Dr. Fu Manchu (Henry Brandon), “the greatest criminal of modern times,” is planning to conquer all Asia by proclaiming himself the prophesized heir of Genghis Khan and uniting the wild Central Asian tribesmen into a conquering army. To make this ambitious scheme a success, he must first locate the lost tomb of the great Khan and retrieve the fabled scepter–the symbol of Genghis’ authority–that is buried with the ancient warlord. The relics that could provide clues to the location of the Khan’s tomb have come into the possession of certain American scientists– sending Fu Manchu, the subordinate members of his secret “Si-Fan” society, and his lobotomized “Dacoit” henchmen to California to procure the needed artifacts. Fu Manchu’s arch-enemy–Sir Denis Nayland Smith (William Royle) of the British Foreign Office–dogs his steps and manages to repeatedly hamper his schemes; the indomitable English agent receives invaluable aid from young American archeologist Allan Parker (Robert Kellard), who’s determined to avenge his father’s death at the hands of one of Fu Manchu’s followers. Smith and Parker are not able to keep Fu Manchu from gaining the information he seeks, however, and must pursue him into the wilds of Asia as he draws ever closer to the tomb of Genghis Khan.
Drums of Fu Manchu was a particular favorite of its co-director William Witney, who tended to look back on it quite proudly. His pride was warranted; Fu Manchu is an exceptionally strong chapterplay, and one of the greatest of Republic’s many great Golden Age releases. Its action and production values are well up to the studio’s high Golden Age standard, while its surprisingly successful evocation of Sax Rohmer’s Fu Manchu novels gives it a distinctive flavor all its own.
Drums’ writers–Norman S. Hall, Barney Sarecky, Morgan Cox, Sol Shor, Franklin Adreon, and Ronald Davidson–make good use of a tried-and-true “treasure hunt” scenario to keep their narrative from bogging down. The California pursuit of the artifact clues (the Dalai Plaque and the Kardac Segment) occupies the serial’s first six chapters, with the scene shifting to Asia in Chapter Seven. The race to the “Temple of the Blind Dragon” (which holds another clue), the journey to the tomb itself, and the discovery of the scepter keep the plot boiling from Chapters Seven through the first half of Chapter Eleven; only in Chapter Eleven’s second half does typical serial repetitiveness temporarily set in, with the heroes and villain battling for control of the scepter until Fu Manchu finally obtains it and launches his revolt in Chapter Fourteen. However, this somewhat formulaic tug-of-war is handled with the same skill and flair as the rest of the chapterplay, and would scarcely be noticeable in most other serials; it’s only slightly jarring here because of the unusually sequential nature of the rest of the chapterplay.
Although this padding in the penultimate chapters is enjoyable and quite forgivable, one wishes that the serial’s more unique first half had been padded out instead. As a general serial rule, treasure hunts in far-flung and ferocious realms are always more exciting than battles with criminals in the big city–but Drums of Fu Manchu reverses this truism; the expedition into the Asian hills, entertaining as it is, is not quite as distinctive or thrilling as the skirmishes with Fu Manchu’s minions in California. In Asia, Fu Manchu is still frightening and formidable, but has to deal with hostile natives and hazardous terrain almost as much as the good guys do; in California, however, he seems terrifyingly omnipotent and in almost complete control of his surroundings, with his minions lurking in innumerable back streets and dark museum corridors while he schemes in hideouts full of death-traps and torture chambers. I would gladly have sacrificed parts of the exciting but less remarkable “war in the hills” for more stateside scenes like the spooky wax-dummy sequence, the Dacoits’ pursuit of Smith through the rain-soaked streets, or the unforgettable nocturnal assault on the estate of curio collector Ezra Howard.
In both the American and Asian segments of the serial, the writers do an terrific job of enlivening the dialogue with haunting lines that are memorable in themselves instead of merely functional. Smith’s grim remark to Ezra Howard when the latter calls a stormy night exhilarating (“I am too vividly reminded of similar nights, Mr. Howard–nights through which Fu Manchu stalked men like you and me”), Fu Manchu’s comment as he prepares an ambush for Allan Parker (“The young American moves rapidly, but Death is even swifter than he”) or the inscription on Genghis Khan’s tomb (“Only in death did I enter here; for you who enter otherwise, forever shall you remember–and forever regret”) are just three of the many excellent bits of writing that help to make Drums something out of the ordinary.
