55 Days at Peking

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55 Days at Peking
55-Days-Peking.jpg
Directed byNicholas Ray
Produced bySamuel Bronston
Written by
Starring
Music byDimitri Tiomkin
CinematographyJack Hildyard
Edited byRobert Lawrence
Production
company
Samuel Bronston Productions
Distributed byAllied Artists
Release date
May 29, 1963
Running time
153 minutes
CountryUnited States
LanguageEnglish
Budget$10 million[1]
Box office$10 million[2]

55 Days at Peking is a 1963 American epic historical war film dramatizing siege of the foreign legations' compounds in Peking (now known as Beijing) during the Boxer Rebellion, which took place in China from 1898 to 1900. It is produced by Samuel Bronston for Allied Artists, with a screenplay by Philip Yordan and Bernard Gordon with uncredited contributions from Robert Hamer and Ben Barzman. Noel Gerson wrote a screenplay novelization, under the pseudonym Samuel Edwards, in 1963.

The film was directed primarily by Nicholas Ray, although Guy Green and Andrew Marton took over in the latter stages of filming after Ray had fallen ill. Both men were uncredited. It stars Charlton Heston, Ava Gardner, and David Niven, with supporting roles by Flora Robson, John Ireland, Leo Genn, Robert Helpmann. Harry Andrews, and Kurt Kasznar. It also contains the first known screen appearance of future martial arts film star Yuen Siu Tien. Japanese film director Juzo Itami, credited in the film as "Ichizo Itami", appears as Col. Goro Shiba.

55 Days at Peking was released by Allied Artists on May 29, 1963 and received mixed reviews, mainly for its historical inaccuracies and lack of character development. However, the film was praised for its acting, direction, music, action sequences, and production design. In addition to its critical failure, the film grossed $10 million at the box office against a budget of only $10 million. Despite its financial failure, the film was nominated for two Academy Awards. It was director Ray's last film until Lightning Over Water (1980).

Plot[edit]

Starvation, widespread in China, is affecting more than 100 million peasants by the summer of 1900. Approximately a thousand foreigners from various western industrialized countries have exploited their positions inside Peking's legations, seeking control of the weakened nation. The Boxers oppose the westerners and their Christian religion and are planning to drive them out.

The turmoil in China worsens as the Boxer secret societies gain tacit approval from the Dowager Empress Cixi. With 13 of China's 18 provinces forced into territorial concessions by those colonial powers, frustration over foreign encroachment boils over when the Empress encourages the Boxers to attack all foreigners in Peking and the rest of China. When the Empress condones the assassination of the German ambassador and "suggests" the foreigners leave, a violent siege of Peking's foreign legations district erupts. Peking's foreign embassies are gripped by terror, as the Boxers, supported by Imperial troops, set about killing Christians in an anti-western nationalistic fever.

The head of the US military garrison is US Marine Major Matt Lewis, an experienced China hand who knows local conditions well. A love interest blossoms between him and Baroness Natasha Ivanoff, a Russian aristocrat, who it is revealed had an affair with a Chinese General, causing her Russian husband to commit suicide. The Russian Imperial Minister, who is Natasha's brother-in-law, has revoked her visa in an attempt to recover a valuable necklace. Although the Baroness tries leaving Peking as the siege begins, she is forced by events to return to Major Lewis and volunteers in the hospital, which is battered by the siege and is running out of supplies. To help the defenders, the Baroness exchanges her very valuable jeweled necklace for medical supplies and food, but she is wounded in the process and later succumbs.

Lewis leads the small contingent of 400 multinational soldiers and American Marines defending the compound. As the siege worsens, Maj. Lewis forms an alliance with the senior officer at the British Embassy, Sir Arthur Robertson, pending the arrival of a British-led relief force. After hearing that the force has been repulsed by Chinese forces, Maj. Lewis and Sir Arthur succeed in their mission to blow up a sizable Chinese ammunition dump.

