Burt KwoukCharles Lloyd PackGeoffrey TooneYvonne Monlaur
The Terror of the Tongs
Medium: film
Year: 1961
Director: Anthony Bushell
Writer: Jimmy Sangster
Keywords: historical
Country: UK
Actor: Christopher Lee, Yvonne Monlaur, Geoffrey Toone, Marne Maitland, Brian Worth, Ewen Solon, Roger Delgado, Richard Leech, Charles Lloyd Pack, Marie Burke, Barbara Brown, Burt Kwouk
Format: 75 minutes
Url: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0055516/
Website category: British
Review date: 25 January 2013
It's a Hammer adventure film, i.e. non-horror. Essentially it's a remake of The Stranglers of Bombay two years earlier, except in colour and set in Hong Kong in 1910, rather than India in the 1830s. It's okay, but you'll have to suffer through some thoughtless racism.
The film's biggest coup is Christopher Lee. It's Fu Manchu! Admittedly his Fu Manchu films wouldn't start appearing until 1965, but that doesn't matter today. He's playing the all-powerful leader of a Chinese criminal organisation which no one dares resist. He's got the same clothes, moustache and make-up. It's like an unofficial Fu Manchu film... or at least it would be if it weren't for the fact that Lee's merely in charge of the Hong Kong branch of his organisation. He's not all-powerful and he doesn't even have a plan, except to destroy anyone who threatens his business enterprises. Nevertheless it's kind of cool to see Lee back in the robes again, somehow managing to be the only Caucasian who's even halfway convincing in yellowface makeup, despite being about eight foot tall.
When they shot this film, incidentally, Lee had a deep tan after a holiday in Italy. The make-up made him suffer for it.
Everyone else looks rubbish, though. The film begins with Burt Kwouk trying to educate our hero (Geoffrey Toone) about the Chinese underworld. Hello, I thought. This is better than I'd expected. Maybe we're actually going to see some Chinese actors? Unfortunately I spoke too soon. Almost everyone here is a westerner. Not only are they blatantly not Chinese, but they hardly seem to be trying to convince you otherwise. You can see that the make-up department were working hard on Lee, but the others? Don't make me laugh. Roger Delgado (yes, him) looks okay. Charles Lloyd Pack doesn't. No, no, no.
Then there's the fact that they're not even good actors. Marie Burke seems to think Hong Kong's in Delhi. The guy who refuses to tell Toone where his fingers went is so abysmal that you'd think English wasn't his first language. The only possible excuse for not casting to ethnicity would be actor unavailability, since the widespread acceptance of yellowface makeup back then made it hard for Asian actors to get anywhere in Britain, thus feeding the vicious circle of no supply and no demand. However with performances this bad, that excuse won't fly. Anyone would have been better than Mr No-Fingers, even (perhaps especially) if they could hardly speak English. You could have dragged in someone off the street.
The only person you'd say was doing any acting here is Yvonne Monlaur and she's audibly French. (For a while I wasn't sure whether her character was meant to be Chinese or Indian, but somehow she looks convincingly non-Caucasian.) Anyway, she's actually doing something with her insultingly written role. Everyone else is pretty much by the numbers, although Lee at least has presence.
Geoffrey Toone is laughable as the hero, by the way. He's simply not a lead actor, although on the upside he's in two Doctor Who stories (Temmosus in the first Cushing Dalek film and Hepesh in The Curse of Peladon). He's one-dimensionally heroic. He doesn't do weakness, such as grief or pain. His reaction to the murder of a loved one would have seemed understated if he'd merely lost a slipper, whereas being subjected to torture appears to bring him to orgasm. Admittedly we're not seeing the full version of that scene, courtesy of savage BBFC cuts, but that's a good thing if means fewer Toone reaction shots.
I'd better get back to the political incorrectness, though.
I'm unconvinced by the script's accuracy. These Tong (um, Triads?) cut off people's fingers, which suggests that someone might have been confusing them with the yakuza. I think someone gives someone else a netsuke (again Japanese).
There's also a big fight between two Chinese people... who use wrestling moves! Neither uses any martial arts. Admittedly Hong Kong cinema itself hadn't got into its big action movie groove in 1961, but even so that made me roll my eyes.
Finally there are some regrettable attitudes. The Tongs are bad because their businesses include white slavery and opium. Presumably the audience wouldn't have cared about the enslavement of non-whites, then? There's also the following dialogue, given to (the supposedly Chinese) Monlaur: "you think we know how to behave like British people. We don't and we never will."
There's an interesting counterbalance to that, though. Lee's Chinese character is a finer example of British values than any of the film's rather stupid, unpleasant Englishmen. He's erudite and is fond of aphorisms. He's calm and well-mannered at all times. At the finale, he even turns out to have a sense of sportsmanship and a stiff upper lip. He believes in decency and fair play and will shake you by the hand as he congratulates you on your victory, before surprising you still further. That's by far the most interesting scene in the film and I liked it a lot, despite the moaning reviewers I've read who've disliked it for its fatalism.
Most of these are modern criticisms, though. They weren't even on the production team's radar. Putting on one's 1961 goggles, how does the film measure up?
Answer: it's okay. It does the job. The film's Hong Kong setting doesn't feel as authentic as I might have liked, for instance only showing us occasional bits of Chinese text, but that aside it's decent. On a pulp level, it's juicy enough. Meanwhile Jimmy Sangster's script will kill characters you might think had script immunity and does its job as an underworld adventure runaround.
In summary, it's entertaining, but also a bit offensive. It's hard to get too angry about a cultural artefact like this, but it has worse problems than, say, the Fu Manchu films. However at the end of the day it's still fun to see Lee in a Fu Manchu-like role... had Hammer released this film five years later, Harry Alan Towers would have sued. I'm not the biggest Lee fan, but it's unquestionably him who holds this film together. (Monlaur is doing more interesting work, but in a teeth-clenching role.) I now need to see The Stranglers from Bombay, to which this is apparently so similar that it reuses actors in similar roles (Marne Maitland, Roger Delgado). This isn't a great film, but it's a long, long way from the pits of which Hammer was capable. It's okay.
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