Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Castle of Fu Manchu (1968)

This is actually the only one of the five Fu Manchu movies produced by Harry Allan Towers during the latter half of the sixties that I haven't actually seen  I say that I haven't seen it, but in reality, I have seen parts of it, as parts of it are cobbled together using stock footage from other movies. Indeed, some of that stock footage can be seen in the trailer, including a chunk of a previous Fu Manchu movie, Brides of Fu Manchu, featuring the late Burt Kwouk. In fact, this footage, from the climax of earlier film, apparently makes up the first few minutes of Castle. The scenes of the sinking liner come from the Titanic movie A Night to Remember, (blue tinted, as this film was made in black and white), whilst a bursting dam is from Campbell's Kingdom, (the stars of that film, Dirk Bogarde and Stanley Baker are apparently clearly identifiable in these sequences).  The rest of the film is essentially a rehash of earlier entries in the series, with Fu Manchu kidnapping a scientist and blackmailing him into completing some scientific device that the inscrutable Oriental can use as a weapon with which to hold the world to ransom, (this time it's a device which can instantly freeze sea water).

Not surprisingly, this was the last in the series, which had started quite reasonably with Face of Fu Manchu, but had rapidly gone downhill.  The first three clearly had reasonable budgets for what were essentially B-pictures, (there was considerable German finance behind them, in common with many of Towers' productions of this era), and boasted surprisingly good period settings and location shooting in Ireland pretending to be twenties Britain in the first and third.  The third film was actually shot in London and at the old Hammer studios in Bray, whilst the third also featured some actual Hong Kong locations.  The first two could even muster a 'name' director in the form of Don Sharp, whilst number three had Towers regular and future Coronation Street director Jeremy Summers at the helm.  This initial trilogy were pretty decently made, with good supporting casts and plenty of atmosphere.  By three, however, it was clear the series was flagging, with a plot that took too long to get anywhere and too many pointless diversions designed to do nothing more than pad out the running time.

The last two films - Blood of Fu Manchu and Castle of Fu Manchu - were, by contrast, clearly shot on far lower budgets and slapped together with little care or sense of plot logic.  There is little attempt to maintain the period settings, modern cars frequently appear in shot, and the 'exotic' locations, Brazil and Turkey respectively, undoubtedly dictated by the fact that they were countries where Towers wasn't wanted by the police, (he was variously accused of living on immoral earnings and espionage, amongst other things), and/or didn't have extradition agreements with any of the countries he was wanted in.  Both are perfunctorily directed by the prolific Jesus Franco, who, certainly on the basis of Blood, had no interest in them whatsoever.  And who could blame him?

Of course, one can't discuss these movies without mentioning the vexed matter of casting.  Back in the sixties it was still considered OK to cast badly made up white European or American actors as characters from South East Asia.  To be fair to Christopher Lee, beyond a droopy moustache, he doesn't go in for the usual grotesque make-ups.  Indeed, he brings a surprising degree of dignity to the role, establishing Fu Manchu as a highly efficient and intelligent villain who easily outwits his western enemies, (until the final reel, obviously).  Moreover, from the second film, Brides, onwards, Fu Manchu's various cohorts seem to played entirely by actors of South East Asian origin, which was relatively unusual at this time.  (The first film features large numbers of clearly non-Oriental extras running around dressed as Chinese minions).  The biggest problem I have with Lee's Fu Manchu is that, as the series goes on, he seems to have less and less to actually do in the films, other than stand around his lair looking insrcutable and evil, whilst others actually go out and do the evil stuff.   

That the last two films in this series are held in poor regard is reflected in that, traditionally, British TV has only ever broadcast the first three.  I eventually caught Blood some years ago, when it turned up in ITV's all night schedules.  I don't recall it as having surfaced since.  As far as I'm aware, Castle has never turned up on British TV.  Certainly not terrestrial TV, as far as I know.  These days it is available on DVD, so I could finally get around to watching it.  But, you know, after seeing that trailer, I don't think that I can be bothered.



Blogger Unknown said...

You do have to wonder what Sir Chris must have been thinking during these productions, something along the lines of "what a damn way to make a living" and "I am DEFINITELY getting a new agent".

5:19 am  

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