The Face of Fu Manchu


‘…racist in the same way as referring to ‘the China virus’, picking up on decades of distrust and disinformation, attitudes that seem to still be with us today…’

Let’s talk about race. Eagle-eyed readers will have spotted that the above picture is not the face of Fu Manchu, but Max von Sydow playing Ming the Merciless in 1980’s kid-friendly camp-fest Flash Gordon. Last week, the BBFC re-classified the re-release of the film on DVD to put it out of the reach of children; the BBFC’s Matt Tindall explains ‘Ming the Merciless is coded as an East Asian character due to his hair and make-up, but he’s played by a Swedish actor in the film, he’s played by Max Von Sydow, which I don’t think is something that would happen if this were a modern production, and is something that we’re also aware that viewers may find dubious if not outright offensive…’ Presumably, the BBFC will be slapping the same prohibitive certificate on Star Wars, where the character Watto, a pawn broker with a horrific, hooked nose and seemingly fashioned after the most anti-semitic cartoons of Jews to come out of Nazi Germany, deserves the same treatment. The BBFC seem to want to make judgements for us rather than educate the viewer to make their own decisions about coding, and about what stereotypes are and why they exist. Amazon, Netflix and other streaming services are happy to take our money to get content for us, but don’t seem to have any thoughts about how to provide context or advice about what they sell, and the result is big-tech irresponsibility.

So here’s The Face of Fu Manchu,  a 1965 British film that takes the characters of Sax Rohmer’s books and updates them to a James Bond aesthetic; a big hit at the time with audiences worldwide that spawned four sequels. The title doesn’t mention that Fu Manchu is a doctor; Fu Manchu is also a criminal mastermind, and Nayland Smith (Nigel Green) of Scotland Yard is on his trail. Smith is the kind of man born to stand in front of fireplaces and smoke a pipe, and after an hour of gentle interrogation, things jump up a notch with a rare period car chase that ends with Fu Manchu’s many henchmen dropping bombs from their plane, pretty cool for 1912 and not bad at all for 1965. Smith works out that Fu Manchu’s operation is blighted by nepotism, and traces his daughter (Tsai Chin) back to Fu Manchu’s underground cavern, where he plans to release a deadly chemical weapon on the world.

Let’s make no bones; there is a strong sub-text of racism in Don Sharp’s thriller, and it’s specifically build around the idea of portraying the Chinese race as being callous enough to launch a germ warfare chemical attack unprovoked on the rest of the world. Fu Manchu targets the village of Fleetwick, where he kills thousands of men, women, children and even dogs with his weaponised poison. These scenes are chilling, and used as reason enough for us to cheer Smith to make an effective, vicious strike back against the ‘Orientals’ responsible. It’s racist in the same way as referring to ‘the China virus’, picking up on decades of distrust and disinformation about other races, attitudes that seem to still be with us today. This film is revealing and culturally important because of what it reveals about past attitudes, but it needs to be viewed in the context of the time.

Four sequels followed featuring the same character; a rival to Bond, but inverted so that the villain is the draw, or at least that’s how my mum explained this film to me when it was screening for ten million UK viewers as a Wednesday night movie on BBC1 in 1979. Via the BBFC’s new understanding that actors must come from the same race as the characters they play, Lee’s performance as Fu can only be racist; you wouldn’t see Liam Neeson as Ra’s al Ghul in Chris Nolan’s Batman Begins, or Tilda Swinton as the Ancient One in Marvel’s Dr Strange, would you? Oh, you would, and you do, and the BBFC aren’t clamouring for these immensely popular films to be publically disgraced in the way that Flash Gordon has been. Big companies and corporations have shown a willingness to offset their negative effects by putting something of value back into the communities they disrupt; it’s time that the big streamers showed some interest in providing some meaningful context to all of the films they’re so cheerfully selling.  We need context and education, not censorship, or else it’ll take more than Nayland Smith and Scotland Yard to save the world from what gets unleashed.


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  1. I enjoy the magic of movies and appreciate when an actor embraces a character believably. I enjoy it the way lots of folks (but not me) enjoy the illusion of Santa. That means if someone can be believable as a 16 year old at 25, as a man when a woman, fake an accent or a race, he/she is a good actor-no or am I being un-PC? Isn’t that the litmus test?
    There are movies that confront racism, ignore it, or get in your face with it just to illicit a reaction. Film Authority are you advocating for something akin to G-X rating comments added to the plug line of a movie or that movies assume a moral responsibility? I’m a Yankee that lives in the South and mourns the disappearance of certain cultural elements. Labeling things that cause strong reactions would have been preferable to destroying pieces of the past. That’s what they do here-implode stuff.
    You make an excellent point RE racist movies being important for exposing and revealing past moral atmospheres. But is a warning or disclaimer label effective? Is that Hollywood’s job? Will that change attitudes that begin in childhood and are reinforced by peers? My dad was a bigot, but I thought for myself and kept my non white friendships secret until I was on my own. Not what I wanted to do but necessary for everyone’s physical health. I tried HARD to influence and change his prejudices. What we need to understand is the root of racism and pull up that root forever. Education helps; talking helps; positive actions roar. When the emperor is wearing no clothes, I realize he’s naked, regardless of what the crowd says. How do we share eyes that see clearly with those gone ethics blind or just plain dumb?

