Posts Tagged ‘Don Sharp’

Until a very short time ago I would have sworn to you that the five Fu Manchu movies Christopher Lee made in the late 1960s were products of his relationship with Hammer films. They have the same kind of period setting which gives so many Hammer horrors their atmosphere, they have the same mixture of pulp and class, and, well, they have Christopher Lee in them.

Apparently not: these films were made by the British producer Harry Alan Towers, and while they still look a lot like Hammer films, they generally tend much more towards the pulp adventure genre than actual horror per se. This is not to say that elements of these films are not shocking, just that this is probably not in the places intended by the film-makers themselves.

1966’s The Brides of Fu Manchu is the second of these films, following the previous year’s The Face of Fu Manchu. Face is rather stolid; Brides is much more confident, colourful and preposterous. For a film ostensibly about a Chinese supervillain, it opens in a surprisingly Egyptian-styled lair (possibly Towers just bought a lot of second-hand Egyptian props off the set of Carry On Cleo). A sequence briskly unfolds involving various nubile damsels in distressed clothing, a snake pit, and death by haircut, which sets the tone of the film quite nicely. We meet Professor Merlin, a French scientist, played by Rupert Davies (Davies opts for the inevitable allo-mah-Briteesh-chooms accent, but we are in for a feast of dubious accentry as the film continues). Merlin’s daughter has been kidnapped by the evil Fu Manchu (Christopher Lee, of course) and Merlin is coerced into helping him conquer the world.

How is he going to do this? Well, Fu Manchu has a death ray, but as this is the 1920s he needs a set of relay stations to transmit the ray to wherever it needs to go. Hence all the kidnapped young women: their fathers have been busily building relay towers all over Europe (without anyone taking much notice, it would seem).

Next on the list for a kidnapping is Marie Lentz, daughter of a German scientist (Marie is also German for the first twenty minutes, then reverts to using the natural French accent of Marie Versini, who plays her. This is that sort of film). The first intimation that Fu Manchu may not be the machiavellian genius everyone says he is comes when it is revealed that his preferred kidnapping technique is for his dacoit henchmen to jump out on people from behind cars and other everyday objects and try to overpower them by brute force. This goes somewhat amiss as Marie’s companion Franz (Heinz Drache) drives about four dacoits off single-handed and beats one of them to death in the process. Franz is not a heavyweight boxer or commando, by the way, he is a research chemist. (The reason why there are so many German characters in this film is because it was a co-production with a West German company.)

The dead dacoit in London is enough to put Fu Manchu’s dogged nemesis, Sir Denis Nayland Smith (Douglas Wilmer), on the trail, accompanied by the faithful Dr Petrie (there is a very obvious Sherlock Holmes vibe going on here, only added to by the fact that Wilmer played Holmes on TV the previous year). Can Nayland Smith and his associates figure out what Fu Manchu is up to before he takes over the world?

There are things which are non-ironically good about The Brides of Fu Manchu, principally some of the production values – the recreation of 1920s London is handsomely done, incorporating many vintage cars, decent numbers of extras, and even a biplane for one sequence. (I should also say that there are also quite a few rather duff props and sets on display, with some distinctly wobbly death ray transmitters turning up before the end). Don Sharp’s direction is pacy and energetic, giving the film something of the feel of a Bond film with a period setting.

On the other hand, we have to acknowledge the various absurdities of the script, which above all else is heavily reliant on some outrageous plot devices to function. Most glaring of these is a character called Abdul (played by Salman Peerzada), one of the hospitality staff in Fu Manchu’s lair who decides to betray him for no apparent reason whatsoever. Nayland Smith may march around a lot looking dour and determined, but it’s Abdul who does most of the donkey work of helping the hostages escape before the end of the film. Other delights include lookalikes who bear no resemblance to the person they’re supposed to be, and an uproarious truth-drug sequence.

One comes away with the impression that Fu Manchu would have got away with it all, if not for some very bad recruitment decisions. Quite apart from hiring Abdul to do the catering, he is also saddled with a chief technician named Feng (Burt Kwouk), who has the bad manners to have a nervous breakdown and collapse onto the big red self-destruct lever in the secret lair (the fixtures in the secret lair have a lovely steampunky charm to them). His henchmen also leave a lot to be desired – German research chemists are quite capable of beating them up in droves, and at one point there’s a massed brawl between the dacoits and the escaping young women in which the guards seem to be distinctly hard pressed. Ancient Chinese saying, Fu Manchu: you just can’t get the staff.

