Christopher Lee and Fu Manchu: Critiques and Interpretations

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Alfonso Casal's picture
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Rather than a review any particular one of Christopher Lee's Fu Manchu films, I'd like to focus in on (and refute) two critiques that have been raised by several writers and critics. One having to do with the image of Fu Manchu itself, the other specifically having to do with Mr. Lee's interpretation of the character. My reason for going from the general to the particular is that no discussion of Fu Manchu -- or any actor's performance in that role -- can avoid dealing with the first critique. To wit:

1. "Fu Manchu is a dangerous racist stereotype."

Needless to say, I whole heartedly disagree with that statement. While, admittedly, Hollywood's record in representing ethnic minorities has, overall, not been very praiseworthy (the pre-1960s image of the Amerindian peoples comes readily to mind); I don't see race as being essential to the character of Fu Manchu. Indeed, I see it as very much a tangential question. The essence of the character lying elsewhere.

Are there racist soundings in the Sax Rohmer novels? The famous the "Yellow Peril" statement is often cited as such. At this point I should add that Rohmer originally placed that phrase in quotations marks as though to question (as some have noted) its validity. That qualification aside, some have argued that there is a racist atmosphere permeating all his works. But, I would take issue with that on two grounds. Firstly, even if there were, this merely places Rohmer within the context of his times. Such ideas and concepts were part of the Western discourse in the pre-WWI years. One can find similar sentiments voiced in the writings of H.P. Lovecraft, Edgar Rice Burroughs, and Dennis Wheatley, to name but a few. One thing history teaches is that people and their works cannot be judged in a void -- much less by standards and mores they never heard of -- and must be seen within the context of their own times. Indeed, it would have been remarkable if such sentiments were absent from their works. Secondly, I think what has been wrongly denounced as racism in Rohmer's novels is something far different -- a search for the exotic. Rohmer placed his novels and stories in settings that would, to his readers, seem exciting, strange and exotic. Did Rohmer use eastern/Asian locales, characters, and mores as a means of heightening suspense and thrilling his audience? Frankly, yes. But isn't that the whole point of a thriller, to thrill? And isn't taking the reader to unfamiliar, strange and unusual places and people part and parcel of escapist literature? Rohmer took his Anglo-Irish-American lectors to faraway places and gave these places a sense of mystery and romance. Rohmer was not an anthropologist. His task was not the scientific investigation of other cultures. He was a thriller writer. His task was to entertain his readers.

If Rohmer was guilty of anything, he was guilty of what Edward Said has termed "Orientalism." The presentation of "Eastern" peoples and cultures by Western authors as a way of creating a sense of the exotic. Fine. Point made. But is this racism? I think not. Nowhere in Rohmer is the accusation made that Asians are inferior, or less intelligent, or morally beneath Caucasians. Quite the contrary, what makes Fu Manchu such a dangerous foe is just his supreme intelligence, his competence, and his sense of honor. Exoticism, yes. Racism, no.

Additionally, I think race is incidental to the character of Fu Manchu. Or, I should say, DR. Fu Manchu. Here is where we come to the essence of the character. Dr. Fu Manchu is of the same literary family as PROFESSOR Moriarty, DR. Mabuse, DR. No, and DR. Hannibal Lector. What makes the character of Fu Manchu so compelling (and frightening) is not his race, but his intelligence. Indeed, what is so disturbing about all these literary figures is that they are men of genius who have consciously used their talents to pursue a life of crime.
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Fu Manchu thus lies in the tradition of the 'master criminal.' Fu Manchu's race is not much of a consideration save -- as I wrote above -- to give an exotic flavor to the stories . His activities are no different from Fritz Lang's Dr. Mabuse or Conan Doyle's Professor Moriarty (or a whole slew of Bond villains). He is the master-criminal archetype. This is what makes Fu Manchu so fascinating, the rest is just window dressing.

The criticism that was raised of Mr. Lee's performance was that:

2. "Christopher Lee's Fu Manchu is nothing more than Dracula in a Saffron Robe."

This criticism I take especial umbrage at. Not only is it misinformed, but malicious, as well. Mr. Lee's performance as Fu Manchu is quite different from his interpretation of the Transylvanian boyar -- indeed the characters themselves are vastly different. This criticism has always struck me as saying more about the tunnel-vision of certain critics than about Christopher Lee's performance. Parenthetically, the worst example of this was a review I once read of Mr. Lee's performance in THE MAN WITH THE GOLDEN GUN where a "critic" asserted that: "Christopher Lee plays the title character as a Dracula-esque Fu Manchu." What utter nonsense. One wonders if this critic acutally bothered to see the film. Comparing the jovial, bon-vivant Scaramanga to either Fu or Dracula is beyond absurd. But I digress. . .

Christopher Lee played Fu Manchu in five films between 1965 and 1968. The first, THE FACE OF FU MANCHU was strongly directed by Don Sharp and was the best of the series. Of course there was criticism. One, that the film was "chop suey Bond," as Mr. Lee mentions in TALL DARK AND GRUESOME, strikes me as a non-critique. So what if it was? Rohmer antedates Fleming by a good 40 years. And certainly, Fleming's DR. NO is an homage to Rohmer's villain. This is criticizing the original for resembling the copy. The other criticism, that Mr. Lee's Fu was nothing more than Dracula transplanted from the Carpathians to the Himalayans, is what I wish to directly refute.

Yes, there are certain similarities: Both characters are powerful noblemen, both have a certain 'stillness' about them. But here the similarities end. Actually, the greatest similarity is not with Mr. Lee's interpretation of the two literary figures, but with the fate of the two series: Like the Hammer Dracula series, the Fu Manchu series was to decline due to the films makers ignoring the possibilities inherent in the central character; writing scripts AROUND Fu Manchu instead of ABOUT Fu Manchu.

Christopher Lee's Fu Manchu is, above all else, a figure of imposing dignity and strength. Mr. Lee gives a measured and controlled quality to the 'Devil Doctor.' One gets the feeling that everything Fu Manchu does is meticulously thought-out and executed. Unlike Dracula, whose ferocity is always just beneath the surface (and who often just acts on impulse), Mr. Lee's Fu Manchu is civilized.

Connected to the character's dignity is the sense of honor. Christopher Lee's interpretation of Fu Manchu is of a deadly opponent, but not a base or corrupt one. Indeed, in THE BRIDES OF FU MANCHU, and FU MANCHU AND THE KISS OF DEATH it is the corruption and weakness of his enemies that is Fu Manchu's strong suit.
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Finally, there is a sexless, quality to Fu Manchu that is in marked contrast to the Hammer vampire. Yes, there is Fu Manchu's daughter (played by Tsai Chin) who represents the element of perverse sexaulity. But not Fu Manchu himself. Fu Manchu is portrayed by Mr. Lee as driven and obsessed by his goal of world domination, to the exclusion of 'simple' human 'failings' such as the sexual drive. This is as far from the perverse Count as can be imagined. Indeed, Mr. Lee's Fu Manchu, in this aspect, is similar to his cousin Ian Fleming's original conception of the character of Blofeld of whom we are told he "has never been known to sleep with anyone of either sex." This serves to make the character more removed from the ebb and flow of common humanity -- and all the more mysterious and frightening.

In conclusion, contrary to certain literary and film critics, I believe Christopher Lee's performances as Fu Manchu to be a powerful and ORIGINAL interpretation of a great literary character.

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