The Mask of Fu Manchu is a racist movie. The casting choices are racist; the premise is racist; the source material on which it is based is racist. It is racist in nearly every scene in an exaggerated, almost comical “are we really doing this” kind of way.
By the time of Mask’s release in 1932, Fu Manchu was already a successful franchise. Several serials and movies had already been made, some of them silent. Warner Oland, who is more closely associated with Charlie Chan, played Fu Manchu for four talkies before this one. Fu Manchu is here played by Boris Karloff. Myrna Loy, who would soon make her debut as Nora in the Thin Man movies, plays Manchu’s deranged daughter Fah Lo See. Much is made in current writing about Fal Lo See’s sadistic pleasure in the torture Fu Manchu directs. But Loy always stands at attention; she exudes about as much eroticism as a pinewood 2x4.
The story is set up this way. British Agent Nayland Smith convinces the eminent Archeologist, Sir Lionel Barton, to travel to the Gobi desert to find the mask and sword of Ghengis Khan. The mask and sword are of immense academic value, he explains. But even more important, the mask and sword are also sought by the evil mastermind Fu Manchu. The English will use it for study, but Fu Manchu will use them to dupe all of Asia into accepting him as Khan’s reincarnation. Then he will raise an army to exterminate the Western world. Barton promptly finds the sword and mask, so Fu Manchu schemes to take it from the expedition using any means necessary. He even tries bargaining: a million pounds! Barton refuses.
Then Manchu summons Fah Lo See. “Explain to this gentleman,” he says, “the rewards that might be his. Point out to him the delights of our lovely country. The promise of our beautiful women. Even my daughter! Even that, for you.” Loy unflinchingly impersonates a plank. Barton refuses. Incensed, Fu Manchu has Barton tied beneath a giant bell which will ring, day and night, until Barton gives up the mask and sword of Ghengis Khan.
That’s the first ten minutes. The next hour features several forms of torture, kidnapping, drug-induced brainwashing, an elaborately staged special effects sequence with an electrical Jacob’s Ladder, and even a quick hop across the backs of docile crocodiles. Eventually, Manchu does manage to get the mask and sword, staging an elaborate ceremony intended to culminate in the human sacrifice of Barton’s daughter. Fu Manchu commands his new army during the ceremony: “Kill the White man and take his women!”
The common defense of racist and sexist movies like this one is to claim that they are “of their time.” That’s not really a defense. Just because racism was more socially acceptable decades ago does not make a movie less racist. But in this case, it’s probably not even accurate. The film was excessive even by contemporary standards. The Chinese government objected to its release. Roughly a decade later, the US government would beg studios not to make any more Fu Manchu movies to preserve the US - Chinese alliance. (This request was ignored. Fu Manchu movies were made until 1980, with Peter Sellers wearing the fake mustache in The Fiendish Plot of Dr. Fu Manchu.)
When The Mask of Fu Manchu was re-released in 1972, Japanese-Americans protested. The VHS release was censored to remove approximately ninety seconds of the most offensive content. This included Fa Lo See’s masochistic delight and Manchu’s order to “Kill the White Man.” More recent releases have restored this cut material, which I feel is the better option. Bowdlerizing content rarely makes it less offensive; it just misrepresents the artifact.
So, all things considered --- is this movie worth seventy minutes of your time? Not as a popcorn film, no. And not if you are a Myrna Loy fan either. It doesn’t matter how good an actor you are if all the director wants you to do is stand at attention and keep your mouth shut. Karloff chews some scenery, but there are many other options there.
And while the film tries to draw a bright line between the evil of Fu Manchu and the noble (white) English and American spirit, modern audiences will struggle. In 2020 it is hard not to see Nayland Smith as a colonizer and Lionel Barton’s efforts to pillage Khan’s tomb as theft.
“What good are these relics of a dead warrior to you?” asks Khan.
“Oh, our English people like to look at them on holidays,” says Barton.
It’s hard not to think that maybe Fu Manchu deserves a shot at ruling the world.