It is, as you may have guessed, impossibly to take remotely seriously, but still hugely entertaining if you’re in the right sort of mood. That said, I fully expect that many people will be shaking their heads and sucking their teeth at the very idea of enjoying a Fu Manchu movie in our enlightened present-day society. Sax Rohmer’s original novels were allegedly directly inspired by a racist agenda, after all. (My mother was in the room while we were watching this and complained that she couldn’t tell the good and bad guys apart. ‘Anyone Chinese is a bad guy,’ I said, which is not strictly true (Nayland Smith’s house-girl seems to be on the level) but a good rule of thumb.) There’s also the fact that this racist stereotype Chinese supervillain is portrayed by a notably un-Chinese looking actor in yellowface make-up. (Students of pop culture will enjoy spotting several familiar actually Chinese actors in minor roles: apart from Burt Kwouk, these include the ubiquitous Vincent Wong and a young (ahem) Ric Young, of Transporter fame.)

Well, I’m going to do my usual thing and say that it is entirely possible to take a film like this too seriously. If it was a serious, well-written, thoughtful drama, it would certainly be unacceptably racist. But it’s none of those things – it’s an absurd knockabout pulp action movie. If you come away from it genuinely convinced that Chinese people represent a menace and want to take over the world, well – you’re so suggestibly gullible you probably shouldn’t be allowed to watch movies at all. Obviously you couldn’t make a film remotely like this one nowadays. But it’s still a mistake to judge old films by modern standards. Even if The Brides of Fu Manchu was intended as a piece of bigoted propaganda, we should also remember it was also probably meant to be a serious thriller. The fact is that it succeeds at being neither, but as an absurd unintended comedy it is immensely entertaining.

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There was something of a vogue, a few years ago, for sticking the boot to the big Hollywood studios for making ‘historical’ films in which the history was, um, laughable bunk, and more often than not skewed wildly in favour of America. Now, neither bad history nor bias is what you’d call a recent invention – the latter has been a mainstay of war movies for as long as they’ve been made, but it is a little surprising to find it in films made about wars which concluded many decades ago. Dubious historicity likewise has a lengthy pedigree, but the reasons for it can be more varied.

Which is a roundabout route to what regular readers may find to be a rather familiar topic: a Christopher Lee-fronted Hammer horror movie. This week’s subject is Rasputin, the Mad Monk, a film from Hammer’s mid-Sixties golden era, directed by Don Sharp. I feel obliged to promise at this point that, despite the fact this is intended to be a semi-humorous film review blog, I will not be going for easy laughs by making endless references to the Boney M song on the same subject. (No, no: thank me later.)

Anyway, our story opens deep in the Russian heartlands, which as usual in a Hammer movie bear a striking resemblence to some woodlands out the back of the studio. You can tell we are in Russia because people wear Lenin-style caps and call each other Vasily despite having Somerset accents. Gloom pervades the local inn, as the landlord’s wife is poorly and the local doctor has given up. However, who should stride through the door but Russia’s greatest love machine ahem, a mysterious stranger (Christopher Lee). He is, of course, Rasputin, but we don’t find out his name just yet.

Preferring a boozer with a livelier atmos, Rasputin takes it upon himself to exercise his mystical powers of healing to perk the landlady up a bit, which is the cue for a party, some boozing, and more ethnic folk dancing than is usual in this kind of film. (The copious hair and beard with which Lee has been issued makes it easy for someone else to double for him during the fight and dancing sequences in this movie – although knowing what a legendary polymath Christopher Lee is, he probably did it all himself anyway). When Rasputin gets a bit frisky with the young lady of the establishment, a fight breaks out, and this being a Russian pub (and a Hammer movie), someone gets maimed with a scythe before the big fella can make an escape.

