Sir Lionel Barton (Lawrence Grant, The Werewolf of London) meets with Sir Nayland Smith (Lewis Stone, The Lost World). Sir Barton is about to mount an expedition to uncover the tomb of Genghis Khan. Smith counsels Barton to conduct his expedition in absolute secrecy lest the infamous Dr. Fu Manchu (Boris Karloff, Black Friday) interfere. Fu Manchu seeks Khan’s mask and sword so that he can use them to command the “teeming millions” of Asia and overrun the Western world. Barton meets his expedition team in the British museum but after the meeting Manchu’s goons spring out of mummy cases and abducting him.
Smith counsels Barton’s partners, Dr. Von Berg (Jean Hersholt, Don Q, The Son of Zorro) and McCloud (David, Torrence, Captain Blood) to continue the expedition without him, as he believes the best chance in freeing Dr. Barton lies in getting to Khan’s tomb first. Barton’s daughter, Sheila (Karen Morley, Scarface), forces Smith to allow her to join the expedition, bringing along her fiance, Terrence Granville (B-Western star Charles Starrett). Smith stays behind, hoping to rendezvous with the expedition at a later date. Fu Manchu, meanwhile, is busy torturing Sir Barton in an attempt to make him reveal where Khan’s tomb lies. Will the expedition find the tomb before Sir Barton talks? Can they keep the sword and mask of Genghis Khan (and themselves) out of Manchu’s clutches?
The Mask of Fu Manchu is a B-adventure film that is firmly entrenched in its time and place. Based on Sax Rohmer’s pulp novels, the film presents Fu Manchu as the sinister head of an Imperial nightmare stew, with various Asian cultural elements-costume, religion, belief, weapons, armor-thrown together without regard to their real life distinctions. Manchu’s forces include everyone from East Asians to Central Asians, Middle Easterners and, most inexplicably, Africans, all gathered by Manchu to destroy Western civilization. Sexual anxieties are evident as well, with Manchu’s daughter Fah Lo See (Myrna Loy, Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House) gleefully whipping a captive Terrence while her Speedo-clad African slaves look on, and, in one of the more jaw-dropping moments of dialog, Manchu rallies his forces by telling them of all the white women they will defile. Karloff’s monstrous Fu Manchu make-up makes him look more like a goblin than someone of Asian descent, and there are many references to European’s superiority while nearly the film trots out every Asian stereotype.
As an adventure film The Mask of Fu Manchu is decent but unexceptional. It’s difficult to take Lewis Stone seriously as an action hero, and while the younger Starrett could, in theory, take up the slack, he’s given little to do beyond being captured, disrobed, tied up and whipped repeatedly. Morley is absolutely terrible as the hysterical Sheila, and, while it’s tempting to blame this on the writing, her over-the-top histrionics are irritating. Loy is far more entertaining, and Karloff manages to mitigate some of the racism inherent in his role by giving a solid performance, making us believe that his Manchu is a genius dedicated to his cause. There are enough death rays, assassins, mind control serum, and death traps to keep the viewer interested, and it is a tribute to directors like Spielberg and Carpenter that they managed to update the adventure stories of this era while eliminating or parodying much of their terrible racism. The Mask of Fu Manchu is not good enough to overcome its racist baggage. Dedicated fans of 1930s genre films or students of film history the film will find The Mask of Fu Manchu worth a look. It might also do for fans of the trashy, as The Mask of Fu Manchu is a pre-Code film with quite a bit of BDSM and sexual content that would be impossible under the Hayes Code.
A clip from the film: Terry brings Fu Manchu and Fah Lo See what he thinks is the sword and mask of Genghis Khan.