THE FILMS, THE MUSIC AND THE COMPOSERS,
The evil character of Fu Manchu began life in the intriguing novels of Sax Rohmer, and later appeared in several movies that were produced from the early 1920.s through to 2007 when actor Nicholas Cage put in his rendition of the infamous character in Grindhouse.
However, it seems that this incarnation of the character will not be the last that we see of Doctor Fu Man Chu because there is an up-and-coming Marvel superhero’s movie due for release in 2021 entitled, Shang Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, in which the character again rises to cause havoc.The abominable and mysterious individual has been portrayed by many actors, but the most well-known incarnation of the insidious doctor is probably Christopher Lee who portrayed the character, in a handful of movies that were produced from 1965 through to 1968.
It was surprisingly a brief series of movies, seeing how popular the stories had become and the films certainly made an impression upon audiences and critics alike. But Christopher Lee, I think was responsible for the following that the movies garnered, because he was already established with audiences via his association with the likes of Hammer films in his iconic roles of Dracula, The Mummy and Frankenstein’s monster. I do recall seeing three of the Fu Manchu movies, in one sitting at a late-night movie show, and really enjoying them along with the vegetable soup and crusty roll that was served around three in the morning at the Curzon cinema in Hove. I think this was because one was seeing the stories unfold one after another and did not have to wait for the sequel. When we watch these films nowadays, on DVD/Blu Ray. You tube, or even video format, they are to be honest fairly tame compared with all the gore and mayhem that filmmakers unleash upon us under the Horror banner, but that is in my opinion the attraction of the Fu Manchu tales, it’s the age-old scenario of good vs evil that is being played out here on screen, and most of the time good prevails in the form of Denis Nayland Smith and his side kick Doctor Petrie, but Fu Manchu never actually loses, because he always seems to live to fight another day, returning to cause even more chaos and instigating dastardly deeds. Before we look at the Christopher Lee series of films, maybe we should go back a little further and detail some of the first outings of this rather virulent character that were committed to celluloid. There had been two silent movies released in the early 1920’s in which actor Harry Agar Lyons portrayed the somewhat manic, mad and obsessive villain, in rather a tame incarnation of the character compared to the more calculated, polished performance turned in by Lee.
These were The Mystery of Dr, Fu Manchu in 1923 which was swiftly followed by The Further Mysteries of Dr, Fu Manchu in 1924. Both movies were produced in what is called the Pre-code period of American cinema, by this it meant that there was no form of censorship exercised. Then there was a gap of five years, but the doctor returned to cinema screens in 1929, with Warner Oland in The Mysterious Dr Fu Manchu, which was released both as a silent movie and a sound version, because it was during the period when talkies were in their infancy and Hollywood were still unsure if this new way of filmmaking was going to be popular.
Oland reprised his role in three more movies, The Return of Dr Fu Manchu and Paramount on Parade both from 1930 and Daughter of the Dragon in 1931. Three of which were loosely adapted from the original novels of Sax Rohmer. Novels which I would like to add are still an entertaining read even now. The Paramount on Parade was a showcase film which simply told audiences what the studio had been producing and the characters it had brought to the screen. The attraction for me of these stories both in book form and on screen was they focused upon the evil of the Doctor, but also purveyed the heroes and fighters of his evil as upstanding and rather stiff upper lip individuals, pillars of society that no matter what would fight the doctor’s evil plans fairly and would never dream of kicking anyone when they were down as it were. Nayland Smith, was a well to do upper class detective, similar at times to Sherlock Holmes, well-educated and read with a mind as sharp as the veritable sword edge. Which at certain points of the storylines would not put them in a particularly good position, because Fu Manchu and his cohorts would do all in their power to get the better of them no matter what. Because, fighting fair or being honourable as it were was not something that was in Fu Manchu’s vocabulary.
Director Jesus or Jess Franco was responsible for helming two Fu Manchu movies, The Blood of Fu Manchu (1968) and The Castle of Fu Manchu (1972) both of which starred Christopher Lee, Franco and Lee worked well together and Lee collaborated with the director on several horror films, these included, Throne of Fire and Dracula, the latter title Lee often said was the most faithful interpretation of the Bram Stoker novel to be brought to the screen, and I for one would agree with that observation.