    • Some big questions here. I’m not in favour of banning, burning or destroyong culture, and I feel it’s not the job of government agencies to put it out of reach. I also don’t think the film-makers should have to explain their work. But back catalogues of films are sold and re-sold, and those seeking information are split between wiki, imdb, scattered reviews from the past. Right now, it’s easy to be a film critic, anyone with a wordpress account can do it, but it’s hard to reach people and help them make informed choices. My father was a confirmed racist too, and set me firmly on the path of calling it out whenever I see it. But providing context for films and attitudes from the past is not supported by any joined-up thinking by those who present the material, who just pack and stack it high with not much more than a poster, a cast list and a one paragraph synopsis. For all the money Amazon have, their treatment of the films they sell is criminal, with wrong details, shonky subtitles; they act like they do not care what they’re selling. I don’t think we should bury or celebrate things just because they’re in the past; we can’t agree on a path forwards unless we can agree on our shared history…

      • Ah, I didn’t look at your post from the viewpoint of film critic trying to be objective and informative–context vs content, which is nearly always fiction, or ‘loosely based’ on real life/event. There’s a book for sale on Amazon: Hollywood Guide to Ethics; the inside is blank…I need to dig out a few books I have; one is on Social Criticism in films of von Stroheim, Wilder..another is Who Killed Hollywood. Then there’s You’ll Never Eat Lunch in This Town Again and National Security Cinema. to be continued… and many thanks for addressing this sticky wicket subject!

        • Really like You’ll never Eat Lunch, some good X certificate confessions in there. But yes, Hollywood is a commedcial inductry, not guided by ethics. But if they want to pretend they have ethics, they should walk the walk as well as talk the talk. I think we’re headed for a deeply santimonious awards season in 2021. Not much of the penetrating wit of Wlder in 2020 movies…

  2. This looks like we’re in for a Fu Deck of Fu Manchus if that’s a boxset you’re showing. It’s kind of hard to rewind to a time when China (or anyone from the Orient for that matter) was seen as the standard villain. Maybe this isn’t the time to point out that for decades it was British actors (James Mason very often) that Hollywood dubbed as the evil bad guys. And putting this in the context of the times this picture was made – a few years after the Cuban Missile Crisis – the Cold War was very real and people genuinely did think they were going to be bombed into nuclear oblivion by China or Russia so it was very easy to play on those fears – the idea of being nuked by their own home-grown lunatics such as in the spate of nuke movies in the 1960s was short-lived. A few years back Sir Christopher Frayling wrote a marvelously informative book “The Yellow Peril, Dr Fu Manchu & The Rise of Chinaphobia” which explained how such racism developed. As he pointed out, the idea of the Chinese as a threat to Western civilization developed “at precisely the time when that country was in chaos…and utterly incapable of being a peril to anyone. “

    • I’ll look into Frayling…my impression is that this was easily the best of the five movies in the boxed set; if you can deal with the race angle, it’s a really well made film. I wonder out loud if it was China’s lack of menace that made them the go-to guys for being villians in the 60’s; I totally get why Hollywood would make the Brits into bad guys. It’s quite shocking to see a chemical assault carried out on British soil in this film, and makes me wonder how long that kind of fear existed; the Rohmer novels date way back…

  3. I’m sorry, but Ming the Merciless ‘coded’ whatever that means as an East Asian is bollocks. He was from the planet Mongo for one, which is definitely not in East Bloody Asia. If you google images of ‘East Asian Man’ and then ‘Ming the Merciless’, you will see there is no resemblance whatsoever. Matt Tindall is an idiot and just jumping on the cult of virtue (as Alex puts it) bandwagon.

    • We are, for once, in agreement on this. This is a judgement call for individuals, and I personally disagree with censoring films in grounds of popular taste, since it changes by the day. Thanks for the straight-talking comment!

    • I can give an example of racist casting for at least half of movies made between 1950 and now, but let’s just pick one and make an example of it as if the rest are all fine…

      • It’s the rearview mirror thing too. I’m not big on punishing previous generations under a foreign code of conscience. My parents had attitudes that would be seen as offensive today. They weren’t bad people. It was a different time. You just have to recognize that and move on.

        • There are racist attitudes in Bond movies, but they’re still pumping out tv screenings and boxed sets so we can revel in them in their racist glory. If we’re not banning this kind of stuff, but re-packaging it instead for commercial gain, then we should be examining it and explaining why such attitides were popular at the time…IMHO

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