55 Days at Peking
|55 Days at Peking|
Original cinema poster by Howard Terpning
|Directed by||Nicholas Ray
Guy Green (uncredited)
Andrew Marton (uncredited)
|Produced by||Samuel Bronston|
|Written by||Philip Yordan
|Based on||55 Days at Peking
by Noel Gerson
|Music by||Dimitri Tiomkin|
|Edited by||Robert Lawrence|
|Distributed by||Allied Artists|
|May 29, 1963|
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 composed by Dimitri Tiomkin. The theme song "So Little Time" was composed by Tiomkin with lyrics by Paul Francis Webster. The cinematographer was Jack Hildyard.
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.
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 1898-1900 in China. It is based on the book by Noel Gerson.
In the early years of the 20th century, Peking is an open city with the Chinese and several European countries vying for control. The Boxers, who oppose Christianity, are agitating against the foreigners and the western powers who still exercise complete sovereignty over their compounds and their citizens. The head of the US military garrison is Maj. Matt Lewis, USMC (Charlton Heston), an experienced China hand who knows local conditions well. The political situation is tense with the Boxers having the tacit approval of the Dowager Empress (Flora Robson).
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 defence by the colonial powers of the legations district of Peking from June 20 to August 14, 1900.
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. Lewis heads a contingent of multinational soldiers and Marines defending the foreign compound in Peking. When the Boxers attack the foreigners, Lewis, working with the senior officer from the British Embassy, Sir Arthur Robinson (David Niven) tries to keep them at bay pending the arrival of a relief force.
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 (Ava Gardner), 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 one-half centuries.
- Charlton Heston as Maj. Matt Lewis (based upon John Twiggs Myers)
- Ava Gardner as Baroness Natalie Ivanoff
- David Niven as Sir Arthur Robertson (based upon Sir Claude MacDonald)
- Flora Robson as Empress Dowager Tzu Hsi
- John Ireland as Sgt. Harry
- Leo Genn as Gen. Jung-Lu
- Harry Andrews as Father de Bearn
- Robert Helpmann as Prince Tuan
- Juzo Itami as Col. Shiba
- Kurt Kasznar as Baron Sergei Ivanoff
- Philippe Leroy as Julliard
- Paul Lukas as Dr. Steinfeldt
- Lynne Sue Moon as Teresa
- Elizabeth Sellars as Lady Sarah Robertson
- Massimo Serato as Menotti Garibaldi
- Jacques Sernas as Maj. Bobrinski
- Jerome Thor as Capt. Andy Marshall
- Geoffrey Bayldon as Smythe
- Joseph Furst as Capt. Hanselman
- Walter Gotell as Capt. Hoffman
- Alfred Lynch as Gerald (uncredited)
- Alfredo Mayo as Spanish Minister
- Martin Miller as Hugo Bergmann
- José Nieto as Italian Minister
- Eric Pohlmann as Baron von Meck
- Aram Stephan as Gaumaire
- Robert Urquhart as Capt. Hanley
- R.S.M. Ronald Brittain as Sgt. Britten (uncréditéd)
- Fernando Sancho as Belgian Minister (uncréditéd)
- Michael Chow as Chiang (uncredited)
- Nicholas Ray as U.S. Minister (based upon Edwin H. Conger) (uncredited)
- Yuen Siu Tien (uncredited)
- Burt Kwouk as Old Man (voice)
Depictions of historical persons and events
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 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 by white performers. The Japanese in the foreign legation are played by Asian actors, but they have relatively minor roles.
Chinese view of "foreign powers"
The film opens with cacophonous displays of nationalism inside the Foreign Legation quarter, with each nation raising its own flag, and playing a signature national tune. The camera pans 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. 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'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.
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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. 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. 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, 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 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 performance
55 Days at Peking was a commercial disaster. Produced on a then-enormous budget of $17 million, the film grossed $10 million, earning only $5 million in theatrical rentals. It was the 20th highest-grossing film of 1963. The figures quoted seem to ignore the foreign box office where the film was much more successful than in the U.S.
Academy Award nominations
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.
- Box Office Information for 55 Days at Peking. IMDb. Retrieved September 5, 2013.
- Box Office Information for 55 Days at Peking. The Numbers. Retrieved September 5, 2013.
- Nat Segaloff, Final Cuts: The Last Films of 50 Great Directors, Bear Manor Media 2013 p 239-241
- (Spanish)Curiosidades. Official site of Las Rozas.
- (Spanish)NO-DO newsreel Nº 1037A from 19 November 1962.
- (Spanish) Madrid: cuentos, leyendas y anécdotas, Volumen 2, by Javier Leralta, page 50, Sílex Ediciones, 2002. ISBN 8477371008
- "All-Time Top Grossers", Variety, 8 January 1964 p 69