As the foreign defenders conserve food and water, while trying to save hungry children, the Empress continues plotting with the Boxers by supplying aid from her Chinese troops. Eventually, a foreign relief force from the Eight-Nation Alliance arrives and puts down the Boxer's rebellion. The troops reach Peking on the 55th day and, following the Battle of Peking, lift the siege of the foreign legations. Foreshadowing the demise of the Qing Dynasty, rulers of China for the previous two and a half centuries, the Dowager Empress Cixi, alone in her throne room, having gambled her empire and lost, declares to herself, "The dynasty is finished", repeating the phrase three times...

When the soldiers of the Eight-Nation Alliance have taken control of the city, after routing the Boxers and the remnants of the Imperial Army, Maj. Lewis gathers up his men, having received new orders from his superiors to leave Peking. He stops and circles back to retrieve Teresa, the young, half-Chinese daughter of one of his few Marine friends who was killed during the 55 day siege. Aboard his horse, she and Maj. Lewis leave the city behind, followed by his column of marching Marines.

Cast[edit]

Uncredited roles[edit]

Production[edit]

Development[edit]

On September 8, 1959, producer Jerry Wald announced he would be producing a film on the Boxer Rebellion tentatively titled The Hell Raisers for 20th Century Fox. He hoped to star David Niven as a British officer, Stephen Boyd as a United States Marine commander while Hope Lange and France Nuyen were sought for supporting female roles.[3] A weeks later, on September 24, it was reported that Wald had signed Niven, Boyd, Nuyen, and Stuart Whitman for their respective roles.[4]

Meanwhile, producer Samuel Bronston had enjoyed commercial success from making historical spectacles in Spain, particularly King of Kings (1961), directed by Nicholas Ray, and El Cid (1961), directed by Anthony Mann starring Charlton Heston. In Paris, screenwriters Philip Yordan and Bernard Gordon were brainstorming ideas for potential historical epics. During one story conference, Gordon suggested the Boxer Rebellion having recalled reading a theatrical play while working in the Story Department for Paramount Pictures during the 1940s. Yordan dismissed the idea, but later on having returned from a cruise in London, his wife located a book with a chapter titled "Fifty-five Days at Peking" inside a bookstore and showed it to him. Fascinated with the title alone, Yordan pitched the idea to Gordon, who noted that he had earlier pitched the Boxer Rebellion.[5][6] Bronston said he was attracted to the Boxer Rebellion because it showed "the unity of peoples, no matter what their beliefs, in the face of danger. This incident is what the UN symbolizes but has not yet achieved."[7]

In September 1961, Bronston announced he was planning a trilogy of historical epics in Spain, among of which was 55 Days at Peking and The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964). Additionally, Alec Guinness was being sought for a lead role while a British director was to be selected. Filming was slated to begin in spring 1962.[8] That same month, Wald told the New York Times that he was unhappy about Bronston's plans as his project had long been in development. He noted that he had spent $150,000 developing The Hell Raisers with a final script draft being written by Barre Lyndon, and that he also wanted Guinness to star. Lastly, he stated that he consulted lawyers and a filed a complaint with the Motion Picture Association of America as he had approached Yordan to write a script in 1956.[9] In April 1962, Wald instead sold the project to NBC as a television film,[10] but Wald's death three months later prevented its continuation.[11]

Casting[edit]

In September 1961, Heston was initially slated to star in The Fall of the Roman Empire, but he had disliked Yordan's script for the film.[12] In November 1961, Bronston presented Heston with a treatment for 55 Days at Peking and by this stage, Ray was attached to direct. "It might be an interesting period for a film," wrote Heston. "I'd like to work for Nick, too."[13] However, Heston was still reluctant. In December 1961, following the Madrid premiere of El Cid, during a flight trip back to Los Angeles, Yordan and Ray again pitched the idea to him. Heston agreed to star in the film writing in his journal, "I feel uneasy, but I'm now convinced I must go basically on what confidence I have in a director's talent."[14] Subsequently, Roman Empire was placed on hold as the already-built sets were later demolished and replaced with the Forbidden City sets for 55 Days at Peking.[15][16]

