55 DAYS AT PEKING
(director: Nicholas Ray; screenwriters: from the book 55 Days At Peking by S. Edwards/Robert Hamer/Philip Yordan/Bernard Gordon; cinematographer: Jack Hildyard; editors: Robert Lawrence/Magdalena Paradell; music: Dimitri Tiomkin; cast: Charlton Heston (Maj. Matt Lewis), Ava Gardner (Baroness Natalie Ivanoff), David Niven (Sir Arthur Robinson), Flora Robson (Dowager Empress Tsu Hzi), Robert Helpmann (Prince Tuan), John Ireland (Sergeant Harry), Harry Andrews (Father de Bearn), Leo Genn (Gen. Jung-Lu), Paul Lukas (Dr. Steinfeldt), Lynne Sue Moon (Teresa), Jerome Thor (Capt. Andy Marshall), Elizabeth Sellars (Lady Sarah Robertson), Kurt Kasznar (Baron Sergei Ivanoff); Runtime: 150; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Samuel Bronston; Allied Artists; 1963)
“Lively but overlong adventure picture.”
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
This was the last film seen in the White House by President John F. Kennedy (on 10 November 1963). It’s also Nicholas Ray’s farewell Hollywood film; he was replaced during filming by his assistant Andrew Marton. It’s written by Robert Hamer, Philip Yordan, and Bernard Gordon from the book 55 Days At Peking by S. Edwards. This lively but overlong adventure picture is set in Peking in 1900, during the Boxer Rebellion. This historical depiction has the unenviable task of trying to excuse foreign imperialism in China as some kind of God-given right reserved for the Europeans and Americans. The film looks brilliant at times in its epic scope (shot in Super Technirama 70), but producer Samuel Bronston butchered it with his re-cut. At best, it can be viewed as an ambitious failure that didn’t go down without a good fight.
It opens with a dramatic splash, as the troops from many of the multinational countries present in Peking display their colors in their protected Legation compound. We soon learn that the haughty ruling empress Tsu Hzi (Flora Robson), living in the Forbidden City, under the advise from Prince Tuan (Robert Helpmann) and against the advise of General Jung-Lu (Leo Genn), has allowed the Boxers to wantonly murder Christian whites as a protest to foreigners occupying their country. There are 11 countries in China, including the United States, Great Britain, Russia, Germany and France. These country’s rule 13 of the 18 provinces.
Major Matt Lewis (Charlton Heston) marches with his American marines into Peking and are too late to prevent a British missionary from being tortured to death by the Boxers while the government troops stand idly by. The major soon meets the attractive Baroness Natalie Ivanoff (Ava Gardner), who is being forced to leave China at the request of her brother-in-law, Kurt Kasznar (Baron Sergei Ivanoff). He’s upset that her young colonel husband committed suicide over her affair with General Jung-Lu. The only thing the baroness has of value is an expensive necklace her husband gave her (which she’ll later sell to secure opiates for the hospital of the multinational troops).
The film fully covers the ongoing battle between the multinational forces–united under the leadership of Brit Ambassador Sir Arthur (David Niven Robinson)–defending the compound from the Chinese attack, and intersperses the action with a clumsy hard-to-figure love story developing between the major and the baroness. From the title, you realize it will take 55 days to end the siege and restore order for the foreigners. The movie ultimately suffers because all of its bloody fighting never seems to be more than a chauvinistic excuse for a military presence for foreigners to protect their own interests as it exploits China–with America being not much better than the other greedy countries.
REVIEWED ON 2/19/2005 GRADE: B