Thursday, 17 September 2009

The Terror of the Tongs (1961)

While Hammer were best known for their gothic horror movies their output throughout the company’s history was exceptionally varied. The Terror of the Tongs, released in 1961, was (like The Stranglers of Bombay) an interesting attempt to combine the the horror elements and period settings of their gothics with a crime/adventure plot.

It is 1910, and although the British are as yet scarcely aware of it their colony of Hong Kong is increasingly under the control of the Red Dragon Tong, most feared of all the Chinese organised crime secret societies. The tong runs the gambling clubs and the brothels and of course the opium trade. They also exercise their power over the docks, with a lucrative racket involving pilfered goods from the many ships coming to Hong Kong to trade.

Captain Jackson Sale is a bluff honest British sea captain who, quite by accident, finds himself caught up in the activities of the Red Dragon. A Chinese passenger on his ship passes on to Captain Sale vital intelligence about the activities of the tong, hidden inside a book of Chinese poetry. Unfortunately Captain Sale is unaware that he is in possession of this information, but the tong does know about it. The captain will pay a heavy personal price for this, and subsequent events will cause him to devote himself to the destruction of the tong and to exacting an equally terrible revenge. He acquires some useful allies along the way, including a band of fanatics sworn to the annihilation of the tong, and a beautiful Eurasian girl (played by French actress Yvonne Monlaur who looks and sounds entirely French) who had been sold into white slavery by her mother.

It’s a short movie, and it’s packed with action. It also looks fabulous. Once again the true genius behind Hammer turns out to be production designer Bernard Robinson. The sets are suitably impressive and they look expensive, which of course they aren’t. I have no idea if Hong Kong in 1910 really looked like this, but it doesn’t matter at all - what matters is that they create the perfect atmosphere of the mysterious and the exotic, and of decadence and wickedness. Arthur Grant does his usual splendid job as director of photography.

Geoffrey Toone makes a fine hero, determined and square-jawed. While Yvonne Monlaur fails to look even the slightest bit non-European she’s an attractive and sympathetic heroine. And as the chief villain, the head of the Hong Kong chapter of the Red Dragon Tong, we have Christopher Lee. Although he gets less screen time than you might expect he completely dominates the film with his evil charisma. Also watch out for Roger Delgado (later to become better known as The Master from Doctor Who) as one of Christopher Lee’s more sinister henchmen.

Despite the draconian censorship of the time this movie does have some genuinely chilling moments, especially the torture by bone-scraping scene. Scriptwriter Jimmy Sangster admits he has no idea if such a torture really exists, but within the context of the movie it has the right touch of creepiness and horror. There’s no actual sex but there is a surprising amount of what today gets labelled as adult themes - there’s white slavery, there’s obvious prostitution, there’s overt drug use, and there are (perhaps even more surprisingly) hints of British involvement in the crimes of the tongs and a sceptical attitude towards the competence of the British police force in the colony.

Jimmy Sangster has cheerfully admitted to having done no research at all for any of the scripts he wrote for Hammer, and that may be why they work so well. They’re pure fantasy, taking place in an exotic world that never existed. This is the sort of movie that would probably be considered too politically incorrect to get made today, although it’s worth pointing out that there are just as many brave virtuous Chinese characters fighting the evil of the tongs as there are wicked Chinese characters.

It’s included in the Icons of Adventure boxed set. It comes with a commentary track which includes some amusing anecdotes about British film censorship in the early 60s, and the extraordinarily snobbish and superior attitudes the censors displayed towards movies they disapproved of.

It’s all a great deal of good silly fun. Pure entertainment.

No comments: