The Mask of Fu Manchu
directed by Charles Brabin, Charles Vidor
starring Boris Karloff, Lewis Stone, Karen Morley, Charles Starrett, Myrna Loy, Jean Hersholt, Lawrence Grant, David Torrence, C. Montague Shaw, Ferdinand Gottschalk, E. Alyn Warren, Lal Chand Mehra, Willie Fung, Edward Peil sr, Allen Jung, Steve Clemente, Tetsu Komai, Chris-Pin Martin, Clinton Rosemond, Everett Brown, James B.Leong
screenplay by Irene Kuhn, Edgar Allan Woolf, John Willard, based on a story by Sax Rohmer, music by William Axt, special effects by Warren Newcombe, electrical effects by Kenneth Strickfaden
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Oriental baddie Fu Manchu (Boris Karloff) needs the mask and sword of
Genghis Khan to subdue all Asians and lead them in an uprising against
Europe. To this end, he kidnaps archeologist Sir Lionel Barton (Lawrence
Grant), who is supposed to know where the mask and sword are hidden, and
submits him to most terrible torture - but Barton won't talk. Meanwhile,
at secret service operative Nayland Smith's (Lewis Stone) behest, Barton's
assistants von Berg (Jean Hersholt) and McLeod (David Torrence) along with
Barton's daughter Sheila (Karen Morley) and her boyfriend Terry (Charles
Starrett) to actually unearth mask and sword. Once they are in their hands
though, Fu Manchu somehow manages to convince Sheila and Terry to exchange
them for her father, but when Terry brings them to the villain, it turns
out they are fakes, fabricated at Nayland Smith's request. Sheila's father
is returned to her alright, dead, while it's now Terry who is subjected to
the villain's torture before he's drugged and returned to Sheila to
finally retrieve the objects of Fu Manchu's desire ... and this time, he
brings the real sword and mask, too, along with all of Nayland Smith's
associates including Sheila, whom Fu Manchu wants to make his humkan
sacrifice to celebrate the impenjding invasion of Europe. Terry is awoken
from his drug-induced confusion just in time though and together with
Nayland Smith, he frees the others and puts an end to Fu Manchu and his
army by electrocuting them with one of the baddie's more sophisticated
machines of torture. In the end, the mask and sword are handed over to the
sea, to keep any other Oriental conquerors from ever abusing them trying
to cause another Asian uprising.
First of all I feel obliged to
note that from today's point of view, this film can by no means be
labelled policitally correct, I would even go so far as to call it
slightly racist - but then again, it was of course made in the early
1930's, at a time before colonbialism had collapsed, and the general
public's knowledge about Asia and its people was still sketchy at best.
This is not to excuse the te3ndencies of this film, just to make them a
little better understandable ...
Apart from its issues with
political correctness though, Mask of Fu Manchu is pretty much a
pulp masterpiece that presents its audience with wonderful tableaus of
torture in which carefully created sets seem to bring the action to life
just as much as the actors. Add to this a great cast, a wonderfully
grotesque villain-makeup worn by the decidedly un-Oriental Boris Karloff,
and an almost unhealthy predilection for sadism and torture, and you got a
very much unique and timeless piece of genre cinema.