The Fiendish Plot Of Dr. Fu Manchu

Director: Piers Haggard                           
Peter Sellers, Helen Mirren, Sid Caesar

Despite starring Peter Sellers, and it being his last movie, The Fiendish Plot Of Dr. Fu Manchu has largely been forgotten by both film historians and Sellers fans. After watching it, I can understand why people see Sellers' Being There as his final hurrah instead of this movie. It's an embarrassing way to end anybody's career, especially for someone as talented as him. The movie isn't just a waste of Sellers' talent and time, but a complete waste of time for everyone involved. More so, because the movie is not only terribly unfunny, but it has a premise that is not only ill-conceived but ineptly executed. As well, when seen today in this more sensitive era, it's racist to boot.

I have never read any of Sax Rohmer's original stories, and of the previous movie adaptations of his characters in the series, I've only seen one of the Christopher Lee movies. So I can't say that I'm "How is this different than blackface?"very knowledgeable about Fu Manchu, nor can I confidently say for sure just how much this movie accurately reproduces the elements from the books. I think I can safely say that combined with what I already knew, along with some quick outside research, that I know the bare bones of the Fu Manchu world; that Fu Manchu is some Asian super criminal bent on conquering the world, and detective Nayland Smith keeps battling and spoiling Manchu's formidable plans.

It's here that I start to have a problem with the whole premise. It's not that I object to Fu Manchu happening to be Asian and that Nayland Smith is from the west - it's the premise's attitude to this setup. That is, that the attitude is that Fu Manchu is a symbol for the so-called "yellow peril" that threatened to cruelly crush the west, and Nayland Smith symbolizes good and virtue, since he is white. True, the stories were written in less sensitive times, but that doesn't make them forgivable. As I said, I'm not an expert on Fu Manchu and I can't say for sure that this is indeed the attitude in the books, but from my limited experience with Fu Manchu during my lifetime, this is how the attitude seems to be.

So what The Fiendish Plot Of Dr. Fu Manchu promises to be is a spoof of something that is tinged with a kind of subtle racism. That isn't exactly promising, though I Sid Caesar looks to his buddies for a possible answer as to how a man can be pregnant suppose it could be feasible - a parody of Fu Manchu that managed to savagely attack and satirize the racist elements could be insightful as well as funny. I guess that even a parody that doesn't do that - like this movie - could be funny, as long as they removed the subtle racism. This movie doesn't do that. In fact, it brings in extra offensiveness, such as Asian characters named Chow Mein and Won Ton, or thinking that Sid Caesar's character repeating the slur "Chink" is hilarious. The movie bringing in such old ways to offend shows its desperateness, as well as its racism.

I think I've attacked the movie's racism enough now, so I'll now move into the second big objection I had with the movie's setup. Although the movie claims to be a (comic) Fu Manchu movie, it really isn't. Oh yes, there is a character named Fu Manchu, and we see he has a nemesis named Nayland Smith. But they aren't the characters we know. The Fu Manchu here isn't concocting a deadly plague or a big ray gun. This Fu Manchu is a feeble 168 year-old who has run out of youth elixir, and has to gather two important diamonds and a mummy in order to make up another batch. (And no, we don't find out how it's possible for these items to be used to make the elixir.) Sellers, in heavy makeup, plays Fu Manchu as slightly goofy - a tragic mistake. It's simply not funny to see Fu Manchu doing things like electrocuting himself time after time to prolong his life until he gets the elixir. Even for a comedy, it strains credibility that someone not so smart could be in a position of power. The only way it could possibly be played is straight, possibly like Vincent Price played the amusing mad scientist Dr. Goldfoot in those two movies.

Sellers also plays Nayland Smith, and plays it just as weakly as Fu Manchu. His Nayland Smith has gone somewhat batty after he was captured and tortured by Fu Manchu's minions years earlier. This could have worked, but there is no sign of the real Nayland Smith Wow, look at how makeup has made Peter Sellers look 168 years old! (Oops - that's how he looks without makeup!) in this character - here, he's just a tired and sickly old man who mutters and pronounces words with long pauses between them. Also, he keeps pushing around a lawn mower wherever he goes, long past the point where the gag has already beaten to death. He's instead just a tired old man who just comes up with deductions when the script dictates it. He and Fu Manchu are so unlike their original characters - even when considering this is a comedy - you have to wonder why producer Hugh Hefner even bothered to label this a Fu Manchu movie when  a couple of simple name changes could have made this a different story entirely.

I hope Sellers did this movie for the money, since it's really embarrassing to see him muttering both of these characters (sometimes so badly, you can't make out what he's saying) and doing such unfunny shtick. At least he doesn't come off any worse than anyone else in the cast; his co-stars Helen Mirren and Sid Caesar are pretty awful, though they don't get much chance to be funny. In fact, they don't get much to do anything, since they only appear sporadically, and engage in short bits of dialogue that are not only unfunny, but come off like they were improvised. When you start to think about the foolishness of going to the expense of hiring stars if you are not going to use them that much, as well as some of the unexplained moments in the movie (such as that business with the elixir), I can only conclude that the movie was originally shot to be at a much longer length, then encountered some problems in the editing room.

At the same time, the improvised-like dialogue isn't the only thing that gives you the impression that they were making things up as they went along. Certainly, there is the awful and way out of left field ending, but there are many other scenes that come across as pointless. For example, one of Fu Manchu's henchmen attempts to Pallbearers move the negative of this movie to a deserved resting place use a mechanical spider to steal one of the diamonds from a museum, but the spider fails so badly, then henchman has to sneak to the display case and steal the diamond himself. It may sound funny, but it comes across as absolute padding, and the joke of the idea - going to all that trouble when he could have easily done it without assistance - is completely lost. There are other subplots (such as Fu Manchu falling in love, and his various attempts to get the second diamond) that go nowhere. It soon becomes clear that there is barely any story, since all Fu Manchu has to do is get the three ingredients and that's that. So the movie relies on essentially useless subplots to stretch things out to the breaking point.

I can't say, in fairness, that the movie is thoroughly inept in every area. The production design is quite nice, depicting the early 1930s quite convincingly. The first ten minutes also provide some entertainment, including spectacular gymnastic and kung-fu choreography played during the credits, and a few smiles during the opening scene (including an amusing in-joke to fans of The Pink Panther series.) Maybe later on there were a few other smiles here and there, but by then I was too embarrassed to find anything else amusing in this movie - embarrassed not just because of its depiction of Asians, but embarrassed that people had put so much time and effort into something that was such a waste of time.

UPDATE: Rori Stevens sent this trivia:

"Hi there! I recently read an excellent biography of Peter Sellers, "Mr. Strangelove" by Ed Sikov, and with a little help from IMDB there were some interesting details regarding this film I thought would be worth sharing.

"The big detail is that, though you would not know it from the credits, Piers Haggard was not the sole director. Sellers had him sacked after the first few weeks and took over direction along with Richard Quine. (It was not Sellers' only feature-length directing job; he previously had directed and starred in a 1961 comedy, Mr. Topaze, which is even more unknown than this is.)

"Sellers' sickly appearance in both his roles is not a surprise; his health in the last years of his life had deteriorated quite badly and visibly. In fact, he had a facelift prior to the filming of Being There so he would not look too old for his role. By the time The Fiendish Plot of Dr. Fu Manchu was underway its effects had worn off.

"I strongly recommend reading "Mr. Strangelove" if you're into unknown movies; as big a star as Sellers was he made quite a few of them, particularly in the late 1960s/early 70s - some weren't even theatricallyreleased. The descriptions of them in the book are enlightening."

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See also: Night Patrol, Oddball Hall, Renegade