Watching The Mask of Fu Manchu today, one is very likely to wonder if this movie was the inspiration for Raiders of the Lost Ark. Both movies are set in roughly the same time period, the 1930s. In the latter, there is an American archaeologist who is searching for an ancient artifact (the Ark of the Covenant); in the former, there is a group of British archaeologists who embark on such a quest (looking for the mask and sword of Genghis Khan). In the latter, the Nazis are also in search of the Ark, which has (supernatural) powers they believe will be useful to them in the coming war; in the former, an evil Chinese leader, Fu Manchu (Boris Karloff), is in search of the sword and mask for the (psychological) power he believes they will bring him in his ability to inspire hordes of Chinese soldiers by causing them to think he is the reincarnation of Genghis Khan. The mask and sword are buried in the tomb of Genghis Khan, somewhere in the Gobi desert, where the team of archaeologists must get to before Fu Manchu discovers where it is. Once they arrive, they are eventually captured, but eventually manage to overpower their captors, kill Fu Manchu and wipe out his followers. And just as in Raiders of the Lost Ark, where the Ark is deliberately lost again by burying it deep in a warehouse, so too is the sword of Genghis Khan buried again, this time at sea.
One major difference between the two movies is the unabashed racism in The Mask of Fu Manchu. We are used to seeing racism in older movies, but there are different kinds of racism, and this movie is a good illustration of that. One way of distinguishing racism is by the type of racial differences assumed to exist, of which there are three: the physical, the mental, and the moral.
African Americans, who belong to the “black race,” are typically assumed to be physically superior to all the others. In Donald Bogle’s Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies and Bucks: An Interpretive History of Blacks in Films, he distinguished different kinds of black stereotypes, the ones referred to in the title. The “buck” is hypersexual and usually has a powerful physique. In Gone With the Wind, for example, there is no question about who the strongest man in the movie is, and that is Big Sam, Scarlett’s former slave, who rescues her when she is attacked.
Other than that, Caucasians, who belong to the “white race,” are presumed by most racists to be superior in the other two categories, the mental and the moral, at least with respect the black race. Native Americans, who belong to the “red race,” are depicted in old movies (movies made before World War II) as being equal to the white race physically and mentally, but morally inferior on account of their being thought of as savages.
The unusual thing about Asians, who belong to the “yellow race,” is that there seems to be an unmentioned fear that they actually have the edge on the white race as far as intelligence is concerned. When Fu Manchu mentions that he is a doctor of philosophy, of law, and of medicine, each from a different British or American university, he brings to mind that sinister remark often uttered by Asians in the old movies, “I was educated in your country.” At the end of the movie, he and his followers are destroyed by a machine capable of delivering a continuous stream of a million volts of electricity when the archaeologists get their hands on it. As this marvelous machine was invented by the Chinese, that is further implicit evidence of their superior intelligence.
Like the red and black races, the yellow race was often depicted as being morally inferior, as is the case in this movie. But whereas the red race had the excuse of being primitives, as did the black race when encountered in Africa, the immoral nature of the yellow race exists despite their advantages in civilization and education. This makes them seem especially evil. And this movie plays that up in a big way, for we witness many scenes of highly imaginative torture.
One aspect of the immoral nature of the so-called inferior races is sexual. Fah Lo See (Myrna Loy) is the daughter of Fu Manchu, whom the latter offers as a sexual bribe to the kidnapped British archaeologist to get him to tell where the mask and sword are, and she seems most willing to be the sexual reward for his willingness to talk. In fact, she is portrayed as a woman who is aroused by witnessing torture and likes to have sex with a man just before he is put to death.
As for the men, there is a famous line where Fu Manchu, just before he offers up the sacrifice of a virgin white woman to the gods, as preparation for conquering the world, asks his minions if they would like to have white maidens like her for their wives. When they cheer in affirmation, he says, “Then conquer and breed. Kill the white men and take his women.”
Finally, there is the complete contempt for human life attributed to the yellow race in this movie. Fu Manchu has what appears to be several black slaves, all of whom would fit into the “buck” category: big, muscular men who mostly stand around with their arms folded. In one scene, where Fu Manchu prepares a serum from a variety of venomous creatures, he pulls a poisonous snake out of a cask. We expect him to milk the poison out of the snake by squeezing its glands, but that is apparently too much trouble. Instead, two bucks hold a third while Fu Manchu lets the snake bite him, after which he draws out some poison with a syringe. Then, as he continues preparing the serum, the bitten man slowly dies, at which point Fu Manchu waves his hand for the other two bucks to take him away.
But I guess the producers of the movie got to feeling a little bad about portraying all these Chinese people as being so evil and cruel. And so, while the archaeologists are on a ship heading back to England, dinner is announced by the ship’s steward, who is Chinese. Corresponding to what Bogle referred to as a “coon” in his book, a black man who is simpleminded and cowardly, this steward might be thought of as a “yellow coon.” Whereas Boris Karloff and Myna Loy played Chinese characters in yellowface, the producers apparently decided to let this silly character, who looks all the sillier on account of having a missing tooth, be played by an Willie Fung, an actor who was actually born in China. Commisioner Nayland Smith (Lewis Stone), who organized the expedition, asks the steward if he is a doctor of philosophy, law, or medicine. When he answers that he is not, Smith extends his hand and congratulates him (for knowing his place, presumably). The producers were no doubt pleased with themselves for making this magnanimous gesture, confirming in their minds the intrinsic nobility of the white race in generously allowing that there is such a thing as a “good Chinaman.”