In March 1962, Bronston told columnist Hedda Hopper that he had hoped Katharine Hepburn would portray Empress Dowager Tzu Hsi.[17] Also, Bronston wanted Ava Gardner for the female lead, although Heston did not want to work with Gardner and instead pushed for Jeanne Moreau.[18] Meanwhile, the role had been offered to Melinda Mecouri who turned it down wanting rewrites.[19] On June 11, it was reported that Gardner and Hepburn had joined the cast.[20] In the lobby of the Grand Hotel in Rome, Bronston offered David Niven a role in the film for a salary of $300,000, to which he accepted without seeing a script.[21] On June 12, David Niven's casting was announced.[22] By late June 1962, Flora Robson had replaced Hepburn to portray the Chinese empress while Robert Helpmann would play Prince Tuan.[23]

Writing[edit]

In 1977, Ray recalled, "The pressure was tremendous. On a $6 million production, I had no production manager, and a 21-year-old assistant director. No script. I had two artists in my office, one Chinese and one Spanish. I'd describe the scene to them, they'd draw it and then I'd give it to the so-called writers and say, "Write a scene around this?"[24] Prior to filming, Gordon and Ray had worked on a draft in which the former struggled writing as he contracted "colds and the flu and constantly ran a low-grade fever." After four weeks of work, they presented pages of their draft to Yordan, who ordered them to "go back to square one and write the kind of clumsy, impersonal, fat historical opus" that the international distributors wanted.[25] With filming nearly approaching, Yordan suggested hiring Arnaud d'Usseau to assist Gordon with writing some scenes, particularly those with Gardner. Gordon later recalled that d'Usseau worked meticulously slow and "simply couldn't find his way into our script." Following four weeks of work, d'Usseau left the project with none of his work being used. Shortly after this, blacklisted screenwriter Julian Halevy accepted Gordon's offer to rewrite some scenes, among of which were new scenes for the Dowager Empress.[26]

By May 1962, Gordon delivered a 140-page shooting script,[27] but most of the scenes were merely summarized or sketched in. That same month, Heston received the script, but disapprovingly jotted in his journal that "[t]he love story is very arbitrary, I think; the dialogue primitive."[28] Filming would proceed without a finished script and on-set rewrites were frequent. It had been suggested that a native British screenwriter should revise the dialogue for Niven's character for which Robert Hamer had been hired for the task. Ultimately, his services were later turned away as Hamer had sunken into alcoholism. Yordan then recruited Jon Manchip White to help rework the script, but it did not pan out.[29] Four weeks later into production, Niven threatened to walk off set unless the script was rewritten. Yordan ordered Gordon to write "a Hamlet scene for him, and he'll shut up." Gordon then wrote four to five pages of monologue for Niven's character to self-reflect on his actions. The new scenes were sent to Niven for which he returned to finish filming.[30]

Filming[edit]

Principal photography began on July 2, 1962.[31] The film was shot on location in Las Matas.[32] Three thousand extras were required, including 1,500 Chinese. There were estimated to be 300 adult Chinese people in Spain so the rest were imported from all over Europe, particularly London, Rome, Marseilles, and Lisbon.[33][34][35]

As production continued, Gardner was difficult during the shoot, often turning up late, disliking the script, and drinking heavily. One day, she walked off set claiming an extra had taking her photograph.[36] Ultimately, the idea to write Gardner out of the film came from screenwriter Ben Barzman, who had rewrote El Cid.[37] According to Heston, Yordan had written a death scene in which the Baroness dies of shrapnel wounds. By the time the scene was shot, Gardner struggled to remember her lines. Heston then suggested giving her lines to Paul Lukas, who was playing a physician.[38]