Franco’s particular style of filmmaking was suited to the Fu Manchu stories, his camerawork and the way in which the director wanted his movies lit, added an even greater darkly ominous and shadowy atmosphere to the already mysterious storylines. I think that The Castle of Fu Manchu was possibly the more entertaining Franco film, but saying this, The Blood of Fu Manchu also contained numerous entertaining and thrilling moments, both movies contained quite epic sounding scores.
The 1968 release being scored by composer and musician Daniel White, who at the time of this films release some film music collectors’ thought was yet another alias for Italian composer Bruno Nicolai who was one of Franco’s main musical collaborators. Italian composers of film music were notorious for taking on an alias because they thought a non-Italian sounding name would possibly make the soundtrack and its composer more acceptable to non-Italian audiences. However, this is certainly not the case here. Daniel White was born on May 22, 1912, in Malakoff, a suburb of Paris, France. His ancestors were Scottish. White grew up in West Yorkshire around the moors. His family moved to Paris when White was still young and at first it was expected that he would enter the family business which was in textiles. But sadly, the company went bankrupt and fortunately for him and us White was able to continue in his chosen profession and started to study music.
In World War II the composer worked as an interpreter with the British army and was almost killed during the evacuation of the beaches at Dunkirk. After the war, White began to work in night clubs playing piano and accompanying cabarets and shows. He began his career as a film music composer in 1947, scoring music for a short film entitled Rythmes de Paris. He began to write the jingles for numerous 1950s TV commercials, which included ads for popular products such as Polo Mints and Kit-E-Kat cat food which were both screened on U.K. television. The composer soon gained a reputation for being able to work fast and come up with a varied selection of solutions to any film-makers musical requests.
White’s collaboration with Jess Franco was a particularly fruitful one, the partnership began back in 1962, when White provided the movie La Mano De Un Hombre Muerto with its atmospheric soundtrack, White also acted and was in a handful of Franco’s movies, normally cast as a detective or police inspector. At times White would also take on the role of production assistant on few of the directors feature films which were produced in the early 1970’s. It is amazing that considering the number of movies the composer worked upon (over 160 feature films, shorts, and TV shows) that he is not more widely known or more highly regarded by film music fans. He died on May 24th, 1997.
After his death some of his music was utilised in films, as either library cues or source music. White was an extremely talented and diverse composer, being able to adapt his composing style to suit numerous scenarios and subject matters. As well as Jess Franco directors Don Sharp and Jeremy Summers stepped into the Fu Manchu cinematic arena, each directing Lee with Sharp being responsible for the first in the series of movies, The Face of Fu Manchu in 1965 and then in 1966 its sequel, The Brides of Fu Manchu.
The first movie in the series that featured Christopher Lee as the infamous power mad scientist, The Face of Fu Manchu contained a musical score by the classically trained composer Christopher Whelen. Many composers who eventually went into film scoring during the 1950’s and the 1960’s were classically trained as Whelen, and therefore possessed the discipline to deliver assignments on time and were able to work efficiently under pressure for the sometimes-tight schedules involved with films, plus many of them turned to film scoring to finance their concert hall composing career as film music was quite lucrative in comparison for writing for the concert hall. Christopher Whelen was born in St Martins in the Field in London, his Mother Winifred brought him up assisted by his Godmother Mary Gotch, both of whom were very musically orientated. He was a chorister at the New college in Oxford and attended the Worksop college where he studied both piano and cello. He continued these studies focusing more upon composition and clarinet at the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire, which at the time was called The Birmingham and Midlands school of music. After completing his national service in the Royal Air Force, Whelen continued to study and was schooled by Austrian composer/conductor Rudolph Schwarz after which he took up the position of the assistant conductor for The Bournemouth Municipal Orchestra, for which Schwarz was the principal director. He also struck up a friendship with composer Arnold Bax which endured till Bax’s death in 1953. Whelen conducted Bax’s sixth symphony in 1951 which was something that Bax was impressed by, even writing to Whelen telling him so. It was also in 1951 that Whelen became musical director at the Old Vic Theatre, which resulted in many of his conducting assignments being shelved because of the workload at the theatre.
This in turn led to various assignments as a composer and conductor for the BBC with Whelen scoring both radio plays and television programmes. His entry into film scoring began in 1962 when he scored the John Mills war drama The Valiant which was directed by Roy Ward Baker, three years later he scored Coast of Skeletons, which in turn led to him scoring The Face of Fu Manchu in the same year, Harry Allan Towers was responsible for the story and screenplay for this movie and was also at the same time the producer for The Face of Fu Manchu, and was said to have been impressed by Whelen’s score for The Valiant so asked the composer to work on his movie.
