55 Days in Peking (1963) | Bluray release
Director: Nicholas Ray Script: Robert Hamer
Cast: Charlton Heston, Ava Gardner, David Niven, Flora Robson, John Ireland, Harry Andrews, Robert Helpmann
154min | Action Drama | US
55 DAYS IN PEKING is an action drama depicting the 1900 Boxer Rebellion: an ethnic cleansing exercise to purge China of its foreign element. The film opens as British Consul, Sir Arthur Robertson (an excellent David Niven) and US Marine Major, General Matt Lewis (a convincing Charlton Heston) join forces to lead a resistance movement, expecting military relief to arrive within days. And although the film shows the rebels laying siege to the compound with nationalism ultimately winning through, the film lacks a coherent Chinese perspective – so why should we bother watching it today? Well mainly because it’s not simply a 1960’s history lesson.
Firstly, this is a Nicholas Ray film. Ray was a great outsider director, who made 55 Days at Peking hoping to make the money for more personal projects (Sadly, the film made no money). Secondly, it’s a thoughtful historical film coming at the tail-end of Hollywood’s wide screen epics (El Cid, Spartacus, and The Fall of the Roman Empire et all). Thirdly, 55 Days employs real extras and utilises superbly designed sets to create an authenticity that is more conducive to action/adventure film-making than today’s CGI. And finally the film’s principal scriptwriter is Philip Yordan, a highly intelligent writer who worked regularly with Nicholas Ray.
Unfortunately the biggest problem with 55 Days at Peking is that Ray collapsed on set and wasn’t allowed to finish the film. Andrew Marton, Ray’s second unit director, took over. The film then sags somewhat in the middle. Yet the battle scenes remain very exciting (remember Andrew Marton directed the thrilling chariot race in Wyler’s Ben-Hur). Ray was always a master of wide screen detail – Rebel Without a Cause, Party Girl and King of Kings being notable achievements. However Ray’s subtle eye for dense imagery and power of expressive composition, especially for the interiors of the court with the Empress (a commanding Flora Robson), is later on missing.
The most emotionally engaging scene of the film is when Matt Lewis (Charlton Heston) has to tell a young Chinese/American girl Teresa (Lynne Sue Moon) that her US marine father has been killed. Lewis’s awkwardness and repression contrasted with Teresa’s openness and honesty is very touching. Suddenly it’s the Nicholas Ray of Rebel employing sensitive and nuanced direction. Given that Ava Gardner (playing a Russian Baroness) and Charlton Heston are the film’s leads, apart from their first encounter, there is no real passion or screen chemistry between them. Gardner’s performance feels somewhat detached. Perhaps because too many of the Andrew Marton directed scenes were condensed.
Although flawed 55 Days at Peking is never as bad as its reputation would have you believe. It’s an intelligent film that lovers of Ray’s work and ’60s epics must see. A film that promised so much, yet sadly resulted in Ray never again directing a major feature film. Alan Price.
NOW AVAILABLE ON BLURAY