Fu Manchu’s reference to Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Pit and the Pendulum,” as he prepares to subject one of the heroes to an ordeal derived from that story, is also a clever touch–one that allows the writers to openly admit their cribbing from Poe and make their villain sound suitably literate at the same time. Other deathtraps and torture devices are borrowed more or less directly from Sax Rohmer’s books–like the rat-filled coffin known as the “Seven Gates to Paradise” or the poisonous lizard that’s attracted to a special scent–and are very effectively and memorably incorporated into the serial. The writers also echo their source material by making Fu Manchu unusually nuanced for a serial villain; as in Rohmer’s books, the Oriental mastermind–though utterly ruthless–is also shown to be unfailingly courageous and even scrupulously honorable when he’s actually pledged his word.
Good as Drums’ script is, it could easily have flopped in the hands of an inferior director; fortunately, William Witney and John English do a superb job of bringing the screenplay to life. As in Fighting Devil Dogs, Mysterious Doctor Satan, and other Golden Age Republic serials with horror-movie trappings, the two directors and their equally talented cinematographer William Nobles take great pains to set a shadowy and ominous visual tone; scenes like the first-chapter Si-Fan meeting, the plane crash cliffhanger, the Dacoit attack in the wax museum, the confrontation in the cavern outside the tomb, or Fu Manchu’s attempt to lobotomize Smith are filled with eerie lighting and striking camera angles that accentuate their frightening tone. The best-shot of all the serial’s suspense scenes, however, is the protracted Chapter Five sequence that has Fu Manchu and his men invading the Howard estate during a thunderstorm–with Howard confidently proclaiming his faith in his guard dogs just before the camera cuts to Fu Manchu standing over a canine corpse outside, a Dacoit slipping into the living-room curtains under cover of a lightning flash, and Fu Manchu quietly appearing in the darkened doorway.
Drums of Fu Manchu places such emphasis on atmospherics that it’s easy to overlook its action scenes; however, the action is nowhere near as scanty as many reviews claim. Although the serial’s fights and chases are typically short and to the point, they’re quite numerous and are filmed with all the skill and energy of the lengthier setpieces in Witney and English’s other chapterplays. Dave Sharpe doubles for hero Robert Kellard, while Ken Terrell, Duke Green, Henry Wills, Joe and Bill Yrigoyen, Jimmy Fawcett, and other stuntmen play various Dacoits and Asian tribesmen and provide him with worthy opposition. With Sharpe, Terrell, Fawcett, and Green all on hand–and beefier stuntmen like Eddie Parker notably absent–the fight scenes heavily emphasize gymnastics, with acrobatic leaps and judo flips predominating over furniture-smashing and fisticuffs; among the best of these nimble combats are the heroes’ first encounter with the Dacoits in Chapter One, the museum fight in Chapter Three (with Sharpe executing a neat leap through the smashed upper panel of a door), the Chapter Five battle in the waxworks room, the excellent Chapter Seven hotel-room fight between Sharpe and Green, and the cliff-top fight in Chapter Twelve.
The serial’s non-fistfight action scenes are just as well-handled–particularly Allan Parker’s daring escape from Fu’s camp with the scepter in Chapter Twelve and the heroes’ subsequent desperate nighttime race through the hill country to the safety of a fort, as beacons warn hostile tribesmen of their approach and riflemen fire at their auto from behind every boulder. The attack on Smith and Parker’s car by mounted tribesmen in Chapter Eight is also good, as is the climactic battle between British soldiers and rebellious natives; both scenes feature plentiful but undetectable helpings of stock footage from Republic’s bigger-budgeted British India film Storm Over Bengal; the stock comes in especially handy in the latter sequence, lending as it does an appropriately large-scale appearance to the military clash.
Lone Pine is visible in a few Storm Over Bengal shots, but the serial’s new outdoor scenes are shot at Iverson’s Movie Ranch; that chameleon-like location serves quite convincingly as a mythical British colonial territory called the Nihala Hills (which seems to be an exotic composite of Afghanistan and Mongolia). Republic’s reliable fort set, strategically refurbished, works equally well as the British stronghold of Fort Branapuhr, while Republic’s set designers outdo themselves in giving a properly foreign and ancient look to interior sets like the Temple of the Sun or the tomb of Genghis Khan. Sets in the American portion of the serial are just as well-appointed; museums, curio shops, mansions, and Fu Manchu’s various lairs all overflow with offbeat accoutrements like sarcophagi or crossbows, enhancing the serial’s atmosphere ten-fold.