The Face of Fu Manchu, contained a score that was highly atmospheric, written in a style that had become the norm within British produced horror/drama movies at this time, fully symphonic and wonderfully thematic it mirrored the musical styles that had been utilised within several of the Hammer films gothic horrors which were penned by composers such as James Bernard, Richard Rodney Bennet, Malcolm Williamson and Don Banks. The movie itself was not that great, and at times it looked as if more of the budget had been spent on the exotic locations than the development of the script or supporting cast. However, Christopher Lee and Nigel Green were excellent in their respective roles as Fu Manchu and Nayland Smith. The pair pitting their wits against each other and going head-to-head. Other cast members included, Tsai Chin as Fu Manchu’s evil daughter Lin Tang and Howard Marion-Crawford as Smith’s stereotypical and ever faithful sidekick Dr Petrie. The script by Harry Allan-Towers does deviate slightly from the original writings of Sax Rohmer but the movie is helmed firmly by director Don Sharp who at the time was known for his work with the Hammer studios, most notably on another Christopher Lee movie, Rasputin the Mad Monk.
What we have with The Face of Fu Manchu It is a standard plot really; Fu Manchu kidnaps a German scientist and forces him to develop a super weapon so that Fu Manchu may once again hold the world to ransom. The film begins in a rather strange way, it is as if this is a sequel to another movie as we see Fu Manchu being executed, of course he does not die, and returns to plague Nayland Smith once again. An interesting start to the cycle of five movies, but probably not the best of the bunch.
The Brides of Fu Manchu however was a much better film, its plot being more developed, even though not really feasible. The supporting cast of deadly ninjas were also marginally better.
Fu Manchu and his army of henchmen begin to kidnap the daughters of prominent scientists, they take them to a remote island where the evil Dr has his headquarters, but he does not ask for a ransom, instead he tells the scientists they must help to develop a death ray, or they will never see their daughters again. His idea once again is to use the ray to dominate the world, but again enter the ever ready Nayland Smith of Scotland Yard who is determined that Fu Manchu will not succeed. Smith on this occasion being portrayed by Douglas Wilmer, the actor was known for roles in films such as El Cid and Jason and the Argonauts and although he put in a credible portrayal was not as polished as Nigel Green in the role.
The musical reins also altered and were passed to composer Bruce Montgomery. Born on October 2, 1921 in Chesham Bios, Buckinghamshire, England as Robert Bruce Montgomery. He is known, for his work on the early Carry On, movies, plus he also enjoyed a career as a successful author writing Under the pseudonym Edmund Crispin, he penned a series of mystery novels and short stories featuring the character Gervase Fen. Also, as Edmund Crispin, he edited several collections of science fiction short stories.
The first, “Best SF” (1955), had a great influence on acceptance of the Sci Fi genre as serious writing in Britain. His Gervase Fen novel “Frequent Hearses” takes place in and around a British movie studio, and contains many insider jokes about actors, directors, musicians, and others in the business. Towards the end of his career his alcoholism became worse, which resulted in him not being able to meet deadlines and complete scores for movies, it was at this point that he enlisted the assistance of fellow composer Eric Rogers and Carry-On producer Peter Thomas decided that Rogers should be the main composer for the films. Bruce Montgomery died on September 15, 1978 in West Hampstead, London, England, which was a sad ending to a career that could have been even greater. Apart from his music for the Carry On, movies the composer wrote the scores to numerous other pictures, these included, Doctor in Love, Doctor in the house, Doctor at large, and many others. These and other scores penned by Montgomery were all typical of British films scores from the late 1950, s through to the first half of the 1960, s, with Montgomery’s style being more akin to and belonging to the era of the war years, with the music running continuously often.
However, there were some strong themes within all the scores, the march that Montgomery penned for Carry on Sergeant for example ended up being the Carry-on theme and endured throughout the series being heard in some form or another in each Carry-On outing, and alongside the score music there were always jazz orientated pieces of light music that were often used as source cues, but also were part of the British light music genre which at the time resonated with many. The composers score for The Brides of Fu Manchu I consider as one of his best works for cinema.
