Monday, February 8, 2010

55 Days at Peking

It took me about three nights to get through “55 Days at Peking” (1963), odd as it was always a favorite of mine growing up. But I haven’t seen it in years and this time I found it pretty hard going, even though I was mightily impressed by much of the spectacle on display.

Clocking in at almost three hours, “55 Days at Peking” tells the story of the Boxer Rebellion in China circa 1900, where representatives and soldiers from eight countries (United States, United Kingdom, Japan, Russia, France, Germany, Italy, Austria) joined forces to help put down a revolt of the Boxers, a group of rebel Chinese who were killing foreigners with the silent consent of the ruling Chinese dynasty.

The movie is kind of sketchy about the outrage of the Boxers. There’s something about the control of the growing opium trade, and the fear of too much foreign influence in the Chinese government.

Indeed, my favorite part of the movie is in the opening scenes as the camera tracks across the government legations in Peking (an absolutely marvelous set, more on that later) in the early morning hours and we hear each country’s bands play their national anthem, or other music associated with their country, as their flags are being raised.

One elderly Chinese man covers his ears to complain about the cacophony only to be told by his friend, “They are all saying the same thing – We want China.”

It’s a telling opening, and it’s to the film’s detriment that the remainder of the film is not so insightful.

Charlton Heston stars as the U.S. Army major who leads a squadron to protect the American delegation. He meets a Russian Baroness (Ava Gardner) with a checkered past who is anxious to get out of Peking. David Niven plays the British Ambassador.

The romantic scenes between Heston and Gardner are pretty tedious and gee, there sure are a lot of them. The two did not get along together off screen and it’s pretty obvious there’s no chemistry. Gardner was drinking heavily at the time and would often show up late to the set, driving the very perfectionist Heston into fits. Rumor has it that Gardner’s behavior was so disruptive she drove director Nicholas Ray to have a heart attack on the set, which forced him to have portions of the movie directed (uncredited) by second unit director Andrew Marton.

Marton is responsible for the action scenes during the siege, and they are very exciting, involving thousands of extras storming the walls of the city and swarming across giant ramps up and down the great walls.

I don’t know if Gardner’s behavior caused Ray to have a heart attack, but it’s likely the chaotic nature of the production was as much to blame. Apparently filming was started without a finished script, which caused many wasted hours sitting around while new scenes were being written daily. Heston swore never again to begin a movie without a completed script. In his memoirs, Heston has little good to say about the film, regretting that the film, with its fascinating subject matter, should turn out to be so pedestrian. He said the only good thing to come from the experience was making the acquaintance of David Niven, who kept the cast and crew’s spirits up with a never ending stream of anecdotes and general good cheer.

What is impressive, however, is the set. Producer Samuel Bronston, who also has “King of Kings” (1960) and “El Cid” (1961) to his credit, spared no expense in recreating 1900 Peking. A massive, incredibly detailed reproduction of Peking was built over 60 acres on a plain outside Madrid. Regardless of one’s opinion on the film, the film’s art and set decoration cannot be denied. It’s one of the most impressive large scale sets I’ve ever seen.

The film’s score is more problematic. Dimitri Tiomkin does a fine job of weaving all those national anthems in the opening scenes, and there’s a pretty powerful overture, but the populist Tiomkin, always with one eye towards record sales, gives us a treacly love theme called “So Little Time” which is crooned by Andy Williams over the exit music. Imagine sitting through three hours of international intrigue, blood, siege and countless deaths only to have Andy Williams sing your way out the theater. Bad choice, Dimitri. The theme also turns out, sans lyrics, in the entr’acte, but with a bizarre arrangement that sounds like something a combo would put together for a 1950s nightclub. Very odd.

I think there’s still the potential for a fascinating movie to be made from the Boxer Rebellion. My knowledge of Asian cinema is slim, but I wonder if it’s ever been dealt with in a Chinese film? I remember an episode of “Angel” that had some flashback sequences set during the Boxer Rebellion, but I’m unaware of any other films set during that fascinating slice of world history.

I was glad TCM ran this in widescreen and I had the opportunity to see it again. But this is one childhood memory which did not hold up.

1 comment:

Dees Stribling said...

If the review at this site

is accurate -- and I have no reason to think otherwise -- the Hong Kong-made film version of the Boxer Rebellion is no better, and probably worse, than "55 Days at Peking."