic madman like Fu Manchu who tortures, kills and even turns someone into a temporary zombie. It is light on the elements, but I can see why it was put there during the 1930s.
Where I want to go from there would be the story. When I was in high school, I wrote a paper about Mongolian warfare under Genghis Khan. It was quite interesting in what they would do and how they used fear as a weapon against their enemies. There were times that he won battle before the fighting started due to psychological warfare. I also learned that no one knows the location of his tomb due to the strict burial requirements. The slaves were executed and all those that knew were killed as well. This movie glosses over how Lionel knows, but I can get past that. I also don’t mind the concept that whoever has the mask and scimitar will get the masses to join him. It feels like it is looking down on the people from the area or that they’re simple enough to just join whoever has these items, but it is a movie so I can work with it in the confines of that. That isn’t to say we aren’t getting some racism here as well. The fact that they’ll join someone who has these items doesn’t paint them in a good light. That is just the start though and I’ll get into that next.
I do want to preface that I understand this was made in a different time. I’m a Karloff fan. If memory serves from the documentary about him, he is of Indian descent. That would put his heritage from India and making him Asian. He is not Chinese though like the character of Fu Manchu. They put him in ‘yellow-face’ to play the role. Going along with this is Loy who plays his daughter. I do have a problem with this. I did also notice that most of the slaves in the movie are Black. Doubling down as well, Fu Manchu is sexist with things he says about his daughter to a group of people who either serve him or he is trying to get to join him. I can’t fully hold this against the movie, but it does affect my enjoyment.
Going along with this as well, this movie has our heroes being from the United Kingdom. They are painted as the heroes. I have a problem here that they’re tomb robbing. This was a problem with the British empire in that they would go to countries that belonged to them at the time and takes artifacts. Egypt was a big spot that was plundered. This movie is painting them as the heroes as I said, even though they’re stealing items to bring back. This makes them problematic for me as well. There is something at the end that I did find slightly redeeming, but only because it is preventing bad things from happening down the line.
The last thing for the story to end this section on a positive, Fu Manchu stories are a precursor to things like James Bond. Fu Manchu is a super villain. We get troupes here like him revealing his plan and putting our heroes in traps that are elaborate instead of killing them. There is historical significance here outside of my issues that I can appreciate.
With all of that out of the way, I think that Karloff was a solid as our villain. He plays it well, but I come to expect that from him. Stone works as our government agent that is the true adversary for Fu Manchu. I thought that Morley, Starrett, Hersholt, Grant and Torrence are all fine as the rest of the heroes. Loy isn’t given much, but I do like her as the sidekick to Fu Manchu as well. The acting is fine. No one stands out though aside from our star.
Then the final things are the cinematography, effects and soundtrack. For the former, it is fine. We are mostly getting static shots so it doesn’t necessarily stand out. I did think that the set pieces we get for Genghis Khan’s tomb or Fu Manchu’s hideout were good. There also aren’t a lot in the way of effects. Seeing the torture devices and the aftereffects there worked. We also get to see Fu Manchu complete a couple of experiments that were fine. Other than that, the soundtrack worked for what was needed. It didn’t add a lot to the scenes.
In conclusion, I think that this is a decent little movie. It feels like an early take on the espionage films and would pave way for things like James Bond. This movie flies by with its 68 minutes runtime. If anything, I think they could have fleshed a bit more out. Karloff is great as our villain with the rest of the cast being fine. The filmmaking isn’t bad with the best part being some of the set pieces. I did have my issues with the racism and sexism, but also acknowledge this movie was made 90+ years ago. It was a different time. Being that this was light on the horror elements, I can’t necessarily recommend this to fans of the genre. If you like films like this and want to see more of the history, I would check this out. To me, this is over average unfortunately.
My Rating: 6 out of 10