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Film / 55 Days at Peking

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A 1963 Epic Movie about the Siege of the International Legations during the Boxer Rebellion in the waning days of Imperial China. The movie primarily focuses on three fictional characters — U.S. major Matt Lewis (Charlton Heston), British minister Sir Arthur Robertson (David Niven), and Russian baroness Natalie Ivanoff (Ava Gardner) — as they struggle to hold out against the Boxers and have various personal issues.

The movie was a Troubled Production and an almost literal Creator Killer. Director Nicholas Ray (he who gave us Rebel Without a Cause) collapsed on the set and had to be replaced, first by Andrew Marton (co-director of The Longest Day) and later Guy Green. Ray's career never recovered. Charlton Heston hated Ava Gardner, later describing her as The Prima Donna who showed up on-set drunk, constantly demanded rewrites and argued with Ray and the other directors. Heston worked with her again in Earthquake anyway. The script was constantly being rewritten during filming, with some of the stars bringing in their own screenwriters to rework their scenes.

To top it all off, the film was a Box Office Bomb, which was very bad because, as you'll know if you've seen the totally epic action sequences, this movie was freakin' expensive. Besides ruining Ray's career, it also sunk Samuel Bronston's production company, which had previously made the successful El Cid and King of Kings. Perhaps this was karma for the film's deplorable use of Yellowface for nearly every Chinese character with lines. Nevertheless, the film has found a life on cable.

And yes, Peking is Beijing. See Why Mao Changed His Name to find out why this movie wasn't called "55 Days at Beijing".

It did, however, inspire a quasi-remake from Shaw Brothers, titled Boxer Rebellion.

Tropes used in this film:

