The Death Ships of Dr. Fu Manchu (1956)

The Adventures of Dr. Fu Manchu: Episode 9

The Death Ships of Dr. Fu Manchu

Country: United States
Director: William Witney
Starring: Glen Gordon, Lester Matthews, Clark Howat, Peter Mamakos, Hugh Sanders, Carla Balenda, Laurette Luez, John George
Based on characters created by Sax Rohmer

The Death Ships of Fu Manchu is the ninth the episode in the Studio City Television series featuring the Devil Doctor, Fu Manchu. Traditionally, Fu Manchu’s nemesis is Dennis Nayland Smith of Scotland Yard. In the first episode of this series, when we are introduced to Nayland Smith, Dr. Petrie’s voice-over informs us that Nayland Smith is formally of Scotland Yard, meaning he doesn’t work for the ‘Yard’ any more. In this episode it is explained that Nayland Smith is a British Secret Service Operator. Does that make him a spy? Well not really. But considering that this is an American television series, it universalises his character a bit and makes him slightly more identifiable. Only a smidge, mind you. It also adds a layer of sensibility to Nayland Smith’s globe trotting ways. It would seem a bit silly for a Scotland Yard Inspector to be loitering around with his good friend Dr. Petrie in the United States, just waiting for an incident to happen. As an agent, he can be anywhere at any time.

In this instance, currently Nayland Smith (Lester Matthews) is in Hong Kong with Dr. Petrie (Clark Howat) and they are checking all goods coming into the country from the United States. It appears that somebody has broken into a research laboratory in California and stolen a deadly germ culture. It is suspected that this lethal virus will be smuggled into Red China through Hong Kong.

It appears that the man behind the theft is Dr. Fu Manchu (Glen Gordon), and he has shipped two small boxes on the freighter, Carfax, under the command of Captain Warren (Hugh Sanders). As the ship approaches Hong Kong it is caught up in a wild storm and driven into the rocks. The Captain gives the order and the crew all abandon ship. The Captain, as he has been paid well, collects the two small boxes and brings them with him on the lifeboat.

As the Carfax sank, and no cargo was put ashore in Hong Kong, Nayland Smith believes there is no cause for alarm on this occasion, but still is wary enough to chose to interview the crew members of the Carfax.

Meanwhile Fu Manchu, who is now also in Hong Kong, has received his boxes of deadly germ culture. Now he needs it shipped forward to the Red Chinese, and he believes that once again Captain Warren is the man to transfer the merchandise. However, Nayland Smith finds it strange that a man who just lost a ship in a storm, should so quickly be given a new ship to command. He chooses to investigate further.

The Death Ships of Dr. Fu Manchu strangely still seems topical today, even after fifty years since it was first broadcast. It has a strange duality to it. The Red Chinese must not get their hands on the American germ-culture because they will use it on their own people and hold the Americans responsible. With the Americans then being blamed for releasing germ warfare in China, China can then, in the eyes of the world, justifiably retaliate. But before you condemn the underhanded, evil Chinese (or at least that’s how they are portrayed in this tv series — and let’s remember that is all this is, just a television program — it’s not intended to be real life), you’ve got to ask why were the Americans experimenting with deadly germs cultures in the first place?

At the end of the day though, the plot contrivances and the politics of the day, are simply there to drive the plot along as fast as possible. Fu Manchu, like Bulldog Drummond and wartime propaganda films are products of their time and place. I think it is pointless getting upset at the racism and cruel stereotyping that go on in these programs. Certainly they are not to be applauded, but the past is the past, and while I am glad that times are changing and the world is becoming more tolerant, I hate to think that in this politically correct age, that somebody would feel that it is necessary to go back and re-write all our history so it hides or removes all the ugly bits that don’t fit in with the current paradigm.

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