The 1940 Republic serial Drums of Fu Manchu is one of the notable attempts to transfer the adventures of Sax Rohmer’s great arch-villain to the big screen.
Sax Rohmer was the pseudonym employed by Arthur Henry Ward (1883-1959). Rohmer is today a very under-appreciated writer. He wrote some fine gothic fiction and an extremely interesting series of occult detective stories. He also wrote five books chronicling the plots of the female diabolical criminal mastermind Sumuru. His greatest fame however came from the Fu Manchu novels, the first of which appeared in 1913 (the final book came out in 1959).
There was an immensely entertaining and quite outrageous 1932 MGM film adaptation, The Mask of Fu Manchu, with Boris Karloff as Fu Manchu. It is most notable for Myrna Loy’s sizzling and utterly depraved performance as Fu Manchu’s daughter Fah Lo Suee.
There was also a series of five films in the 1960s featuring Christopher Lee as Fu Manchu. The first two films, The Face of Fu Manchu and The Brides of Fu Manchu, are actually rather good.
Although there was a Fu Manchu novel called Drums of Fu Manchu Republic’s serial has nothing to do with it, although it does have some resemblances to the 1932 MGM movie The Mask of Fu Manchu.
Dr Fu Manchu is once again plotting for political control of the whole of Asia. His idea this time is that if he can get his hands on the Sacred Sceptre of Genghis Khan then all the peoples of Asia will recognise him as their ruler. Naturally getting hold of the Sacred Sceptre is a complicated process. First you need to find three separate fragments of an inscription, that will then lead you to the location of the tomb of Genghis Khan, then you have to survive various booby traps to reach the tomb. This being a serial, the process becomes even more complicated. Fu Manchu’s nemesis, Sir Denis Nayland Smith (for some bizarre reason the serial insists on referring to him as Sir Nayland rather than Sir Denis), is engaged in a race with Fu Manchu to find the Sceptre first, and then once it is found it changes hands half a dozen times.
Allan Parker, the son of a scientist murdered by Fu Manchu, becomes Nayland Smith’s invaluable assistant. Smith’s old friend Dr Petrie is there as well, although playing a fairly minor role. Fu Manchu is ably assisted by his daughter Fah Lo Suee and by his loyal Dacoits. In this serial their loyalty is not voluntary - they have been surgically turned into zombies by Fu Manchu. This is a fun idea, although perhaps not quite consistent with the methods of the Fu Manchu of the books.
And this being a serial both the heroes and the villains are regularly captured by one other only to pull off a daring and improbable escape. There are car chases, and chases on horseback, and by train and aeroplane. There are countless fist fights and plenty of gun fights. There are battles with marauding tribesmen loyal to Fu Manchu. Fu Manchu has a whole series of fiendish deaths planned for his enemies, including a particularly nasty fate for Nayland Smith in the penultimate episode.
The fun in a serial does not come from the fact that the heroes always escape - we know they will always escape - but rather from the ingenious ways in which they manage this in the cliffhangers. This serial has the very considerable advantage of being directed by John English and William Witney, two of the best serial directors in the business, and these hair’s-breadth escapes are executed with skill and imagination. The biggest problem with serials was to prevent the pace from flagging in some of the middle episodes but English and Witney were notable for not allowing this to happen.
Drums of Fu Manchu has some reasonable sets but more importantly the action sequences are executed with care and attention to detail.
The Dr Fu Manchu of this serial is not quite the Dr Fu Manchu of Rohmer’s novels. Rohmer was always at pains to stress Fu Manchu’s very strict code of honour, something rather less in evidence here. The serial does not quite capture the flavour of Rohmer’s books but it’s a pretty good attempt.
Henry Brandon makes a fine larger-than-life and deliciously villainous Fu Manchu. My own personal opinion is that Christopher Lee was the best of the screen Fu Manchus but Brandon is certainly very very good. William Royle as Nayland Smith does not seem quite clever enough to be a serial rival to the evil doctor - he’s a bit Colonel Blimp-ish. Gloria Franklin is a good Fah Lo Suee although she pales into insignificance alongside Myrna Loy’s magnificent performance in the 1932 MGM movie. Robert Kellard as Allan Parker handles the action hero bits fairly well although he’s otherwise a little colourless.
VCI’s DVD presentation provides acceptable if far from impressive transfers and a short documentary that provides a reasonable introduction for viewers new to the wonderful world of Fu Manchu.
Drums of Fu Manchu has the reputation of being one of the best of the classic serials and it’s a reputation that it generally lives up to. It’s not quite as much fun as Republic’s superb Spy Smasher or Universal’s deliriously camp Flash Gordon but it’s still in the top tier. Highly recommended. I also highly recommend the 1932 movie and of course Sax Rohmer’s novels such as The Mask of Fu Manchu, The Daughter of Fu Manchu and The Bride of Fu Manchu.