55 Days at Peking (1963)

55 Days at Peking (1963)

“You must not conclude that all Boxers are bandits; most of them are harmless vagabonds.”

During the Boxer Rebellion of 1900 — under the rule of Chinese Dowager Empress Cixi (Flora Robson) — an American major (Charlton Heston) falls for a widowed Russian aristocrat (Ava Gardner) while supporting a British ambassador (David Niven) in keeping foreign legion members safe throughout a deadly siege.

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Ava Gardner Films
  • Charlton Heston Films
  • China
  • David Niven Films
  • Flora Robson Films
  • Harry Andrews Films
  • Historical Drama
  • John Ireland Films
  • Leo Genn Films
  • Nicholas Ray Films
  • Paul Lukas Films
  • Revolutionaries

Nicholas Ray’s final major film — after directing the Biblical epic King of Kings (1961) — was this large-scale historical drama (produced by Samuel Bronston) taking place in turn-of-the-century China and depicting a highly consequential if under-discussed moment in East Asian global politics. Unfortunately, while the film does an excellent job in its earliest scenes at showing us the impact of western imperialism on China:

… the Chinese themselves quickly become merely supporting characters in a drama focused on the well-being of the colonizers.

To that end, Niven is well cast as an unflappable British ambassador whose decision to stay, fight back, and wait for reinforcements from the Eight Nation Alliance not only puts his own young family at risk, but goes against the sentiment of most others on the compound, who simply want to flee.

Among these are Gardner’s Baroness Natasha Ivanova, whose earlier role in the suicide of her husband has left her ostracized by her social circle:

… and who undergoes an unrealistic change of heart over the course of the film, particularly when joining forces with an over-worked doctor (Paul Lukas). Meanwhile, Flora Robson is nearly unrecognizable playing yet another regal character on-screen:

… and odd character-actor Robert Helpmann plays yet another odd character (check out those fingernails!).

While this movie centers on an intriguing moment in world history, it’s ultimately too Euro-focused (and too battle-heavy) to remain of interest for its lengthy running time — and speaking of battles, there’s enough diverse weaponry on display and in use here to merit this film a spot on the IMFDb (the “F” stands for “firearms”).

Notable Performances, Qualities, and Moments:

  • Fine historical sets
  • Beautiful cinematography

Must See?
No, though it’s definitely worth a one-time look.


One thought on “55 Days at Peking (1963)

  1. Rewatch; 2013 restoration (6/5/22).

    Not must-see – but it has its strong points: impressive production design and camerawork and, in general, an intriguing if not-deep-enough look at a significant chapter in history.

    Its production problems are well-documented and the film was a box office flop (not surprisingly). It also doesn’t really have the feel of a typical Nicholas Ray film overall. (Two other directors took over near the end when Ray fell ill.)

    The love story angle between Heston and Gardner (even though it’s somewhat atypical) feels unnecessary except for commercial reasons.

    It could easily have been and should have been a better film. But it’s certainly watchable – and the battle sequences in particular are a plus.

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