55 Days at Peking (1963)


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 this expansive movie 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 intriguing 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 bureaucrat.

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.


13 responses to “55 Days at Peking (1963)

  1. Pingback: The Ava Gardner Blogathon Arrives – Maddy Loves Her Classic Films·

  2. Not a bad film, but it just feels like it lacked that real spark to have made it into a great one. Ava’s character may not be all that necessary to the plot, but Ava certainly steals all the scenes she is in. Love her entrance to the dance.

    Thanks so much for joining. Merry Christmas to you.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. 1) Being a former U.S. Marine, you would think I would have made it a point to see this movie, especially since I mentioned it in my piece for this blog-a-thon.

    2) I’ve come to find it problematic judging films by today’s standards of acceptability against when they are set and/or made. It just tends to detract from the enjoyment of the movie itself. Warts and all, I’d rather have an accurate depiction of the time rather than some pointless “fell-goodism.”

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I watched this film many years ago, and I remember not being neither engaghed nor very impressed, but liking Ava’s character. Great review!
    Thanks for the kind comment!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I saw about 20 minutes in the middle of this film when it was on TCM one time. I had No Idea what was going on, so I gave up and forgot about it.

    But now that I’ve read your review, I’m going to see if our library has a copy. It sounds like an intriguing, although imperfect, film. And this time I’ll watch it from the beginning. 😉

    Liked by 1 person

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