Wednesday, March 31, 2021

#2,546. 55 Days at Peking (1963) - The Films of Nicholas Ray


Like most of Samuel Bronston’s movies, his 1963 production of 55 Days at Peking was designed to be an epic, a grand, overpowering spectacle about China’s Boxer Uprising of 1900. To this end, enormous sets were constructed at Bronston’s studio in Spain, in essence a period recreation of Peking in its entirety “Unhappily”, star Charlton Heston would write in his journal, “we never turned a camera on two/thirds of this incredible city”.

That sums up the major issue I had with 55 Days at Peking, Nicholas Ray’s last major film: it is an epic shot, at most times, as if it was a drama.

Major Matt Lewis (Heston) of the U.S. Marines has just arrived in Peking. Once there, he strikes up a romance with Russian Baroness Natalie Ivanoff (Ava Gardner). Alas, their time together will be limited, because the Boxers – a secret society intent on ridding their country of European rule – have been busy as of late, executing Christian missionaries and attacking anyone who opposes them.

Loyal to China’s Dowager Empress (Flora Robson) and controlled by her next-in-command, Prince Tuan (Robert Helpmann), the Boxers prepare for a major assault on Peking, and it falls to Major Lewis, Sir Arthur Robertson (David Niven), and a small allied military force to protect the European residents of Peking until help arrives.

There are moments throughout 55 Days at Peking that have an epic feel to them, including a battle in the shadow of the city’s wall (with hundreds of extras and a fairly powerful cannon) as well as a late scene where Lewis, Robertson, and a few others attempt to sabotage the Chinese military’s ammo bunker. Alas, with a runtime of over two and a half hours, that’s not nearly enough (a handful of minor skirmishes are scattered throughout, but with Ray shooting most of the action in close-up, they just don’t feel very exciting).

Instead, 55 Days at Peking features a slew of dialogue-heavy sequences, some of which bring the pace of the movie to a grinding halt. The romance between Lewis and the Baroness is especially feeble (due in large part to the mediocre performances delivered by Heston and Gardner), while several political debates - where the city’s European leaders are trying to decide the best course of action - run on far too long (director Ray even turns up at one point as the U.S. envoy). The lone exception are the scenes involving Lewis and a half Chinese / half American girl (Lynne Sue Moon) whose father, also a Marine, was killed in battle (Heston does a fair job conveying his character’s discomfort when informing the girl of her father’s death).

As for the rest of the cast, Niven is admirable as the UK representative who must put the interests of his country above all else, as is John Ireland, who portrays Lewis’s subordinate, Sgt. Harry. Also good are Paul Lukas as the ornery Dr, Steinfeldt and Harry Andrews as a Catholic priest who knows a little something about cannons. And while Robson, Helpmann, and Leo Genn (who plays Chinese General Jung-Lu) deliver fine performances, their make-up (designed to make them appear Asian) is distracting and more than a little offensive.

As with Wind Across the Everglades, Nicholas Ray wouldn’t finish 55 Days at Peking; he suffered a minor heart attack on-set (brought on, some believe by exhaustion) and was rushed to the hospital. Bronston, who wasn’t happy that Ray had fallen behind schedule, decided to finish the movie without him, and turned the reins over to second unit director Andrew Marton.

Unfortunately, Nicholas Ray would never direct a major motion picture again, and while 55 Days at Peking isn’t terrible, the director of They Live by Night, In a Lonely Place, Johnny Guitar, Rebel Without a Cause and so many others deserved a much better send-off.
Rating: 5.5 out of 10

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