At the beginning of the 20th century, Chinese Empress Dowager Cixi (Flora Robson, Saratoga Trunk) is persuaded to kick foreigners out of the country. The Empress orders the Boxers, a rouge group of Chinese fighters, to kill foreigners at will. This action paves the way for the eventual fall of the Empire.
Reaction & Thoughts:
“Let China sleep. For when she awakens, the world will tremble.”
Grandly directed by Nicholas Ray (Johnny Guitar and Rebel Without a Cause), this reenactment of the 1900 Boxer Rebellion in China mixes historical facts with fictional characters. 55 Days at Peking is a pretty good epic for the most part, but some glaring flaws keep the film from reaching greatness.
The film was produced by Samuel Bronston (John Paul Jones and The Fall of the Roman Empire), one of the most powerful independent producers of the era. Bronston specialized in sprawling epics and 55 Days at Peking is no exception. It’s a laborious movie with eye-popping sets and a cast of thousands. The excellent music score by veteran Dimitri Tiomkin’s (High Noon) is truly spectacular. The script, an adaptation of Noel Gerson’s 1963 novel of the same name, is the weakest link here.
55 Days at Peking has too many unnecessary subplots. There is a tendency here to get lost in too many details, too many inconsequential characters. The film deals with events that changed the world forever so there was no need for multiple plot threads. At its best when focused on Charlton Heston (Ben-Hur) and David Niven (Separate Tables), who represent the U.S. military brass and the British diplomatic envoy respectively.
I did find the politics of the movie provocative to say the least. 55 Days at Peking explores the relationship between nationalism, xenophobia and racism. The film argues that China’s rejection of multiculturalism marked the beginning of the end of the Empire. That’s an interesting if controversial theory.
I also found curious, and troublesome, the film’s (apparent) endorsement of colonialism. This attitude towards colonialism dates the movie badly. In any event, it is something that will make you think as you enjoy the spectacle grandiose. These are issues that are still debated today so the film is interesting to our modern eyes.
Heston and Niven are in fine form here. Niven, in particular, gives a surprisingly strong performance. The two main Asian characters are played by Caucasians: Flora Robson plays the Empress Dowager and Leo Genn (Quo Vadis) plays Gen. Jung-Lu. The supporting cast also includes Harry Andrews (The Hill) as Father de Bearn, John Ireland (All the King’s Men) as an American soldier and Paul Lukas (Watch on the Rhine) as a physician. Director Ray has a small role as an American burocrat.
Ava Gardner’s (Mogambo and The Barefoot Contessa) role — she plays a penniless Russian aristocrat — feels a little like window dressing, though. You could remove all her scenes without affecting the main story-line. But Gardner’s class, charisma and enormous beauty make you stand up and pay attention to her scenes. Gardner also provides the film with its most poignant moments. It is Gardner’s character who makes you connect with the movie at an emotional level and because of that I was grateful for her presence. Gardner also has wonderful chemistry with Heston.
Conclusions & Final Thoughts:
I liked the film well enough to recommend it, but don’t expect a perfect production. Because the film covers the end of the Chinese Empire, 55 Days at Peking works as a pre-sequel to Bernardo Bertolucci’s Oscar-winning epic The Last Emperor, which is about Emperor Puyi, the successor to Empress Cixi (here is an idea for an interesting if super-long double-feature). Color, 153 minutes, Not Rated.
This is my contribution to The Ava Gardner Blogathon, hosted by Maddy Loves Her Classic Films.