Unmasking FU MANCHU
Is it true or not true that the newest copies of The Mask of Fu Manchu have restored the original, uncut version of the film? --- Blake Brezeale, Richardson, Texas
Yes, the newest laserdisc version of MGM's 1932 The Mask of Fu Manchu, starring Boris Karloff, is something of a revelation for film fans, horror buffs, Karloff fans, historians, and cultural anthropologists alike.
What Turner Entertainment has done is to put back about ninety seconds' worth of film that for years had gone missing, carefully edited out. On Image Entertainment's great laserdisc you can tell what has been restored because the video jumps from almost perfect quality to a slightly less pristine condition every time 'new' material comes onscreen. Almost all of the previously excised footage involves situations or dialog where the impossibly evil Fu Manchu spouts anti-West threats.
Because almost none of the Anglo characters' anti-Asian statements were censored, a wild guess might be that Fu Manchu's most excessive scenes were trimmed during World War II in an effort not to prejudice American audiences against our Chinese allies. According to Gregory William Mank, in his book Hollywood Cauldron, there was a bitter campaign by the Japanese-American citizen's league in 1972 to have the film banned. It is unclear when the cuts took place because the film was reportedly reissued in the early 70s, intact.
The 1992 MGM tape release had all of this material cut out: For whatever reason, some of the cut material is mind-boggling in its (now) political incorrectness. Fu Manchu openly discusses the perverse sexual designs of his daughter (Myrna Loy) on the stalwart Anglo hero. Author Mank quotes Loy as responding, 'Say, this is obscene!,' when she read the script! Besides the usual schemes and threats to the West, there is a line that has to be heard to be believed, where Karloff, revelling in his power, urges his Pan-Asian allies to 'KILL the white man and TAKE his women!'
The initial reaction to this line is to laugh, until one realizes just how serious the writers are: It reduces Fu Manchu to the essentially sexual 'yellow peril' threat, the one that sociologists claim lies below Anglo fantasies about Asian power of any kind.
Arthur Henry Sarsfield Ward created Fu Manchu in 1913 using the pen name Sax Rohmer. Like much of American and (especially) English pulp dealing with the Orient, Fu Manchu was considered 'quaint' if it was considered at all. In these supposedly more enlightened times, the twin extremes of ignorance and political correctness don't handle the issue any better than before.
Savant personally feels that much of the staying power of ugly attitudes can be attributed to the fact that our popular culture, in the name of propriety, tries to correct that which is politically embarrassing. Offensive books and films that used to be in circulation are hidden as if they never happened. New generations come along, and with the truth suppressed, can easily believe that these old ideas are quaint and harmless -- instead of the living, powerful lies that they truly are. Censorship, for even benign purposes, always reveals itself as a deeply malign force.
All of Fu Manchu's fictional crimes (brutal hunger for wealth, power, and sexual excess) are exaggerations of historically colonial offenses against the Third World, perversely recast as Asian qualities. If Sax Rohmer didn't invent the concept "Blame the Victims" he certainly gave it this century's first big representative. A literary diversion like Fu Manchu becomes important when one realizes how much of this 'quaintness' has affected public attitudes, that in turn deeply affect history itself - next stop, Vietnam.
The real value in restoring these scenes to The Mask of Fu Manchu is that it helps define Fu Manchu as a manufactured scapegoat, the grandfather of a long line of Asian cultural boogeymen from Mao to Dr. No. Savant applauds Turner for restoring the film and personally recommends it to anyone living in denial about the reality of racism. Fu Manchu was created as someone's misguided concept of Pure Evil. Hiding this kind of truth is truly the sort of 'insidiousness' that perpetuates our ugliest ideas.
Text © Copyright 1997 & 1999 Glenn Erickson
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson