Thursday, March 26, 2015

55 Days at Peking (1963)

For a short period Samuel Bronston was the king of the epic movie. He built a formidable movie-making empire in Spain, only to see it all collapse within a few years. The problem was that Bronston had ambition and vision but his judgment was not always all that it might have been and his business methods were, to put it charitably, unconventional and insanely risky. He did however manage to produce one of the finest epics ever made, El Cid, in 1961. El Cid had a great story, an intelligent script, a charismatic star (Charlton Heston) and in the person of Anthony Mann a director who understood the epic genre. 55 Days at Peking, released two years later, has the same charismatic star but unfortunately it lacks the other qualities that made El Cid such a superb film. Having said that, it still offers considerable entertainment value.

The idea certainly had potential. In 1900 during the Boxer Rebellion the foreign legations of the great powers in Peking found themselves under siege with only a handful of soldiers  to defend them. The political background to these events is mind-numbingly complex and although the script tries to fill in enough of the backstory to make the tale comprehensible it’s likely that many viewers will still be rather perplexed.

Suffice to say that when it is clear there is going to be major trouble the leader of the British legation, Sir Arthur Robertson (David Niven), persuades the other foreign legations to stand firm and stay put. It’s a courageous decision although whether it’s wise or not may be debated. 

Major Matt Lewis (Charlton Heston) commands the US Marines defending the American legation. For the purposes of the movie Robertson and Lewis became the mainstays of the epic defence.

While trying to fight off massed attacks by Boxers Lewis also has some personal complications to deal with. He falls in love with the Russian Baroness Natalie Ivanoff (Ava Gardner), a woman of great beauty but with a dubious moral reputation. He also has to figure out what to do with Teresa (Lynne Sue Moon), an eleven-year-old half-Chinese girl who is the daughter of one of his Marines.

The love story between Lewis and the Baroness doesn’t really work. Ava Gardner was a talented actress but could be difficult to work with (to put it mildly) and she and Heston did not hit it off.  This may be the reason that the chemistry between them just isn’t there. It’s also fairly clear that while the writers wanted a romance they weren’t really clear how they wanted it to develop and they really had no idea what to do with Gardner’s character.

David Niven wasn’t thrilled by the script either but he does his best in a rather awkward role. Robertson has to be stubborn and stiff-necked, and also brave and noble, and also troubled by self-doubts. It’s to Niven’s credit that his understated and dignified performance works quite well.

The problem for Charlton Heston was, once again, the muddled script. Heston ends up having to rely entirely on charisma, which luckily he has in abundance.

The supporting players are in some ways more fortunate. Their roles being less central to the story meant that writers Philip Yordan and Bernard Gordon had fewer opportunities to mess things up for them. Harry Andrews, one of the great British character actors, has plenty of fun with his role as a resourceful priest. Australian Robert Helpmann always enjoyed himself playing perfidious or sinister characters and he makes Prince Yuan, the man pulling the strings of the Boxers, delightfully sly and malevolent. Flora Robson does fairly well as the dowager empress, a woman who knows her country is in crisis but who also knows that she has few good options.

Nicholas Ray was signed to direct but left the production under something of a cloud. Guy Green took over but soon followed Ray out the door, with Andrew Marton eventually finishing the picture. Given that this was a massive and unwieldy production to start with the constant turnover of directors obviously contributed to the film’s rather ramshackle structuring. Ray was an overrated director with no experience making this sort of picture and was possibly a poor choice in the first place. One can’t help thinking that if only Bronston had been able to persuade Anthony Mann to direct the results might have been much more satisfactory.

Despite these problems 55 Days at Peking does have some major strengths. Bronston built what was at the time the biggest standing set in cinematic history. The money spent on this project was astronomical and it has to be said that it was, from the point of view of spectacle, money well spent. The sets really are magnificent. The costumes are exquisite. Everything looks real because it was real. That was the Samuel Bronston way. He had no interest in trying to achieve spectacle by using matte paintings or miniatures. If he needed a whole city for a movie then he built the city. This approach paid off. Visually this movie is breath-taking.

And even with a creaky script there is still plenty of excitement.

There is no point in trying to impose modern values on a film like this. This is not a politically correct movie, but then history has an annoying habit of not always being politically correct. The characters behave in ways that were consistent with the moral values of their time. You can disagree with their actions but by their own lights they acted with courage and decency. And the movie was made the way movies were made in the early 60s. If you wanted someone to play a Chinese dowager empress you found someone who could handle the role. You didn’t worry about whether she was Chinese or not. That’s the way things were done in 1963.

Anchor Bay’s Region B Blu-Ray is superb. This is a movie that relies entirely on its visual impact and that absolutely has to be seen on Blu-Ray and on the biggest widescreen TV you can find. 

55 Days at Peking truly is the kind of movie they don’t make any more. It’s grandiose and it’s insanely extravagant and it celebrates old-fashioned heroism. With all its faults it’s thoroughly enjoyable. Recommended.

1 comment:

  1. To be fair to Nicholas Ray, he had just made this sort of picture, more or less, for Bronston himself, that being King of Kings. On the other hand, I'm not a big fan of either that or this. As for romantic chemistry, Heston and Sophia Loren reportedly also hated each other but the results in El Cid were much better, but then again it was something that picture could use, and Loren's a better actress anyway.