My God. I’ve just watched Yellow Peril: The Movie.
I shouldn’t be as shocked as I am. After all, when Sax Rohmer wrote his Fu Manchu novels, the western world was at the height of its panic at the Yellow Peril, and Fu Manchu was the perfect embodiment of those fears. Still, you can go into a movie knowing it’s going to be racist and generally ugly as hell – as I did in college when I had to watch Birth of a Nation for a class – and still be horrified.
Looking at this movie’s Wikipedia article, we learn that this movie earned an official protest from the Chinese government, so…racist even by the standards of 1932. That’s impressive.
So, having established the big, glaring problem with this movie, let’s go into the details. Review starts now. Spoilers ahead because fuck this movie.
The movie begins with a Sir Denis Nayland Smith of the British Secret Service talking to an archaeologist by the name of Sir Lionel Barton. With a 68 minute running time, this movie has no time to waste, so Sir Denis begins the conversation by asking, right out the gate, if Sir Lionel loves his country and is willing to die for it. Sir Lionel answers a jolly “yes” to both, and so Sir Denis gives him some important information: he knows that Sir Lionel is planning an expedition to the edge of the Gobi desert, where he has located the lost tomb of Genghis Khan. In that tomb, he will find the golden mask and sword of Genghis Khan. In Sir Lionel’s hands, those items will be mere curiosities in the British Museum. But if Fu Manchu gets ahold of them, he will be able to pass himself off as the heir to/second coming of Genghis Khan, and so raise all of Asia against the white race.
What. The. Fuck.
Point 1: Genghis Khan was a warrior. He’s not going to have a sword made out of a something as heavy and soft as gold. Also, you made up that mask out of the whole bullshit. Why not a helm?
Point 2: You do realize, of course, that this is like all of Europe falling in behind the second coming of Napoleon? “All of Asia” doesn’t necessarily have good memories of the conqueror who laid their lands to waste.
Anyway, Sir Lionel has just enough time to enlist his friends in the expedition before getting kidnapped by Fu Manchu’s thugs, who…disguised themselves as mummies and hid themselves in the sarcophagi in the British Museum? Ooookay.
This is when we meet Fu Manchu, played by Boris Karloff in yellowface. Fu Manchu (who insists on being called “Doctor” – he apparently earned it thrice over in various Western institutions, a nice touch) plays nice for about three minutes, offering Sir Lionel money and the…hand…of his lovely daughter, Fah Lo See. When Sir Lionel refuses, he is subjected to “The Torture of The Bell” – i.e., he is chained under a huge bell and left there, deprived of food, water or sleep as the bell continually rings.
Yeah. As an American, I wasn’t too proud to see this. This “Fiendish Eastern Torture”, meant to demonstrate the difference between civilized men and the likes of Fu Manchu (i.e. everyone east of Europe), isn’t all that different from what my country was doing to people in Abu Ghraib, and may still be doing in Gitmo.
Meanwhile, back in England, Sir Lionel’s daughter Sheila is insisting that she be brought along on the expedition. Sir Denis insists that it’s no place for any woman, and while we residents of 2013 instinctively bristle at that, Sheila spends the rest of the movie proving him right.
The English expedition finds the Tomb of Genghis Khan with little trouble, and promptly act like a pack of plundering vandals, breaking into the tomb and taking no care to preserve anything as they take only the most important bits, the mask and the sword. And I think we’re actually supposed to sympathize with them when the silly, superstitious, heathen locals start bowing down and worshiping Genghis Khan’s body, and the civilized Englishmen fire into the air to get them moving.
Our Heroes spend the next few days living under nervous conditions. Fu Manchu’s agents are everywhere; as one points out, “We can’t even trust our own coolies.”
No, you can’t. In no small part because you call them coolies.
Sheila’s fiance Terry tries to trade a fake sword for Sir Lionel’s life, but Fu Manchu is able to use mad science to determine it’s a fake.
How? Mad science. Let it roll.
Enraged, Fu Manchu has Sir Lionel killed and turns Terry over to his daughter, who clearly – as clearly as they could get away with in 1932 – wants to take a ride on his baloney pony, but she has him whipped unconscious first. That’s just how she roll.
After that, Fu Manchu uses a drug formulated from spider venom, snake –
Wait. Okay. Even though there are fish bowls full of actual vipers around, when it comes time for a human to actually handle a snake, they use a big constrictor. That’s fine. That’s traditional and it makes perfect sense. But why does the snake have to bite a slave in order for Fu Manchu to extract its venom? Why not just milk it? For that matter, why are all of his almost-naked bodyguard-servants African? Why not use big fellows of his own, supposedly superior race? Does Fu Manchu – or the filmmakers – see Africans as an all-purpose slave race?
Never mind. With Terry under the control of a mind-control serum, Fu Manchu is able to capture the rest of the party, as well as the mask and sword, with ease. He puts the men in overbuilt torture/execution devices, turns Terry over to his daughter, and orders Sheila prepared to be sacrificed to “our gods”.
I’m trying to think of any Taoist deities or Bodhisattvas that would appreciate human sacrifice, and I’m coming up blank. Can anyone help me?
Anyway, Sir Denis escapes his death trap (running across the backs of several crocodiles as he does so. The poor creatures seem more startled than anything else – were they sedated or something?) and frees the others, smiting Fu Manchu with his own mad science lightning just as he’s about to sacrifice Sheila to Shiva.
Shiva. The proud Chinese nationalist worships Shiva. And Shiva wants human sacrifice. Yeah, okay, fuck you.
Movie ends with the surviving white folks heading back to England. They drop the priceless cultural artifacts into the ocean, and take comfort in the presence of a Chinese man who knows his place. The end.
Fuck. You. Fuck you, MGM, Fuck you, Sax Rohmer, and Fuck you, 1932. Fuck you all straight to Hell.
Folks, Red Molly and I love our old movies, and we’re big fans of Boris Karloff. That’s why we made the mistake of watching this…thing…even though the title should have let us know what we were getting into. We beseech you: do not make the same mistake we did. It’s too late for us, but you can still save yourselves.
Trust us – high production values and good special effects (for 1932), Boris Karloff…it’s just not worth it.
PS – Almost forgot this cute little detail: “Kill all the white men and take their women.” That’s always a part of it, isn’t it?