Please note: in addition to blatant spoilers, this review contains a link to a brief audio clip featuring comments by Susan Ray. Just click on the snazzy WKME logo to the right of any banana-yellow text, and an MP3 file will open in a separate browser.
A Quick Backstory
After the success of El Cid (1960), producer Samuel Bronston had tried to entice Charlton Heston to star in The Fall of the Roman Empire, another elaborate production whose sets were reportedly under construction prior to any scriptwriting, but Heston’s preference lay in the concept of another project, 55 Days at Peking, based on the Siege of the International Legations where Peking-based delegates and assigned military contingents of the Eight-Nation Alliance were surrounded by members of a peasant uprising in 1900.
Known as the Boxers, the rebels (in simplest terms) were anti-colonial and anti-Christian, if not anti-West, and their hatred of impertinent forces trying to grab control of their country escalated in rancor, violence, and cruel killings, ultimately forcing the Alliance to fortify their positions just outside the Imperial City where the Empress Dowager Cixi held court with Prince Qing and the army’s supreme commander, Ronglu.
The Chinese government was caught in a difficult spot, in which their uneven support of the Boxers ensured the country wasn’t about to be divided up by the Alliance, yet there were atrocities being committed towards foreigners. Commander Ronglu attempted to act as a buffer to prevent the government’s full support of the Boxers and temper Prince Qing’s contrarian influence which could lead to all out war, and the siege eventually came to an end after a new burst of Alliance soldiers managed to land in China, and reach Peking just as the besieged troops had lost a third of their manpower, and supplies were near dangerous lows.
Bigger is Sometimes Too Big
Bronston had already begun work on what was then the world’s largest standing set ever constructed, but there was no completed script, and what was eventually hashed out by writers Philip Yordan and Bernard Gordon didn’t please anyone. David Niven played British diplomat Sir Arthur Robertson, leader of the besieged Alliance, and the actor mandated rewrites (most likely from writer Robert Hamer, whose name and ‘Additional Dialogue’ credit is buried in the technical credits) to boost his wan character; Heston, in turn, wasn’t pleased with the mounting mess of a mega-production with no battle plan of its own.
As marine commander Matt Lewis who ‘just follows orders,’ Heston is largely involved in battle scenes and confrontations with diplomats, whereas his supposed love interest – a Russian Baroness – never develops into anything tangible. Ava Gardner may look the part of Baroness Natalie Ivanoff, but her performance is flat, if not indifferent, and Heston disliked her due to the actresses alcohol consumption and unprofessional behaviour.
None of their scenes have chemistry, and the writers didn’t know where to take her character in the script, so according to the liner notes in La-La Land’s 2-disc soundtrack album, her character was killed off. The solution: the Baroness rapidly succumbs to an incipient infection from a shoulder gunshot wound she’s able to surmise all by herself as being terminal. When the end comes, it’s conveyed through an editorial trick: Gardner turns her head to one side, and her head position is rigidly retained via a freeze-frame for a beat to infer she ‘just died,’ when the actress may well have looked back at her doctor and said a few more banalities.
Of all the characters, the Baroness suffers the most in purpose, and continuity. In one sequence, she sneaks out from the hospital compounds at night and manages to change outfits twice in one evening from a magical stash of unblemished dresses – signs Gardner’s scenes were probably shuffled around to create some continuity prior to her being written out of the picture.
To add further chaos to Bronston’s monster production, Nicholas Ray, who had previously directed the kitschy Christ epic King of Kings (1961) for the producer, had a nervous breakdown, and was fired by screenwriter Yordan. Guy Green (A Patch of Blue) was brought in as a replacement, but he was soon booted out and replaced by ace second unit director Andrew Marton (Ben-Hur), who finished the film.
What was released bears the physical attributes of an epic, but its undercooked script and flat performances marginally manage to keep audience interest. If not for the clipped pacing and regular interval of kabooming guns splintering the spectacular sets, Peking would’ve fizzled fast at the box office.
There are a handful of virtuous elements – the massive sets are stunning, the costumes are rich in detail – but they’re offset by half-cooked material and storylines that aren’t clearly defined. The Baroness frequently sneaks off to an old Chinese man (voiced by an easily identifiable Burt Kwouk) but there’s no detailing of or reasoning for their association; Lewis’ best friend has a Chinese daughter named Teresa (Lynne Sue Moon) whom he loves, but avoids, then makes false promises to bring back to America, but then lies and then dies in a classically stupid moment of standing like a dope in the midst of an active war.
Lewis, in turn, makes no guarantees of what he’ll do with the girl until the ending - which was apparently written and shot by Marton, along with the narration, to not only create some bookend material to balance stilted film, but make sense of the historical details for confused audiences.
Even with rewrites, Niven’s Robertson is merely a caricature, but his wife fares worse, and is indicative of the screenwriters desire to limit the cerebral capacity of their female characters: unwise, simple-minded, and unsure of what to do when wacky things like wounded children occur. Robertson’s moment of Great Torment has him trying to sort out ‘what it all means’ by posing to himself a litany of questions (‘Question: Why am I here in China?’) that illustrate the writers’ perfunctory grasp of history, irony, and politics; Peking is in no way a political film, and the issue of why the Alliance just won’t get out of China is summarized / tossed aside by Robertson as ‘a matter of principle.’
Peking is very much structured like a western siege, which shouldn’t be surprising considering Yordan had co-written / supervised the writing of several genre entries, including the Oscar-winning Broken Lance (1954), and Johnny Guitar (1954) for director Ray. Transposed to Imperial China, ‘redskins’ have been replaced by uppity Chinese whose aspirations of freedom are depicted as greedy. The use of rifles, railroads, munitions, canons, and horseback riding marines collectively evoke a classic cinematic battle between Yankees and Indians, but on rare occasions the image is shattered, such as an elaborate sequence where Boxers pull a medieval device - firework-packed tower on wheels - up to the fortified wall; or when a trio of Boxers provide an acrobatic combat show for uneasy diplomats at a ball to celebrate Queen Victoria’s birthday.
