The year is 1910 and the place is Hong Kong, which is labouring under the grip of the dreaded Red Dragon Tong, an organised crime syndicate that has a clawed finger in every pie in the area. A British ship's captain, Jackson Sale (Geoffrey Toone), doesn't believe this has anything to do with him even if the island is his destination, and as he entertains a Chinese scholar, Mr Ming (Burt Kwouk), he listens patiently to his stories but cannot see what he can do about the problem. However, he will soon be forced into action...
After The Stranglers of Bombay was a big hit for the Hammer studio, they began to churn out historical adventures with a violent tone in earnest, not as many as their horror pictures but enough to represent a minor place in their output. If the genuine chillers are the ones that they are best recalled for, then works like this one still have their fans, although mainly among those familiar with their other films rather than newcomers or casual viewers, but watched today they tended to lack the bite, if you will, of the vampire efforts, or indeed the other shockers they released.
One of the problems with Terror of the Tongs was that it is now inescapably dated due to its casting, with practically every major Chinese character played by a Western actor sporting eye makeup to render their appearance more Eastern. It was not a rare sight in movies ever since their inception, but was beginning to die out around the sixties, although Christopher Lee was a performer with more of these roles than many other stars thanks to his Fu Manchu series that he took the title part in. Here he was Fu in all but name, obviously indebted to Sax Rohmer's creation and very much coming off second best.
The fact that not every European actor playing Chinese actually wore the starched eyelids made it slightly more disconcerting, as when the female lead Yvonne Monlaur appeared you were unsure as to whether she was supposed to be a local or not thanks to her eschewing the type of arrangement Lee wore and opting for heavy mascara instead. Even in her black wig, nobody was going to be fooled, but if you can put the racial issues to one side, did this story stand up otherwise? The answer to that was those issues were hard to ignore when a paranoia about Chinese gangs was informing every aspect of the script, this time by Hammer's go-to man Jimmy Sangster.
So Mr Ming is bumped off by a Tong agent (killing off Burt Kwouk so early in your film is always a mistake) but not before he passes on a list of high up conspirators hidden in a book offered to Sale's daughter (Barbara Brown), which the bad guys are keen to track down for understandable reasons. When they do, this results in a surprisingly ruthless plot twist which showed that if nothing else, Sangster meant business in showing his villains to be as formidable as possible, and so Sale is left to tackle them practically single-handed until he manages to work up some assistance, with Monlaur's Lee (not Christopher) falling in love with him - more prejudice arises when the script decides they cannot be together for the final scene. For a man who drinks fifteen pints of brandy a day, Sale is a capable enough hero, but in spite of moments of vivid nastiness to distinguish it this was a little drab, even with that bright Technicolor.
Review: Graeme Clark
Images: Marcus Brooks
Images: Marcus Brooks