On September 11, 1962, Ray was hospitalized after suffering a heart attack.[39] At this point, production had fallen six weeks behind schedule with Gardner's role being nearly complete, but significant scenes for Heston and Niven had yet to be shot. To replace him, Heston suggested Guy Green, who had previously directed him in Diamond Head (1963) to finish the remaining scenes between him and Gardner.[40] Green subsequently left production, and by October 1962, directorial duties were transferred to Andrew Marton, who was directing second unit.[41] Marton reflected, "When I came onboard, I thought the picture was very shallow, just action, action, action – there was no meaning. I wrote a new beginning and a new ending and submitted them to management – who consisted of Bronston and Michael Wasynski...Anyway, they said 'No' with a capital N capital O. And I was very unhappy."[42] Regardless, Marton invited director John Ford onto the set to advise him on shooting the sequences.[43] Heston finished his scenes on October 20, 1962, for which he wrote in his journal, "What I have learned from this, I hope permanently, is never start a film without a good finished script."[44] Principal photography ended on November 15, 1962.[45]

Release[edit]

In May 1962, it was reported that Allied Artists, who had earlier distributed El Cid, had signed to distribute 55 Days in Peking in the United States.[46] Bronston had raised the money by first pre-selling the film to distributors on the basis of the topic, and the involvement of Heston and Ray.[47]

On May 28, 1963, the film received a gala invitational premiere at the Beverly Theater.[48]

Home media[edit]

Universal Studios Home Entertainment released the film on DVD February 28, 2001. A UK Blu-ray from Anchor Bay Entertainment was released in April 2014.

Reception[edit]

Critical reaction[edit]

Bosley Crowther of The New York Times described the film as:

[R]ousing, sometimes exciting, action fare that should keep the customers alert and entertained even if their intellects are confused. The fact of the matter is that the principals and the multitudinous extras involved have no more depth than Occidental and Oriental figures on a Chinese tapestry. And their actions—at least the reasons behind the actions of the principals — are rarely explored fully. Without authentic historic background, a viewer gets a foggy picture, if any, of the real causes of the Boxer Rebellion.[49]

Gene Arneel of Variety praised the production design and Jack Hildeyard's cinematography, but also felt the script "plays interestingly but somehow lacks appropriate power. The characterizations don't have the intensity of the struggle."[50] Philip K. Scheuer, reviewing for the Los Angeles Times, wrote that "For sheer color magnificence—photographed by Jack Hildeyard in Super Technirama 70—it is as breathtaking as El Cid. Only this time, instead of medieval Spain, it is the China of 1900, complete with Forbidden City and surrounding legations. It should hold and fascinate spectators for its two-and-a-half hours of sheer, pell-mell movie making, even though characters are stereotypes whose melodramatics are as dated as the period itself."[51]

Time felt "Pictorially, the film is magnificent, and some of the handsomest scenes—an orange sun rising over the peaks of the Forbidden City, midnight pyrotechnics as the Imperial arsenal blows up, the gates of the great Tartar Wall being stormed by Boxers in scarlet turbans—are almost as good as the evocative paintings by Water-colorist Dong Kingman, which open and close the picture. It was doubtless ghastly to wait 55 days at Peking until a troop of international reinforcements arrived, and the moviegoer who goes through the whole siege in two hours and 30 minutes comes out feeling lucky."[52] Awarding the film four complete stars, Dorothy Masters of the New York Daily News wrote: "A powerful drama of global interest, the film has integrity, a component frequently lost in the razzle-dazzle dangled by so many multi-million-dollar colossals."[53] On the review aggregator website Rotten Tomatoes, the film holds an approval rating of 58% based on 7 reviews with an average rating of 5.43/10.[54]

Box office[edit]

55 Days at Peking was a commercial disaster in the United States. Produced on a then-enormous budget of $10 million,[1] the film's domestic gross was $10 million,[2] earning only $5 million in theatrical rentals.[55] It was the 20th highest-grossing film of 1963. The figures quoted ignore foreign box office receipts where the film was much more successful than in the United States.[citation needed]

