55 DAYS AT PEKING lets you know, within the first seconds of Dimitri Tiomkin’s slashing Overture to his score, that this is a genuine 1963 epic, fronted by big stars, loaded with production values that jam enough massed extras in the battle scenes to dam the Yangtze.
Recall that back in those days, the China we now recognize as an economic Goliath was perceived as the crazy raving wild man of the Communist hunk of the planet, and this “Here they come!” fight-to-the-end spectacle fit neatly into the West’s fallout-sheltered fear zone. Not to worry: we have Charlton Heston on our team.
But—why is Chuck there? With his Marines, 5,900 miles from San Francisco, back in 1900? Historical amnesia being what it is (pervasive), audiences might have paused seconds between popcorn gulps to reflect that the stampeding masses being mowed down over the 154 minutes were not merely fanatical ‘Boxers’ (and yes, they were fanatical) but part of a very unhappy China, arrogantly dismembered by a dozen greedy Colonial powers, ruled by a vengeful Empress, about as corrupt as you could get outside Turkey (or Louisiana).
With connivance from the decrepit Imperial Court, a bloody uprising tried to kick out (as in ‘massacre’) the ‘Foreign Devils’. Waiting and hoping for relief, the international diplomats, their families, staffs, and a scattering of troops holed up in the barely defensible foreign legation complex in Peking: there’s the plot.
Helping or hindering Heston, suitably laconic-heroic, are David Niven, suave and solid as ever, representing Great Britain (if we’re going to
pick pockets open markets, let’s do it as a family!), and Ava Gardner as a Russian Baroness with the proverbial past. Since a dozen nations had citizens trapped, there are bits of courage, bluster and strutting from John Ireland, Kurt Kaszner, Paul Lukas, Harry Andrews, Massimo Serato, Jacques Sernas, Walter Gotell and Eric Pohlmann.
‘Good’ Chinese get one representative, a syrupy orphan played by Lynne Sue Moon (adopted by the Marines–yeah, ‘adopted’, I’ll bet) whereas the more unscrupulous inhabitants are made up and outfitted to suit Flora Robson, Robert Helpmann and Leo Genn. Needless to say, those roles would probably not be cast like that today. Robson is suitably haughty, though the censors of the day would not permit delving into some of the more bizarre quirks of the actual Empress. Genn naturally plays the more reasonable counsel, along the lines of what he did for Peter Ustinov’s loony Nero in Quo Vadis, minus the witty dialogue. Helpmann amuses by going full-sinister, a step removed from a vampire.
While Heston and Niven are fine, Gardner is shaky. In the service of a quick-fix history lesson, the script isn’t solid, which disheartened the actors, and there is no emotional involvement with the thin characterizations. The writers don’t embarrass with bad lines, they just fail to engage (a complicated task with this incident to start with). There were constant rewrites to suit and soothe the egos of Heston and Niven, and Gardner might as well not be there, she’s so uncertain. Heston said her behavior was the worst he’d ever witnessed by a professional colleague. She was losing her fabled looks at 41, and years of hard partying took their toll.
Though she would continue to receive deferential billing in A-list films like Seven Days In May, The Bible and Earthquake, and would be coaxed by wily John Huston to one of her career-best jobs the following year in The Night Of The Iguana, her leading lady status and industry reputation was badly undercut by the temper tantrums, lateness and assorted shenanigans she indulged here. The undisciplined behavior and nutty attitude caused huge difficulties during the production, no doubt helping overwhelmed director Nicholas Ray, already at war with the producer, to have the heart attack that drove him off the film, to be replaced by Guy Green.
Central flaws aside, we’re left with the main reasons to watch: whopper action scenes and opulent visual dazzle. Producer Samuel Bronston spared little, unloading a typhoon of $17,000,000 he’d made from El Cid and King of Kings by recreating a chunk of Peking and the legation complex on a grand scale, and sending out casting calls to locate every Asian in Europe who needed a job to head to Spain and charge those walls. Literally scores of Chinese restaurants in the region closed down so their staff could fill Bronston’s ranks.
Sixty acres of sets, elaborate and in some instances actual authentic costumes drench the screen with eye candy. Unsung second-unit master Andrew Marton directed most of the half-dozen exciting, superbly choreographed battle sequences. Marton was the whipcracker behind massed mayhem in Ben-Hur, The Longest Day and Cleopatra, so if you wanted a mob of people to shoot blanks and fall down realistically, Andy was the Hungarian to call. Big films called for Big music and in that era it often meant getting Dimitri Tiomkin to summon his inner steppes and swirl delirious. Tiomkin’s notes add to the pulse-pounding, and his scoring was Oscar nominated, as was a ‘meh’ Song whipped up for padding.
The movie made money, around $11,000,000 domestically, hitting the #20 spot, but its great cost bore down on congratulations. Action buffs and fans of epics will not want to miss it, though, as it more than delivers in those areas. For a good book on the subject, my pick would be “The Boxer Rebellion”, by Diana Preston: what an awful bloody mess it was. Lesson: don’t poke sticks at the Middle Kingdom—something to ponder as our moronic leaders puff up with boasts about a ‘pivot to Asia’.