January 22, 2015
55 Days at Peking – US, 1963
One of my old Chinese teachers had an interesting habit of correcting people whenever they brought up the Boxer Rebellion. To him, a more fitting term for the events of 1900 was the Boxer Revolt. The contrast between the two terms, he would say, is important. Rebellion implies going against a greater authority or power; revolt makes it sound as if people have had enough and are not willing to be taken advantage of anymore. I mention this because for the first hour, Nicolas Ray’s 55 Days at Peking seems intent on exploring these two competing ideas. Unfortunately, the film is almost three hours long, and too much of that running time is devoted not to the exploration of historical disputes, but to melodrama and poorly developed relationships.
The film stars Charlton Heston and David Niven as Major Matt Lewis and Sir Arthur Robertson, two foreigners living and working in Peking in 1900. Major Lewis is the leader of a marine battalion, and Sir Robertson is the de facto head of the foreign compound. In the film’s opening scene, we see just how divided and nationalistic the compound is, as each country has its own flag-raising ceremony and blares its national anthem for all to hear. A narrator informs viewers that all that separates the foreign compound from the Forbidden City and the Empress Dowager is a wall of average height and a gate – in other words, it is not very secure.
The first half introduces several potential storylines, not all of them necessary. First and foremost, there’s Sir Arthur’s determination to stay in China despite the risks and his attempts to keep the peace. His argument seems to be that the world is better connected and that China has greatly benefited from the foreign presence. However, staying carries risks: his wife and two children live at the compound as well. We are also introduced to two Chinese officials, General Jung-Lu (Leo Genn) and Prince Tuan (Robert Helpmann), each with competing visions of China’s future. Jung-Lu is similar to Sir Robertson in that he seems to advocate preserving the status quo, while Tuan is clearly for escalating the conflict. There is also Baroness Natasha Ivanoff and her brother-in-law, Baron Sergei Ivanoff. In an early scene, we learn that the Baroness is being ordered out of China for reasons that will be explained much later on in the film. There’s also a storyline involving a soldier who has an eleven-year-old child named Theresa who is half-Chinese. And as if this wasn’t enough already, there’s the ongoing threat of a Boxer attack on the compound, as well as frequent assaults on government officials, Christians, and missionaries outside the compound’s wall.
All told, there is enough in the first half of the film to hold the viewers’ attention, yet the film’s multiple storylines prevent it from attaining the level of suspense that the subject warrants. After all, it is hard to sustain the dread of an impending attack when the film suddenly shifts to an uninteresting flirtatious conversation between the Major and the Baroness. The film is more successful in its depiction of a birthday celebration for the Queen of England. Everything about the scene, from the guests’ attire to their dancing, is completely out of place, and one gets the feeling that the Chinese attendees, mostly servants and musicians, are virtually foreigners in their own country. Also of interest is a scene in which Sir Robertson and Major Lewis have to walk from the Forbidden City though a sea of angry people, each of whom seems to want to do them harm. And finally, the first half of the film does a nice job of explaining the political dilemma facing the officials, especially after they are given twenty-four hours to leave Peking. This leads to a poignant discussion about the difficulty in standing up for principles so far away from home.
The second half of the film is a disappointment, as it becomes clear almost immediately that the film is less interested in exploring the issues of colonialism and state-condoned violence that it is in showing a series of battles and assaults from the point of view of characters who could easily be considered the invaders. It is in this half that the film ties up all it loose ends and mysteries, yet it does so so rapidly that there is practically no time to register either shock or relief. The film just moves on until it reaches its grand finale, a preposterous series of shots in which the cavalry arrives, not as an army at war would, but in perfect step, one at a time, as if they were just in a parade. It is the type of ending that films from this time are known for, and they do not resonate with modern-day viewers used to the grittiness and realism found in later war films such as Platoon and Flags of Our Father.
55 Days at Peking has not been released officially on DVD in the United States, and it is not hard to see the studio’s reasoning. The film is a product of its time, and it is not a time that Hollywood likes to revisit very often. It is a film set in China with quite a number of Chinese roles played by Caucasians, and it details an event in China from the point of view of westerners. These were commonplace during the time the film was made, but many modern-day audiences expect movies to have a bit more authenticity. Just look at the controversy over the casting of Ridley Scott’s Exodus: Gods and Kings. There are also a number of other odd casting choices, such as Ava Gardner as the Baroness. At no point did she seem Russian. In addition, the film gives the audience no reason to care whether the Major and the Baroness end up together, and several scenes that are intended to come across as dramatic feel rather forced. It is as if someone felt the film needed more conflict, yet neglected to provide a reason for it.
Director Nicolas Ray (Rebel Without A Cause, Bigger Than Life) is known for making films about hot-button issues, and 55 Days at Peking touches on its fair share of them, such as interracial relationships and the different ways that Chinese men and women tend to be viewed by Westerners. In other films, Ray was able to fully explore themes such as these. Here, though, he seems unable to do much beyond mentioning them early on and resolving them later without much fanfare or buildup. This robs important moments of their emotional depths and renders them ineffective. Even the fate of Theresa does not have much of an impact on the audience, for it is telegraphed well in advance. Only Heston, here giving one of his better performances, and Niven, always respectable and dignified no matter what role he is playing, truly stand out among the cast, yet when the film sticks to politics and defense, it crackles with enough energy and intrigue that viewers will likely find these parts at least mildly rewarding. Overall, though, the film is a somewhat disappointing experience, which is unfortunate, for the Boxer Rebellion (or Revolt) is a subject that has all the ingredients of a great historical epic. It deserves far better than 55 Days at Peking. (on DVD in Region 3)
2 and a half stars