Academy Award nominations[edit]

Awards
Award Date of ceremony Category Recipients and nominees Result
Academy Awards[56] April 13, 1964 Best Original Song "So Little Time" – Dimitri Tiomkin and Paul Francis Webster Nominated
Music Score – Substantially Original Dimitri Tiomkin

Comic book adaptation[edit]

  • Gold Key: 55 Days at Peking (September 1963)[57][58]
  • René Bratonne also made a French newspaper comic adaptation of this film, assisted by Pierre Leguen, Claude Pascal and his son, who worked under the pseudonym Jack de Brown.[59]

See also[edit]

References[edit]

Citations
  1. ^ a b "Bronston Film Two Years in Making". May 23, 1963. Los Angeles Times. Part IV, pg. 10. – via Newspapers.com
  2. ^ a b "Box Office Information for 55 Days at Peking". The Numbers. September 5, 2013.
  3. ^ Scott, John L. (September 8, 1959). "Wald Rushes Plans for 'Hell Raisers'." Los Angeles Times. Part IV, p. 9 – via Newspapers.com.
  4. ^ Hopper, Hedda. (September 24, 1959). "Wald Gets Niven for 'Hell Raisers'." Los Angeles Times. Part III, p. 6 – via Newspapers.com.
  5. ^ Gordon 1999, pp. 145–6.
  6. ^ Martin 2007, pp. 94–5.
  7. ^ Scheuer, Philip K. (February 23, 1962). "History Own Best Dramatist to Him: Bronston Making Parallels With Past Pay Off Today." Los Angeles Times. Part IV, p. 17 – via Newspapers.com.
  8. ^ Archer, Eugene (September 12, 1961). "Bronston Plans 3 Film Spectacles: Boxer Rebellion, Rome's Fall, French Revolt on Agenda". The New York Times. p. 36.
  9. ^ Archer, Eugene (September 15, 1961). "Producer Decries Movie Practices: Wald Says Two Plan Films on the Boxer Rebellion". New York Times. p. 30.
  10. ^ Connolly, Mike (April 21, 1962). "Boxer Rebellion Is Theme of TV Show". The Capital Times. p. 21. Retrieved April 23, 2020.
  11. ^ Graham, Sheilah (August 4, 1962). "Hollywood". The Scranton Times-Tribune. p. 9. Retrieved April 23, 2020.
  12. ^ Heston 1979, p. 164.
  13. ^ Heston 1979, p. 169.
  14. ^ Heston 1979, p. 172.
  15. ^ Heston 1995, pp. 272–3.
  16. ^ Martin 2007, p. 134.
  17. ^ Hopper, Hedda. (March 12, 1962). "Looking at Hollywood: Jerry Lewis Lands on Moon in 'Astronuts'." Chicago Tribune. Part 3, p. 10. – via Newspapers.com.
  18. ^ Heston 1995, pp. 279–80.
  19. ^ Heston 1979, p. 186.
  20. ^ Hopper, Hedda. (June 11, 1962). "Ava Gardner to Do Film for Bronston." Los Angeles Times. Part IV, p. 14 – via Newspapers.com.
  21. ^ Gordon 1999, p. 149.
  22. ^ Scheuer, Philip K. (June 12, 1962). "Niven Will Contest Heston in 'Peking': Shibata Sells Script, Self; Darin Showbiz Phenomenon." Los Angeles Times. Part IV, p. 11 – via Newspapers.com.
  23. ^ Scheuer, Philip K. (June 22, 1962). "Flora Robson Joins Bronston in 'Peking'." Los Angeles Times. Part IV, p. 13 – via Newspapers.com.
  24. ^ Cocks, Jay (January 1977). "Director in Aspic". Take One. pp. 17–21 – via Internet Archive.
  25. ^ Gordon 1999, p. 147–49.
  26. ^ Gordon 1999, p. 148–49.
