55 Days at Peking

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55 Days at Peking
55-Days-Peking.jpg
Original cinema poster by Howard Terpning
Directed by Nicholas Ray
Produced by Samuel Bronston
Written by Philip Yordan
Bernard Gordon
Robert Hamer
Ben Barzman
Starring Charlton Heston
Ava Gardner
David Niven
Flora Robson
John Ireland
Leo Genn
Robert Helpmann
Kurt Kasznar
Paul Lukas
Music by Dimitri Tiomkin
Cinematography Jack Hildyard
Edited by Robert Lawrence
Distributed by Allied Artists
Release date(s) May 29, 1963
Running time 150 minutes
Country United States
Language English
Budget $17 million[1]
Box office $10,000,000[2]

55 Days at Peking is a 1963 historical epic film starring Charlton Heston, Ava Gardner, and David Niven, made by Samuel Bronston Productions, and released by Allied Artists. The movie was produced by Samuel Bronston and directed by Nicholas Ray, Andrew Marton (credited as second unit director), and Guy Green (uncredited). The screenplay was written by Philip Yordan, Bernard Gordon, Ben Barzman, and Robert Hamer, the music score was written by Dimitri Tiomkin, and the cinematographer was Jack Hildyard.

In addition to directing, Nicholas Ray plays the minor role of the head of the American diplomatic mission in China. This film is also the first known appearance of future martial arts film star Yuen Siu Tien. Japanese film director Juzo Itami, credited in the film as "Ichizo Itami", appears as Colonel Goro Shiba.

Plot[edit]

55 Days in Peking is a dramatization of the siege of the foreign legations' compounds in Peking (now Beijing) during the Boxer Rebellion which took place in 1900 China. It is based on the book by Noel Gerson.

Fed up with foreign encroachment, the Dowager Empress Tzu-Hsi uses the Boxer secret societies to attack foreigners within China, leading to the siege and subsequent direct intervention by foreign expeditionary forces which were dispatched to put down the rebellion. The film concentrates on the defense of the legations from the point of view of the foreign powers, and the title refers to the length of the defense by the colonial powers of the legations district of Peking.

The foreign embassies in Peking are being held in a grip of terror as the Boxers set about killing Christians in an anti-Christian nationalistic fever. United States Marine Corps Major Matt Lewis heads a contingent of multinational soldiers and Marines defending the foreign compound in Peking.

Inside the besieged compound, the British ambassador gathers the beleaguered ambassadors into a defensive formation. Included in the group of high-level dignitaries is the sultry Russian Baroness Natalie Ivanoff, who begins a romantic liaison with Lewis. As the group conserves food and water while trying to save hungry children, it awaits reinforcements, but Empress Tzu Hsi is plotting with the Boxers to break the siege at the compound with the aid of Chinese troops.

Eventually, the forces of the Eight-Nation Alliance arrive to put down the rebellion and relieve the siege of the foreign compounds following the Battle of Peking. These events foreshadowed the coming demise of the Qing Dynasty which had ruled China for two and a half centuries.

Cast[edit]

Depictions of historical persons and events[edit]

The historical events which this film concerns were, and remain politically charged. The film depicts attitudes on race-relations, colonialism and nationalism as they existed at the beginning of the 20th century, and reflects the 1960s attitudes to these issues belonging to the period in which the film was shot. Chinese, Japanese, and European nationalism is addressed.

Most of the starring Chinese roles, including the Empress Dowager and her Prime Minister are played by white performers. The Japanese in the foreign legation are played by Asian actors, but have relatively minor roles.

Chinese view of "foreign powers"[edit]

The film opens with cacophonous displays of nationalism inside the Foreign Legation quarter, with each nation raising its flag and playing a signature national tune. The camera pans to two old Pekingers eating a meal in a crowded Chinese street:

  • Old Pekinger 1: (with hands over ears): "What is this terrible noise?"
  • Old Pekinger 2: "Different nations saying the same thing at the same time - we want China!"

The resentment of the Chinese Imperial Qing Dynasty Court at having to accept the presence of foreign powers in China is given its sharpest voice in the character of Prince Tuan (played by Australian ballet dancer Robert Helpmann) who counsels the Dowager Empress to support the rebel Boxer "patriots" in seeking to wipe out the foreigners from Peking. Opposing this aggressive stance is General Jung-Lu (British actor Leo Genn).

  • Gen. Jung Lu: "If the Boxers remain unchecked, a dozen foreign armies will descend on China".
  • Prince Tuan: "We are tens of millions - let them come!"

The General warns the Empress that the Boxer rebels will be unable to match the modern armies of the foreigners. The Empress grows in sympathy for the Boxers and in a later scene she orders her General to turn back the foreign armies and declares:

  • Dowager Empress: "China's condition can be no worse than it is! Even if we were to start a war and lose it, what more can the powers take from us!"

When the siege has ended in defeat for the Boxers, the Empress is seen at the Dragon throne, in distress and without her robes of state: "The dynasty is finished", she repeats to herself.

Production[edit]

The film maintains a certain curiosity value for cinephiles due to its credited director Nicholas Ray. Best known for his 1955 film Rebel Without a Cause, starring James Dean, Ray was a tortured individual at the time of the production of 55 Days at Peking, somewhat akin to the Dean persona he helped to create for Rebel. Paid a very high salary by producer Samuel Bronston to direct 55 Days, Ray had an inkling that taking on the project - a massive epic - would mean the end of him and that he would never direct another film again.[citation needed] His premonition proved correct when Ray collapsed on set halfway through shooting. Unable to resume working (the film was finished by Andrew Marton and Guy Green), he never received another directorial assignment.[3] In the final months of his life, he collaborated with Wim Wenders, on the 1979 feature Lightning Over Water aka Nick's Film/Nick's Movie, which recorded his last moments.

Charlton Heston later stated that the working relationship between himself and Ava Gardner was very bad - he claimed that Gardner was very difficult to work with and behaved unprofessionally throughout filming. In contrast, Heston said he greatly enjoyed working with David Niven. Heston would work with Gardner again, in the 1974 Universal disaster film Earthquake.

55 Days at Peking was filmed in Technicolor and Technirama, which involved the horizontal use of 35-millimeter film, resulting in 70-millimeter printed film format. The aspect ratio was 2.20:1, with the image viewed at 2.35:1 on 35-millimeter prints.

Dong Kingman painted the watercolors for the titles and also made an uncredited appearance in the film.

Reception[edit]

Box office performance[edit]

55 Days at Peking was a commercial disaster. Produced on a then-enormous budget of $17 million,[1] the film grossed $10 million,[2] earning only $5 million in theatrical rentals.[4] It was the 20th highest grossing film of 1963.

Academy Award nominations[edit]

The film received two Academy Award nominations for Dimitri Tiomkin (Best Song and Original Music Score).

Home media[edit]

DVD release came on February 28, 2001, nearly thirty-eight years after the film's premiere. A Blu-ray release came in April 2014 on the UK Anchor Bay label.

See also[edit]

Notes[edit]

  1. ^ a b Box Office Information for 55 Days at Peking. IMDb. Retrieved September 5, 2013.
  2. ^ a b Box Office Information for 55 Days at Peking. The Numbers. Retrieved September 5, 2013.
  3. ^ Nat Segaloff, Final Cuts: The Last Films of 50 Great Directors, Bear Manor Media 2013 p 239-241
  4. ^ "All-Time Top Grossers", Variety, 8 January 1964 p 69

External links[edit]