  • All Asians Wear Conical Straw Hats: Not all of them, but we see a good number wearing them.
  • Anyone Can Die: When the siege begins, civilians start dropping alongside the soldiers. Captain Marshall and Captain Hanley are killed while driving the Boxers off the wall, and the Baroness is shot while bringing back food for the besieged and dies soon afterwards. Sir Arthur's son Tommy is shot, but manages to pull through.
  • Artistic License – History:
    • The movie implies Jong-Lu was the voice of reason while Prince Tuan was a rabid anti-foreign fanatic, but the actual situation is much more nuanced, since the Empress Dowager tacitly supported the Boxers moreso out of pragmatism than ideological alignment. The Empress only tipped in favor of Tuan after European warships shelled some Chinese forts.
    • The film portrays the Eight Nation Alliance as a united front against the Boxers, with equal contributions from all parties. In reality, the Alliance was filled with infighting and squabbling, and the film whitewashes the activities of the French, German, and Russian armies, who spent less time actually fighting the boxers than looting, murdering and raping throughout their march through China (indeed, this war is how Germans earned the nickname "Hun").
    • The siege of the foreign quarter began, not with the killing of the German minister, but with the execution of a young Boxer by order of the minister. The minister was then killed by Boxers afterwards in retaliation.
    • The fighting was more consistent and less spectacular than depicted in the movie. Basically it involved probings of the walls by Boxer forces, and house-to-house and street fighting. Both sides built barricades, and the small European military contingent was hard-pressed to repelling the attacks.
    • The commando raid led by John Twiggs Myers (on whom Charlton Heston's character is based) was against a Boxer barricade, not a munitions dump. Myers was also wounded during the raid and spent the rest of the Siege in a hospital bed.
    • The film largely ignores the plight of the Chinese Christians, who were one of the primary targets of the Boxers and wound up being largely ignored and abandoned by the Alliance forces.
    • There is an anachronism when "Das Lied der Deutschen," the anthem of the Weimar Republic and modern-day Germany, is played for the German flag. The actual Imperial German anthem of the time was "Heil dir im Siegerkranz," which had the same melody as "God Save the Queen," so you can see why they had to cheat. This is probably why Austria-Hungary is not represented in the opening scene, as its anthem was the same melody as "Das Lied der Deutschen." Oh, and before "The Star-Spangled Banner" was adopted in 1931, the de facto U.S. anthem was "My Country, 'Tis of Thee," which, guess what, also has the same melody as "God Save the Queen." The movie skirts that problem by playing the bugle call "To the Colors" for the American flag.
  • Both Sides Have a Point: While the protagonists are from the Western Powers, who are struggling to hold out in the siege and not be brutally slaughtered first by the violent Boxers and later by the Imperial troops, the film does at least acknowledge that the Chinese people as a whole have just cause to be angry at the occupation of their country by the foreign powers. Empress Cixi at one point rants to Sir Arthur that thirteen of the eighteen provinces of China are under foreign control and consequently being exploited: "China is a prostrate cow! The Powers are no longer content to milk her; now they are butchering her for her meat!"
  • The Cavalry: The Eight-Nation Alliance forces at the end. The looting and destruction which followed is tactfully unmentioned.
  • Chekhov's Gun: The necklace, which the Baroness first resolutely keeps hold of even as her brother-in-law strips her of everything else she owns, and then sells during the siege to buy food for the starving children.
  • Creator Cameo: Nicholas Ray appears briefly as the U.S. minister.
  • Decadent Court: The Chinese court. Though Empress Cixi's depicted with some measure of sympathy, her courtiers openly scheme against each other and the Empress herself orders an adviser's execution for "disturbing the tranquility of the day."
  • End of an Age: The end of Imperial China, of course. While the actual Xinhai Revolution comes eleven years later, the ending scenes heavily foreshadow the fact that the end of imperial rule is nigh. It's also near the end for Tsarist Russia, Imperial Germany, and Austria-Hungary but this doesn't come up in any scenes with the characters of those nationalites.
  • Enemy Mine: All the nationalities work together to hold out against the Boxers, so that they can blow each other to hell fourteen years later.
  • Gorgeous Period Dress: Especially at a ball near the beginning of the film. There's also the Imperial Chinese court.
  • Grande Dame: Empress Dowager Cixi. Also an Iron Lady and, technically speaking, the film's Big Bad (she's a bit of an Anti-Villain).
  • Historical Hero Upgrade: The Eight-Nation Alliance, natch. The movie tries oh so hard to pretend putting down the Boxer Rebellion wasn't really about imperialism. Instead, it was about honor or... maintaining peace or... something. Whatever, it sounds credible when you say it in a Rousing Speech with David Niven's accent. In addition, the relationship between the various powers wasn't nearly as harmonious as depicted in the film, and the film also omits the widespread destruction, looting and murder carried out by the Eight-Nations after the siege was lifted.
  • Historical Villain Downgrade: One of the film's biggest problems is that it tries to villainize the Boxers without actually showing any of the things they did to warrant such a characterization beyond fighting the European powers, meaning that most viewers will likely root for them to defeat the imperialists and get their country back. Had the film depicted some of the Boxers' Real Life atrocities — such as openly calling for the genocide of all non-Chinese, massacring peaceful European missionaries and their families who had little to do with China's plight (including one infamous case in Taiyuan where 44 foreigners from missionary families were lured into Boxer territory with the promise of safety and then lynched when they arrived), and engaging in religious persecution of Christians, including burning down churches and murdering thousands of fellow Chinese for the "crime" of converting to Christianity — then this problem could have been avoided.
  • National Anthem: At the beginning, the camera pans around the foreign compound to establish all the countries present by showing them raising their flags, each with a band playing the accompanying anthem. A similar scene occurs at the end, showing how the atmosphere of international unity has disappeared without the Boxers providing a common enemy.
  • Not Even Bothering with the Accent: Ava Gardner doesn't even really try for a Russian accent.
  • Quintessential British Gentleman: What could be more British than David Niven playing a Victorian gentleman?
  • Rogue Juror: Sir Arthur votes to stay while all the other ministers vote to leave. Realizing they'll look ridiculous if the British stay while they leave, the others all change their votes. The Russian minister comments, "I shall report in my diary that the first vote was nine to one, and that, uh, in a friendly spirit it was then decided to make the decision unanimous."
  • Sacrificial Lamb: Theresa's father
  • Sensual Slavs: Baroness Natalie Ivanoff. Despite being both Russian and an in-universe baroness, she is not an example of The Baroness.
  • The Siege: The whole movie is about the fifty-five days during which the Legation Quarter residents held out against the Boxer rebels.
  • Siege Engines: Near the end of the film, the Chinese invent one which launches rockets.
  • Translation Convention: Near the beginning of the film, Major Lewis teaches his Marines to say a few words in Chinese. This appears to have been a waste of time since all the Chinese characters speak English anyway, even when no Brits or Yanks are present. It's a similar case with the Russians, Germans, Japanese, Italians, French, and Austrians.
  • Unflinching Walk: Sir Arthur and Major Lewis walk through a crowd of hundreds of hostile Chinese without losing their cool.
  • Very Loosely Based on a True Story: The movie loosely follows the real history of the Siege of the International Legations. Heston's character is loosely based on John Twiggs Myers and Niven's on Claude Maxwell MacDonald. Perhaps the most notable deviation from the real story is the portrayal of the western powers (plus Japan) actively choosing to stay at the International Legations in order to make some kind of principled stand. In real life, they were more than willing to get the hell out of there, but couldn't because the countryside was swarming with Boxers.
  • Yellowface: So, yeah... there's this. While there are lots of extras played by Chinese people firmly in the background of scenes, out of the four major Chinese characters only Teresa is played by an actor with the correct ethnicity (Lynne Sue Moon was Anglo-Chinese). It's particularly jarring when you see that Colonel Shiba was played by Juzo Itami, and all the members of the Japanese delegation were likewise played by Japanese actors.
  • Your Terrorists Are Our Freedom Fighters: Needless to say, the western characters view the Boxers as terrorists ("bandits", in the language of the film). However, it's made clear that the Boxers view themselves as fighting to free their country from foreign occupation.


Video Example(s):


International Legation Siege

In 1900, the nationalist Chinese Boxer rebellion laid siege to the embassies of the European colonial nations in Peking.

This resulted in soldiers and diplomats from Britain, the US, Germany, France, Italy, Japan and other nations to struggle together against a common foe.

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Example of:

Main / MultinationalTeam

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