The third film in the series was The Vengeance of Fu Manchu, released in 1967, it is regarded as one of the strongest of the five movies in the Fu Manchu cycle, and many think it was this movie onwards tat the series declined, with two Jess Franco efforts, but each to his own I suppose as many do think that the Franco entries were the best within the cycle. As always it is a matter of personal preference. In, The Vengeance of Fu Manchu we see the evil Doctor and his sadistic and virulent daughter return to China, the acidic pair have an idea to transform one of their followers into their nemesis Nayland Smith with plastic surgery, they set about kidnapping a prominent surgeon in the field Dr. Lieberson (Wolfgang Kieling) so that they can discredit the Scotland Yard sleuth. Not content with creating a double for Smith, Fu Manchu decides that he should replace all heads of police departments in the world, so that he may control the world and throw civilisation into chaos. The film was met with a mixed reaction, as it contained a few scenes that some thought unnecessary, particularly the scene where a branding takes place. Directed by Jeremy Summers, who had worked on films such as Ferry cross the Mersey (1965), and The Punch and Judy Man (1964) plus had also worked on several TV shows that included, Jason King and Randall and Hopkirk Deceased, as well as contributing to notable UK soap operas such as Coronation Street and later working on Brookside. Summers’ father was Walter Summers who directed the notable Bela Lugosi horror film The Dark Eyes of London (1939) which became the first film in the UK to receive the “H” for horrific certificate. Douglas Wilmer again played Nayland Smith and was joined by an impressive cast that included Horst Frank, Maria Rohm and actor director Tony Ferrer. Because the films were a German co-production, many of the actors cast were from German cinema, actors that had come to the forefront in the Edgar Wallace series. The musical score is credited to both Malcolm Lockyer whos music accompanied the UK release of the movie and German composer Gert Wilden, who’s music was to replace Lockyer’s on the European prints which were released.
This was something that happened often, most predominantly on Italian horror movies, where American distributors AIP would replace the Italian scores with the music of Les Baxter, this was said to be because the sound quality of the music was not up to standard or the style of music and the way in which the movies were scored in Italy would not have been acceptable to Americans. Gert Wilden was a popular and in demand composer in Germany and had worked on a handful of German made westerns before the Spaghetti western became popular and overshadowed the German productions. Malcolm Lockyer was also a popular composer in the UK and had worked on several productions that proved to be minor box office hits. Doctor Who and the Daleks, House of the Damned amongst them, he also worked as musical director and conductor arranger on many TV shows and in 1972 was the musical director for The Eurovision Song Contest. He like Douglas Gamley was underatted and very rarely credited or discussed for his many contributions. After his death in 1976, the composer’s music has featured as source cues in numerous productions, Malena and Holy Man to name but two.
The Castle of Fu Manchu was the second Fu Manchu movie to be directed by Jess or Jesus Franco, the movies as made by this offbeat and controversial Spanish director were often surrounded by mixed feelings and reviews from both critics and cinema goers. For this movie, the director engaged composer’s Charles Camilleri and Malcomb Shelby with the German release being re-scored by Gert Wilden. The opening theme as composed by Camilleri seemed out of place as it was more of a light and easy listening piece than music from a horror/drama, the string led composition was in many ways evoked the composers Malta suite which he composed in 1946. For me personally the music was too sweet sounding and was totally out of place. The film too lacked any real cohesion the plot being rather feeble and disjointed. Richard Greene took on the role of Nayland Smith and is probably the weakest actor in the series to play the detective. But saying that, the Fu Manchu movies as a whole and as a cycle of five are entertaining, no doubt of that. But the best portrayal of the character must be Boris Karloff when he took on the role in the 1932 version of the tale, The Mask of Fu Manchu, with Lewis Stone as Nayland Smith, and let us not forget Peter Sellers, yes, he also became the inscrutable Doctor in The Fiendish Plot of Dr Fu Manchu in 1980.
I do think the less said about that version the better really, apart from the score by Marc (Blood on Satan’s Claw) Wilkinson and an impressive British cast including John Le Mesurier, Helen Mirren, and David Tomlinson. It is always the Christopher Lee movies that we will associate with Fu Manchu and rightly so. As already mentioned, there is a new version coming soon to a cinema or a fire stick near you, and who knows even after this new interpretation maybe “The World will hear from him again”?