Perhaps aggravating the issue of the filmmaker’s pro-colonialist stance is the casting of core Imperial Chinese figures by Caucasian actors: pasted with Asian eyelid #12, Robert Helpmann (The Red Shoes) gives Prince Qing a pseudo-Chinese accent that slips into a Germanic-British fudge; Leo Genn (The Snake Pit) plays General Jung-Lu (presumably a variation on Ronglu); and Flora Robson was perhaps cast as the Empress Dowager because she played Queen Elizabeth I twice: in Fire Over England (1937), and The Sea Hawk (1940) quite convincingly. At least the pubescent character of Teresa is played by Asian actress Moon, but most of her scenes involve looking longingly from doorways, as though the actress was perpetually waiting for a cue from the director to run, jump, or Be Very, Very Sad.
Continuity gaffes also pop up now and then. In the lengthy meeting with Alliance ministers (of which the American Minister is played by director Ray himself), Niven sports a big white cluster of Band-Aids on his neck, but there’s no explanation for its presence, nor its immediate disappearance in following scenes; and Spanish extras are easy to spot when one looks past the front line of Asian extras.
Even with Ray no longer in the director’s chair, there are scant moments of really interesting direction (although by whom is not known). It’s akin to noticing bits and pieces of real art amid banalities. The opening montage – which Ray had hoped to film in some kind of early split-screen process – has the camera bouncing fluidly between the Alliance members as they gather their troops each day and bang out national anthems, vainly and impossibly attempting to drown out rival nations that exist sometimes a block away.
The Queen Victoria ball is also used to show how the Baroness is in fact a social climbing whore. Among the dancing couples, the men smile like happy teenagers at the Baroness while the women give her and escort Lewis disapproving glances. In the sequence, dialogue is minimal, and the camera and editing beautifully choreograph the collective disdain the diplomatic clique have for the Baroness.
Also of note is the peculiar scene where Lewis tells Teresa of her father’s death, which plays out unusually long, but feels emotionally true, as though (presumably) Ray told the actors to get their clichéd lines out of the way, and just play off the discomfort of a childless career soldier telling the daughter of his best friend that her father’s not only dead, but there’s no place for her in his world because she’s Asian.
The last highpoint is the blasting of the Imperial armory, where Robertson mimics Lewis’ steps in rigging fuses to packs of dynamite. The tense sequence is directed not only without dialogue or whispering, but unnecessary hand gestures and performance clichés; it elegantly shows the characters working on instinct, and professional intuition.
Perhaps the reason the film seems more fluid than it really is lies in Dimitri Tiomkin’s nearly wall-to-wall score, which provides a good balance of energetic action music, and some appropriately tender passages for the undercooked romance, and the character of Teresa. The composer does indulge in his patented bombast – the brass don’t rise in tone, they erupt with a bawdy demeanor – but it adds a bit of unintentional humour to an otherwise emotionally flat drama.
Bronston’s production empire was dealt a serious blow when he mounted too many epics with reckless cost-overruns and lousy accounting, and although Peking isn’t a disaster by any means, it wasn’t the critical success he needed to bring funds into the production of Roman Empire which was filming concurrently, followed right after by Circus World (1964). Within a year after Peking’s release, Bronston was finished, and he was never able to regain his stature as the pre-eminent producer of historical blockbusters.
Peking, like Circus World, has yet to receive its own deserved DVD or Blu-ray releases in North America, and it’s a sign that once again the Bronston catalogue has been abandoned, and lies in neglect in Region 1 land, although the Region 2 releases hardly do the film justice, since none were mastered from the film’s original Super Technirama 70mm prints.
Like Bronston, director Ray was professionally and perhaps personally scarred by the experience of Peking. Although he remained respected for his prior work (Rebel Without a Cause), he never directed a feature film for a studio again. The experience of being fired – either due to health reasons, arguing, creative differences, or a nervous breakdown – tarnished Ray, and his lone directorial effort of note is the experimental / student film We Can’t Go Home Again [M] (1976), and perhaps Lightning Over Water (1980), which he co-directed with Wim Wenders up to his death.
Screenwriter Yordan co-wrote Bronston’s final two biggies – Roman Empire and Circus World – and in addition to a few more blockbusters such as Battle of the Bulge (1965) and Custer of the West (1967), which he produced, Yordan also produced two of Andrew Marton’s best films as solo director: The Thin Red Line (1964) and Crack in the World (1965).
Gordon also co-wrote several scripts with Yordan (including the final Bronston epics) before producing a trio of films – including the cult classic Horror Express (1972) – prior his final screenplay, the CanCon production of Margaret Atwood’s Surfacing (1981).
Among the film’s smaller roles and bit parts are a slew of intriguing names, including Kurt Kasznar (Valley of the Kings, Casino Royale) as the Baroness’ brother-in-law, trapped in a lousy state of unrequited love; the always reliable Harry Andrews (The Nightcomers, The MacKintosh Man [M]) as the priest who has a knack for improvised arms design; erudite Paul Lukas (Berlin Express) as the doctor who pronounces the Baroness ‘dead’; Massimo Serato (Autopsy [M]) in the silent role of an Italian officer; Walter Gotell (From Russia With Love, The Spy Who Loved Me) as a German officer; and as the Japanese officer Col. Shiba, Jûzô Itami, future director of Tampopo (1985) and A Taxing Woman (1987).
© 2011 Mark R. Hasan