The serial’s chapter endings are excellent concentrations of the suspenseful aura that hangs over the whole serial; Allan Parker’s grapple with an octopus at the end of Chapter Two, the pendulum scene that closes Chapter Four, the end of Chapter Seven (with Parker backing out of a doorway unaware that two Dacoit swordsmen are waiting for him outside), and the Chapter Ten cliffhanger (with Fu Manchu using the psychic noise of his “drums” to bring a cave roof down on the heroes) are some of the highlights. Less spectacular, but just as effective, is the unusual “dramatic” chapter ending to Chapter Five, which has Fu Manchu giving a menacing smile of approval after his Dacoits have captured the Howard mansion in Chapter Five and apparently vanquished Smith. Though mundane in comparison with some of the aforementioned scenes, the serial’s more traditional chapter endings–like the train crash (Chapter One) or the mined-road scene (Chapter Eleven)–are also very well-staged and well-edited.
Henry Brandon as Fu Manchu is given one of the best parts of his entire acting career, and delivers an arrestingly sinister and truly memorable performance in return. He captures the personality of Rohmer’s aloof but driven character perfectly; although his manner is either dispassionate or mockingly condescending most of the time, he’s quite capable of bursting into controlled but fierce rages when his plans are thwarted, or of delivering compelling orations when he needs to sway followers to his cause. He avoids the use of a “Chinese accent” per se, affecting a high-pitched but silky and precise voice that gives a properly remote and inhuman tone to his lines–and, incidentally, mirrors Rohmer’s own descriptions of his arch-villain’s vocalizations; Brandon, with his quick movements and slightly hunched shoulders, also echoes the “cat-like yet awkward gait” ascribed to Fu Manchu in the novels. All in all, his characterization is not only one of the strongest villainous turns in the entire serial genre, but also the definitive screen portrayal of one of popular culture’s most famous heavies.
Although Brandon’s Fu Manchu dominates the serial, the chapterplay’s two leading protagonists are quite strong as well. Stocky and middle-aged William Royle–the villainous Salerno of Republic’s earlier Hawk of the Wilderness–is rather oddly cast as Fu Manchu’s nemesis Nayland Smith, but makes the most of the unusual leading role; although he completely lacks the tense irritability of his counterpart in Rohmer’s books, he handles the other aspects of his role very well indeed–assuming a convincing British accent and conveying both shrewdness and authoritativeness. The grim understatement with which he warns others of Fu’s powers (as in the above-mentioned interview with Howard) is also very effective, and lends credence to the script’s frequent references to Smith’s previous encounters with his arch-enemy.
While Royle’s Smith participates in several fights, he spends more of his time orchestrating the heroes’ strategies, much like Frank Shannon’s Dr. Zarkov in Flash Gordon. It’s Robert Kellard as the energetic Allan Parker who carries the action scenes–and does it quite well, making his character seem likably tough, cheerful, determined, and resourceful. His earnestness and enthusiasm–and slight impetuousness–provides a perfect counterpoint to both the detachment of Brandon and the grave dignity of Royle.
Youthful actress Gloria Franklin, despite a slight but occasionally distracting New York accent, does a very capable job as Fu Manchu’s daughter and chief accomplice, Fah Lo Suee–ordering Dacoits around confidently, coolly and smoothly carrying out her father’s orders, and delivering lines like “the Sunrise Limited will be but a thing of twisted metal” with vixenish relish. As Fu Manchu’s other leading accomplice, the mute Dacoit Loki, John Merton is memorably menacing despite never uttering a word of dialogue, whether he’s attacking Fu Manchu’s victims with ferocious, animal-like implacability or standing silently but ominously in the shadows waiting for his master’s command. Like the lesser Dacoits that obey him, Merton is far more frightening than the talkative and very human henchmen seen in most other serials; the silent murderousness of Loki and his colleagues, their grotesque appearance, and the suddenness of their attacks make them seem more like minor demons than mere thugs.
