by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved
I ran a film I recently recorded from Turner Classic Movies, the 1963 Samuel Bronston production 55 Days at Peking (an awkwardly cadenced title — wouldn’t “55 Days in Peking” have made more sense?), a 2 1/2-hour movie with an all-star (Western) cast dealing with the Boxer Rebellion in China in 1900 and in particular with the siege of the international community in Peking that the Boxers kept going for the titular 55 days. This could have been an interesting and compelling film, but instead it was just more of the usual Hollywood cheese — even though it was filmed neither in the U.S. (where the cost was prohibitive) nor in China (which in 1963 was still universally referred to in the U.S. as “Red China” and treated as so remote and off the radar screen it could have been located on Mars for all most Americans knew about it — when American journalist Lisa Hobbs published a book called I Saw Red China in 1966, she became a nationwide celebrity, not only for having brought back a first-hand account of this mysterious place but for having flouted the U.S. law making travel to mainland China illegal to do it) but in Bronston’s favorite stomping grounds, Spain.
He built a 60-acre replica of 1900 Peking (the city is now known as Beijing — same name, different transliteration of the Chinese characters), focusing on the two key locales in his story: the International Quarter, where the foreign diplomats from the world’s largest powers were housed and given extraterritorial privileges — meaning they weren’t subject to Chinese law but to the laws of their home countries instead — and the nearby Forbidden City from which the Empress Dowager (played by Flora Robson — and it was ironic indeed that an actress who had played Queen Elizabeth I of England at least twice was cast here as a ferociously anti-Western Chinese leader!) and a succession of puppet emperors ruled China and tried vainly to cope with the Western nations’ (and Japan’s) superior armed forces and military technology. A film that was actually about the Boxer Rebellion and told the story — or at least attempted to — from both sides’ point of view, along the lines of Khartoum (a later historical vehicle for Charlton Heston) or Tora! Tora! Tora!, might have been interesting, but the script of 55 Days at Peking — by Philip Yordan, Bernard Gordon and (uncredited) Ben Barzman, with Robert Hamer credited with additional dialogue — remained resolutely pro-Western and pro-imperialist in its point of view, focusing almost exclusively on the international quarter with only occasional cutaways to the court of the Empress Dowager, who first decided to encourage the Boxers in hopes they could reverse China’s fortunes against the Western powers and undo some of the humiliating concessions China had been forced to give as the price for not being annihilated militarily, then reversed course after (at least in this film’s retelling of history) the film’s hero, U.S. Marine Major Matt Lewis (Charlton Heston), blew up a Chinese armory and thereby cost them a lot of their ammunition, as well as humiliating Prince Tuan (Robert Helpmann), the leader of the pro-Boxer faction in the Empress Dowager’s court, and thereby boosting the fortunes of General Jung-Lu (Leo Genn),who had wanted the Empress Dowager to suppress the Boxers and conciliate the West.
The central characters are Major Lewis; the Russian Baroness Natalie Ivanoff (Ava Gardner), a widow whose previous husband, a Russian officer, committed suicide after he caught her having an affair with a Chinese general; and Sir Arthur Robertson (David Niven), the British legation chief, who talks all the other great-power diplomats into staying in the compound after the Empress Dowager has asked them all to leave. There’s also a tear-jerking story involving the half-British, half-Chinese girl Teresa (Lynne Sue Moon, one of only two actual Asians in the credited cast — and the other, Ichizo Itami, is a Japanese playing Japanese Col. Shiba — though there are some other Asians listed on imdb.com’s page for the film, including Chinese-American artist Dong Kingman, who played an uncredited bit part and also did the background paintings for the film’s credits), who’s orphaned and apparently adopted by Heston’s character at the end; and another tear-jerking plot line involving the apparent death of Robertson’s son, who’s shot down for real while he’s playing war (someone’s stupid attempt at irony) but several reels later, just when we’ve forgotten all about him, we’re told he’s still alive.
The film is just a lot of waiting for things to happen — the Boxers make their first appearance at the international headquarters in what can only be referred to as a production number, a sort of combination ballet and martial-arts demonstration in which they challenge Major Lewis to try to touch them with his sword (this is the only hint in the script of the Boxers’ belief that proper training would make them invulnerable to bullets and other Western weapons) about 50 minutes into the film, and it’s another hour or so (including an intermission) before the armory raid occurs — and so many fireworks go off that one gets the impression Major Lewis has made a mistake and blown up China’s pyrotechnic storage facility instead. Then it’s another long wait before the final attempt by the Boxers to storm the international quarter and the Westerners’ success in lifting the siege — aided by the reinforcements sent in from outside by the countries whose diplomats and embassies are under siege, which had been delayed by General Jung-Lu’s army but got through at last after the Empress Dowager switched sides and allowed the general to stop mounting resistance to the Western troops (and when they arrive a company of Gurkhas, Asians fighting on the side of the imperialists, are leading the way).
I was interested in 55 Days at Peking because Nicholas Ray is the credited director, but he was obviously disinterested in the assignment and got fired from the film before it was finished — producer Bronston had British director Guy Green and second-unit director Andrew Marton finish the film. Ray and Yordan had collaborated productively on the 1959 King of Kings (the most commercially successful film Ray ever made!) but the magic didn’t strike twice. It didn’t help that virtually the entire cast was white — though, according to an imdb.com trivia poster, Bronston raided virtually every Chinese restaurant in Spain for Chinese émigrés to serve as extras, with the result that for the duration of the shoot it was nearly impossible to obtain a Chinese meal in Spain. As it stands, 55 Days at Peking is a dull movie which even its ineptly staged, unexciting action scenes can’t redeem — and the final triumph of Western and Japanese imperialism over Chinese sovereignty seems a bit creepy, especially now that the economies of the Western countries and Japan are in free-fall and China is riding high, obviously readying itself for world domination in the next generation or two.