55 Days at Peking

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55 Days at Peking
Directed by Nicholas Ray
Guy Green (uncredited)
Andrew Marton (uncredited)
Produced by Samuel Bronston
Written by Philip Yordan
Bernard Gordon
Robert Hamer
Ben Barzman
Based on 55 Days at Peking
1963 novel
by Noel Gerson
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
May 29, 1963
Running time
153 minutes
Country United States
Language English
Budget $9 million[1]
Box office $10,000,000[2]

55 Days at Peking is a 1963 historically based American epic film drama in Technirama and Technicolor, produced by Samuel Bronston and directed by Nicholas Ray, Andrew Marton (credited as second unit director), and Guy Green (uncredited). The film stars Charlton Heston, Ava Gardner, and David Niven and was released by Allied Artists. The screenplay was written by Philip Yordan, Bernard Gordon, Ben Barzman and Robert Hamer, while the music score was composed by Dimitri Tiomkin; the theme song "So Little Time" was composed by Tiomkin with lyrics by Paul Francis Webster.

55 Days in Peking is a dramatization of the siege of the foreign legations' compounds in Peking (now known as Beijing) during the Boxer Rebellion, which took place from 1898 to 1900 in China. It is based on the book by Noel Gerson.

In addition to directing, Nicholas Ray plays the minor role as 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 Col. Goro Shiba.


In the summer of 1900, starvation is widespread in China, affecting more than 100 million peasants. Close to a thousand foreigners from various western industrialized countries exploit their positions inside Peking's legations, seeking control of the weakened nation. The Boxers oppose the westerners and their Christian religion and plan to drive them out.

The turmoil in China worsens as the Boxer secret societies gain tacit approval from the Dowager Empress Cixi (Flora Robson). 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 set about killing Christians in an anti-western nationalistic fever.

The head of the US military garrison is US Marine Major Matt Lewis (Charlton Heston), an experienced China hand who knows local conditions well. A love interest blossoms between him and Baroness Natasha Ivanoff (Ava Gardner), 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 returns 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 valuable necklace for medical supplies and food, but she is wounded in the process and later dies.

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 Robinson (David Niven), pending the arrival of a British relief force. After hearing that the force has been repulsed by Chinese forces, Maj. Lewis and Sir Arthur succeed in blowing up a 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. The film ends by foreshadowing the demise of the Qing Dynasty, rulers of China for the previous two and a half centuries.


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 end of the 19th century, and it reflects the 1960s attitudes to these issues, rather than those of the period of the Boxer Rebellion. The conflicts between Chinese, Japanese, and European nationalism are addressed.

Most of the starring Chinese roles, including the Empress Dowager and her Prime Minister, are played "yellowface" by white performers. The Japanese characters in the foreign legation are, however, played by Asian actors, though their roles are minor.

Chinese view of "foreign powers"[edit]

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

  • Old Pekingese Man 1: (with hands over ears): "What is this terrible noise?"
  • Old Pekingese Man 2: "Different nations saying the same thing at the same time, 'We want China!'"

The resentment of the Chinese Imperial 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 (British actress Flora Robson) to support the rebel Boxer "patriots" seeking to wipe out the foreigners. Opposing this aggressive stance is Gen. Ronglu (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's sympathy for the Boxers grows, however and, in a later scene, she orders her general to turn back the foreign armies, declaring:

  • 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 several times.


In 1959 Jerry Wald announced he would make a film on the Boxer Rebellion called The Hell Raisers. He hoped to star David Niven and Stephen Boyd.[3]

Best known for his 1955 film Rebel Without a Cause starring James Dean, Nicholas 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] Ray's premonition proved correct when he 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.[4] 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.

It was shot in the studios built by Samuel Bronston in Las Rozas de Madrid,[5][6] near Madrid. Due to the commercial failure of the film and other enterprises by Bronston, the area is now a residential compound in Las Matas. 4000 extras were required, including Chinese people brought from restaurants and laundries across Europe[7] since there were not enough available Chinese people in Spain for the mass scenes.

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


Box office[edit]

55 Days at Peking was a commercial disaster in the U.S. Produced on a then-enormous budget of $17 million,[1] the film's domestic gross was $10 million,[2] earning only $5 million in theatrical rentals.[8] 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 U.S.

Academy Award nominations[edit]

The film received two Academy Award nominations for Dimitri Tiomkin (Best Original Song (Lyrics by Paul Francis Webster) 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.

Comic book adaption[edit]

  • Gold Key: 55 Days at Peking (September 1963)[9][10]
  • 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. [11]

See also[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. ^ Scott, J. L. (September 8, 1959). Wald rushes plans for 'hell raisers'. Los Angeles Times (1923–Current File) Retrieved from https://search-proquest-com.ezproxy.sl.nsw.gov.au/docview/167522992?accountid=13902
  4. ^ Nat Segaloff, Final Cuts: The Last Films of 50 Great Directors, Bear Manor Media 2013 p 239-241
  5. ^ (in Spanish)Curiosidades. Official site of Las Rozas.
  6. ^ (in Spanish)NO-DO newsreel Nº 1037A from November 19, 1962.
  7. ^ (in Spanish) Madrid: cuentos, leyendas y anécdotas, Volumen 2, by Javier Leralta, page 50, Sílex Ediciones, 2002. ISBN 8477371008
  8. ^ "All-Time Top Grossers", Variety, January 8, 1964 p 69
  9. ^ Gold Key: 55 Days at Peking at the Grand Comics Database
  10. ^ Gold Key: 55 Days at Peking at the Comic Book DB
  11. ^ https://www.lambiek.net/artists/b/brantonne_rene.htm

External links[edit]