Tom Chatterton has some good moments as the easygoing but courageous archeologist Professor Randolph, adopting much the same cheerfully professorial manner he displayed in Hawk of the Wilderness. Other members of the protagonists’ team don’t fare as well. The lovely Luana Walters is particularly wasted as Randolph’s daughter Mary, the serial’s nominal heroine; although she figures prominently in three of the serial’s cliffhanger scenes, her screen time is otherwise very limited. Portly and mild-mannered character actor Olaf Hytten, as Smith’s friend Dr. Petrie, receives even shorter shrift, tagging along on the journey to Asia but scarcely speaking a word of dialogue after the characters launch their expedition into the Niahala hills. Since Petrie played a prominent part in the Fu Manchu books–serving as Watson to Smith’s Holmes–I can understand the writers’ desire to keep him on hand throughout the serial, but his presence frequently comes off as rather pointless.
Evan Thomas, with his unflappable demeanor and emphatically British accent, is very well-cast as Fort Branapuhr’s commander Major Carleton, who plays a prominent role in the later chapters; Phillip Ahn has a good bit as the cultured and heroic Dr. Chang in an earlier episode. George Pembroke is excellent as Crawford, the sneeringly cold-blooded English Si-Fan member who figures notably in Chapters Seven and Eight; his acting in his character’s death scene is especially good. Guy D’Ennery is also memorable as another Si-Fan member, the hill chieftain Ranah Sang, extracting every possible drop of fanatical energy from his speech to the tribesmen in the first chapter. Crafty-looking Jamiel Hasson, as another tribal leader, is the only other Si-Fan member given a noticeable part; the other members of the council (James B. Leong, Tofik Mickey, and Robert Stephenson) receive little to no dialogue and remain in the background.
John Dilson is enjoyably quirky as the eccentric collector Ezra Howard, while George Cleveland is likably pugnacious in his brief turn as Allen Parker’s professor father. John Picorri makes the most of a small role as a villainous plastic surgeon (who takes an amusing artistic pleasure in his work), and Wheaton Chambers is a scientist who’s turned into a distraught mental slave of Fu Manchu’s. Dwight Frye, famed for his bug-eyed maniac roles in Universal’s horror films, is surprisingly cast as a sane and helpful museum curator; Chambers’ role–or even Dilson’s–would have given him much more scope for his talents, but he still gets as much mileage as possible out of lines like “quite extraordinary…that’s never happened before” or “there were five Dacoits, Allan.”
Budd Buster, Ernest Sarracino, Jack Roper, Al Taylor and Alan Gregg–along with the serial’s aforementioned stunt team–can all be seen as Dacoits; John Bagni and Paul Marion play non-Dacoit henchmen, and Harry Strang and Lee Shumway both pop up as helpful policemen. Paul Renay plays a supposedly pro-British tribal chief who’s won over to Fu Manchu’s side, while Hindu actor Lal Chand Mehra, as the dignified but puzzled high priest of Kardac, is only temporarily duped into joining the villain. Norman Nesbitt appears as a foolhardy radio commentator named “Wally Winchester,” and imitates the broadcasting style of his near-namesake Walter Winchell before being murdered by Fu Manchu.
Cy Feuer’s musical score, like his compositions for other Republic classics like Mysterious Doctor Satan, matches Drums of Fu Manchu‘s tone and visuals perfectly–particularly the quietly ominous theme that plays while Fu Manchu is laying his plots, the exhilarating but slightly discordant Oriental music which accompanies the action scenes, and the throbbing, insistent beats that represent the titular “drums,” building in intensity during each cliffhanger sequence.
Although Drums of Fu Manchu goes through all the standard chapterplay paces, it also maintains a genuinely unique ambience, due to its preservation of so much of the spirit of its source material. Many reviewers tend to treat the chapterplay as something of a magnificent anomaly among Witney and English’s serials, but its ingredients had actually been percolating at Republic for some time; both directors had shown themselves greatly interested in emphasizing mood and atmosphere in earlier outings like SOS Coast Guard or The Fighting Devil Dogs, and an adaptation of Rohmer’s atmospheric books provided them with an opportunity to indulge this interest on an unprecedented scale. The result was a masterpiece of suspense that will always be one of Republic’s best-remembered serials, as well as one of its best.