It's one of the most highly esteemed movie serials, sometimes called one of the best ever made. Its directors, John English and William Witney, made some of Republic's finest serials and furthermore I've seen it claimed that Witney thought this was his best work. I didn't really like it.
I can see the appeal, though. I enjoyed movie serials when I was a child and I'd happily recommend them to small boys. The cliffhangers! The breakneck excitement! I have fond memories of the 1936-1940 Flash Gordon serials. What's more, each episode is acceptable TV fodder if you don't make the mistake of watching it back-to-back with another one. People run around and defy death in various fashions. The end. More two-fisted excitement next week, kids!
That's what they are. They know their target audience and they're doing an efficient job of entertaining them. That's fine.
However the heroes are automatons. They walk. They have earnest discussions. They have fist fights... and that's it. None of them does anything that's not generically heroic. They have no characterisation, to such a degree that you could have replaced Luana Walters with a cardboard cut-out and I'm not convinced that anyone would notice. Robert Kellard is a truly ghastly actor, presumably cast for his likeness to the studio's favourite stuntman, yet the most horrifying thing is that this makes no difference. It doesn't matter that he can't emote or deliver dialogue. His character doesn't exist as a character enough for this to be significant. He's an action figure, not a human, although admittedly some of that action is impressive.
What's more, he's the lead! He's assisting Fu Manchu's nemesis, Nayland Smith, of course, but a Republic serial needs a young, vigorous action hero. An older actor would die.
What's good and surprising is that the plot's coherent. It's not the random nonsense you'd expect. It has quite a lot of McGuffins, but at least Fu Manchu has a comprehensible plan and all the episodes are driven by it. The story actually has a structure. It's only a very loose adaptation of the original Sax Rohmer novel, but at least it doesn't run in annoying circles like 24 or something. None of the cliffhangers cheat, once you've accepted the movie serial rule that a cliffhanger reprise is allowed to add extra footage and characters we hadn't seen last week. (I think this is reasonable.)
However it's hardly high praise to say that a plot isn't incoherent. Having a plot structure doesn't mean it's not bollocks. Fu Manchu is trying to conquer all of Asia and apparently he'll achieve this if he gets the Sceptre of Genghis Khan. Asian people will unite under the leadership of any man carrying this! Yes, all Asians. Afghanistan, Bahrain, Bangladesh, China, India, Iran, Iraq, Israel, Japan, Russia, Singapore... uh-huh, right. Because those people all worship and revere Genghis Khan (died 1227 and hands up everyone who could swear to what his sceptre looked like). You might as well make the same claim of everyone who'd been born on a Friday.
Oh, and those McGuffins get a bit silly. You need to collect W, then X, then Y, after which we all need to go looking for Z. Besides, none of those mini-quests ever make any difference. Whoever wins, the other side always eavesdrops and gets all the information they need for the next quest, putting both sides back on even terms.
There's also a bit in episode three where an ancient papyrus is treated as waterproof, while Fu Manchu's lift from Edgar Allan Poe in episode four is a good cliffhanger, but a lousy interrogation tactic. Let's say you've got a tough guy. He's not talking. Strap him under the pendulum and... whoops, he's dead. Let's hope he didn't know anything important.
Is the serial racist? That's the big question, of course. Answer: no, surprisingly, unless you're offended just by the presence of Fu Manchu.
1. There are quite a few Asian actors, often in noble and/or heroic roles. This isn't an Evil Yellow Foreigners story, despite coming out of America in 1940. (Mentions of Japan are conspicuously absent.) Episode one has an anti-imperialist speech that will have you cheering for the villains, while furthermore the scriptwriters aren't portraying Asian people in general as villainous. "A leader for peace, instead of for war." Even Fu Manchu's dacoits weren't bad people until he operated on their brains and effectively lobotomised them.
2. Asia isn't being treated as homogeneous. You'll see Indian, Chinese and other actors and the film knows the difference between them. Episode one even throws in a mummy case from ancient Egypt, which is of course in Asia as well as Africa.
3. Fu Manchu and to a lesser extent his daughter, Fah Lo Suee, are unique in this serial in actually coming alive as characters. They're being played by Caucasians in yellowface make-up, which would today be unacceptable. However Harry Brandon's Fu Manchu is dignified, intelligent and capable of chiding our heroes for dishonourable actions. There's a bit where he employs a freelance underling, afterwards says "my daughter will give you your fee" and then I think will have paid the guy his money instead of having him executed as you'd expect from any other villain. He's arguably fighting for a noble cause (although that doesn't make him a good person) and he even achieves something that almost never happened under Hollywood's Production Code by escaping at the end. Apparently the Hays Office accepted the explanation that Fu Manchu always got away at the end of his novels.
He also seems like an imposing villain, simply by virtue of how hard he keeps coming at our heroes. They have to fight and fight and fight. If you've faced a life-or-death cliffhanger every week for fifteen episodes, you'll know you've been up against it.
There are also a few eye-catching actors. Dwight Frye shows up! I love Dwight Frye. Unfortunately he only gets a non-villainous near-cameo in part five with which he doesn't manage to do a lot, but George Pembroke is suitably hard-boiled, circa episode eight. In fairness, I should also mention that the (laughably poor) Robert Kellard manages to lift his game enough to do a halfway decent Fu Manchu when the latter's disguised himself as him.
You might find this empty and dull if you're not eight years old, but it's efficient at what it does. Some of the action is cool. The octopus is silly, but you've got to love an octopus. There's a brawl in episode seven where they destroy the room. The "waxworks coming alive" set-piece in episode five is nifty. I can see that it's a well-made example of the form, but I'm afraid I stumbled at the "Sceptre of Genghis Khan" silliness and the utter lack of characterisation for the heroes. I watched the last third of the serial on fast-forward. "Highly regarded movie serial" doesn't necessarily mean "good".