Drums of Fu Manchu (1940)

Drums_Of_Fu_Manchu_(1940)‘You are about to witness a miracle unseen since the days of the illusions of Genghis Khan. Through this crystal the sun’s power will be magnified to unbelievable proportions.’

Fu Manchu plans a revolution in Asia, but knows that he needs the sceptre of Genghis Khan to rally the local tribes to his cause. The artefact is allegedly hidden in the warrior’s lost tomb, and he searches for clues to its location. As usual, Sir Dennis Nayland Smith is on hand to oppose the devil doctor, and he recruits a young archaeologist and his associates to help.

Rattling good 15 chapter movie serial from Republic Studios that marks Fu Manchu’s first cinematic outing since the controversial Boris Karloff vehicle ‘The Mask of Fu Manchu’ (1932). Indeed, the character has always been dogged by accusations of racism and, whilst some phrases in the early novels could most kindly be described as ‘unfortunate’, author Sax Rohmer always portrayed his most famous creation as an honourable man, albeit with a misguided agenda. Initially, some effort is made to reflect this approach here, but it’s soon abandoned, and he becomes just another stereotypical, sadistic villain.

Henry Brandon is the usual ‘white man in an Asian role’ and, although he lacks the imperious presence of Christopher Lee, he gives a decent performance in the role. Even less convincing ethnically is native New Yorker Gloria Franklin as the good doctor’s evil daughter, with only some perfunctory eye makeup applied to make her look oriental. The heavy lifting on the other side of the fence is done by leading man Robert Kellard in the role of archaeologist Alan Parker. William Royle as Nayland Smith is a capable enough chap, but a little long in the tooth for such heroic exertions. Again, this was a departure from the novels, where Smith was still energetically fighting the good fight in ‘Emperor Fu Manchu’, published in 1959, having first crossed swords with Fu Manchu almost half a century earlier in first instalment ‘The Mystery of Fu Manchu’ in 1913. Sidekick Dr Petrie is pretty much relegated to the role of a bystander here, although it’s good to see Olaf Hytton featured a little more heavily than his usual bits in the Basil Rathbone/Nigel Bruce ‘Sherlock Holmes’ series. In fact, his main function here is to ask a few questions at the start of each chapter to bring the audience up to date with what’s been going on.

Drums_Of_Fu_Manchu_(1940)

‘What do you mean I’m adopted?’

Directors John English and William Witney certainly provide more than the usual ration of thrills and action, and there’s more creativity and invention to the cliffhangers too. The plot also avoids some of the more ridiculous flourishes of other serials, and this grounds the proceedings in some level of reality (in relative terms, of course). Energy levels are maintained throughout the 15 chapters, which was not always the case with many chapter plays visibly running out of steam in the late stages.

The beginning of the 1940s was probably the high point of Republic’s serial output with ‘The Adventures of Captain Marvel’ (1941) following shortly afterward. A followup to this Fu Manchu escapade was already being planned during its production, but the war in Europe and Japan’s allegiance with Hitler, apparently prompted a request from the U.S. state department to desist. The studio compiled and, with the exception of a fairly cheap and short lived TV series in the 1950s, it was a quarter of a century before the world was destined to hear from Fu Manchu again.

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