However, he is tracked down to the local monastery, where he is called upon to explain this rather un-monklike behaviour. Rasputin’s answer has a certain logic – if confession is good for the soul, as the abbot is always insisting, then the more impressive the sins that you have to confess, the better. (Yes, I know: Christopher Lee, folk dancing and theological debate in the same movie – sadly the similarities with The Wicker Man pretty much end there.) The abbot is unconvinced, and – pausing only to fearfully ponder the true origin of Rasputin’s unearthly powers – has him slung out of the monastery.

Someone suggests to Rasputin that a man with his schtick could do well at the court of the Tsar, and he heads off to St Petersburg straightaway. It soon transpires his unusual attributes extend far beyond his healing hands, as in the big city he is very soon displaying hollow legs with which to win drinking contests, mesmeric eyes with which to impose his will on others, and… er…. well, let’s just say he’s popular with the ladies too. Chief amongst his conquests is Sonia (Barbara Shelley), a lady-in-waiting at the court. Rasputin spies a chance to win real power and influence – but his general nuttiness and lack of manners are rubbing the cream of the young Russian gentry (primarily Francis Matthews, Dinsdale Landen, and Richard Pasco) properly up the wrong way, and plans are soon underway to eliminate him…

So, the unusual thing about Rasputin, the Mad Monk is that it’s a movie based on actual historical events which weren’t that long past at the time the film was made (48 years, give or take – bear in mind the film itself is 47 years old now). Christopher Lee himself has described meeting Rasputin’s real-life daughter (who was apparently very complimentary about his performance, which is slightly mind-boggling), and some of the actual conspirators involved in killing Rasputin were still around when the film was made. This explains the ‘No living person is depicted’ disclaimer in the opening credits, and the fact that the film casts loose from anything closely resembling actual history quite enthusiastically. (Despite the fact the real Rasputin’s death occurred in the middle of the First World War, there’s no mention of any such thing going on, for instance.)

With a proper bio-pic apparently not a possibility for legal reasons, you would have thought the sensible option would be to really push the fantasy-horror angle on the story – but Hammer seem to have backed off from this, as well. Initial scythe-maiming aside, there’s no real horror element to this movie until quite close to the end, and what we get instead is a lurid melodrama about Rasputin’s pursuit of power. What’s he going to do with it when he gets it? The film does not elucidate. Why does he want it in the first place? Well, beyond the initial implication that he has been granted strange abilities by the powers of darkness, the film is likewise silent – but it’s pretty clear throughout that Rasputin is a thoroughly bad sort.

Without a proper grounding in fact or fantasy, Rasputin, the Mad Monk constantly threatens to dissolve into vague inconsequentiality, but a few things more than redeem it. First and foremost, this is possibly Christopher Lee’s best bad guy role for Hammer – a heretical assertion, yes, but he gets more to do, with more screentime and more dialogue, than in any of the Dracula movies. Admittedly the harsh shouty voice he opts to deliver all his lines in gets a bit tedious very quickly, but many of the film’s best scenes revolve around Lee remaining silent, letting his body language and  – especially – his eyes do all the work. Much as I admire Christopher Lee, I don’t think he has the same range as a performer as – obvious candidates alert – Peter Cushing or Vincent Price, but in terms of intensity and presence he’s The Man. I don’t think Hammer ever used those qualities quite as well as in this film, as Lee is frequently quite magnetic.

Rasputin, the Mad Monk was shot back to back with Dracula: Prince of Darkness, hence the crossover of sets and personnel between the two films (a frozen moat features prominently in the climax of both, for instance). However, the director is different, and Don Sharp does some interesting things here. There’s not a lot of proper gore in this film, but what there is has a harder edge to it than in other films of this period – the salaciousness is perhaps a touch more explicit, too. Most interesting is a sequence in which a vengeful young man attempts to confront Rasputin in his lair (the Castle Dracula set redressed, of course), which takes place almost completely in darkness, faces and weapons swimming in and out of fragments of light.

This is an interesting and fun movie rather than a really good one – unintended entertainment aplenty can be derived from the film’s total failure to authentically depict the Russian setting and characters, the more satisfying kind from watching Lee do his thing and the very decent performances from everyone else in the cast. Hammer was making all sorts of odd films in the mid Sixties as they tried to extend their brand – this is probably one of the odder ones, but not a bad one and no disgrace to the House.

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