  27. ^ Gordon 1999, p. 150.
  28. ^ Heston 1979, p. 184.
  29. ^ Gordon 1999, pp. 152–3.
  30. ^ Gordon 1999, pp. 154–5.
  31. ^ Scott, John L. (June 29, 1962). "Lee Remick, Garner Named as Co-Stars: They'll Do 'Wheeler Dealers'; Ireland Joining 'Peking' Cast." Los Angeles Times. Part IV, p. 11 – via Newspapers.com.
  32. ^ Gordon 1999, pp. 150–1.
  33. ^ Leralta, Javier (2002). Madrid: cuentos, leyendas y anécdotas, Volumen 2. Sílex Ediciones. p. 50. ISBN 8477371008. (in Spanish)
  34. ^ Wilson, Earl. (October 13, 1962). "Baritone Lucky He Found Weede." Los Angeles Times. Part I, p. 15 – via Newspapers.com.
  35. ^ "Oriental War on Plains of Spain: Boxer Revolt Filmed By Bronston Crew For '55 Days' Safety First Scenic Setting". The New York Times. December 9, 1962. p. 59.
  36. ^ Server 2006, p. 395.
  37. ^ Martin 2007, p. 125.
  38. ^ Heston 1995, p. 287.
  39. ^ Martin 2007, p. 90.
  40. ^ Heston 1995, p. 289.
  41. ^ Parsons, Louella (October 15, 1962). "Best of Hollywood". The Philadelphia Inquirer. p. 13. Retrieved April 20, 2020.
  42. ^ D'Antonio, Joanne (1991). Andrew Marton (Directors Guild of America Oral History Series). Scarecrow Press. ISBN 978-0810824720.
  43. ^ Sherman, Eddie (November 8, 1962). "Suntan Scoops". The Honolulu Advertiser. p. B3. Retrieved April 20, 2020.
  44. ^ Heston 1979, p. 202.
  45. ^ Eisenschitz 1993, p. 389.
  46. ^ Scheuer, Philip K. (May 14, 1962). "Albright in 'Fix' With Gene Barry". Los Angeles Times. Part IV, pg. 13. – via Newspapers.com
  47. ^ Scheuer, Philip K. (July 31, 1962). "Bronston Plan Seen as Film Revolution: Madrid Operation Is Based on Pre-Selling Productions." Los Angeles Times. Part IV, pg. 7 – via Newspapers.com.
  48. ^ '55 Days' on Screen". May 8, 1963. Los Angeles Times. Part V, p. 17 – via Newspapers.com.
  49. ^ Crowther, Bosley (May 30, 1963). "55 Days at Peking' Is Drama of the Boxer Rebellion in China". The New York Times. p. 20. Retrieved April 20, 2020.
  50. ^ Arneel, Gene (May 1, 1963). "Film Reviews: 55 Days at Peking". Variety. Retrieved April 20, 2020.
  51. ^ Scheuer, Philip K. (May 12, 1963). "'Peking'---Bronston's Great Leap Forward?". Los Angeles Times. p. 2. Retrieved April 20, 2020 – via Newspapers.com.
  52. ^ "Cinema: Foreign Devils Go Home". Time. Vol. 81 no. 22. May 30, 1963. Retrieved April 20, 2020.
  53. ^ Masters, Dorothy (May 30, 1963). "'50 Days at Peking' Is Smasher". New York Daily News. p. 50. Retrieved April 20, 2020.
  54. ^ "Fifty Five Days at Peking (1963)". Rotten Tomatoes. Retrieved April 20, 2020.
  55. ^ "All-Time Top Grossers". Variety. January 8, 1964. p. 69.
  56. ^ "The 36th Academy Awards (1964) Nominees and Winners". oscars.org. Retrieved April 23, 2020.
  57. ^ Gold Key: 55 Days at Peking at the Grand Comics Database
  58. ^ Gold Key: 55 Days at Peking at the Comic Book DB (archived from the original)
  59. ^ "René Brantonne".
Bibliography

External links[edit]