They Didn't Ask Me (dr_phil_physics) wrote,
They Didn't Ask Me
dr_phil_physics

A Glorious Train Wreck

There are plenty of movies that I haven't seen, but I am always surprised when I come across a big budget Technicolor wide screen epic that I haven't even heard of. Such was the case last night on Turner Classic Movies, when I ran across this movie on late night and watched nearly all of it.

55 Days At Peking

A 1963 movie with post-WW II and pre-Vietnam sensibilities of patriotism and war set in Beijing during the Boxer Rebellion of 1900. The big three stars are Charleton Heston as Marine Corps Major Matt Lewis, David Niven as the Britsh diplomat Sir Arthur Robertson and Ava Gardner as some sort of disgraced Russian baroness slash doomed love interest for Heston. The 55 days in the title refers to seige of the Eight Nation legations all trying to get their share of China, opposed by the Dowager Empress who is seeing her country and her throne whittled away.

It all sounds like an abbreviated Risk board game -- let's see if I can get all eight players. The United States, Great Britain, Russia, Germany, Italy, Japan, Austria and... oh, and France. The Boxers are portrayed as anywhere from a criminal band to a secret society and war gang.

There's an over-the-top European hotel with all the excesses of Victorian and Chinese red brocade. An imposing throne room in the Forbidden City. A Battle of Helms Deep At The Alamo walled edifice for the Eight Nations to hide in. A doomed Doctor Zhivago-esque romantic subplot, mixed with a healthy (or unhealthy if you prefer) dose of The Green Berets movie. And tons of fireworks, both for celebration and weapons.

The story is complicated. A bizarre mixture of trying to keep up normal European life in a foreign land. What I found hard was the head snapping mix of trying to put a 2014 perspective on a 1963 interpretation of a 1900 event told by "the victors". Politically correct? No. Culturally sensitive? No. Racially diverse cast? Not really -- apparently all the major Chinese parts were done by whites, though the major Japanese characters are Japanese, go figure. Historically accurate? Dunno, but given Hollywood, probably not.

But... it didn't seem a totally worthless exercise to me either. The original director, according to Wikipedia, Nicholas Ray had previously done Rebel Without A Cause. The Europeans are depicted, in part, as greedy bastards hoping to hang on to their spoils of China. And squabbling? At the beginning and end of the movie the Eight Nations forces are all shown playing their anthems and marching music at the same time in a cacophony of patriotism. Interestingly, the U.S., U.K. and Japanese military commanders are shown as more practical and professional. So it's not as if the whole movie is anti-Chinese or pro-Western propaganda. If anything, the movie's slant seems to be about how stupid and worthless it all was.

Still, the gist of the story seems to be rooted in fact,or at least the victor's version:
The diplomatic compound in Peking was under siege by the Wuwei Rear Troop of the Chinese army and some Boxers (Yihetuan), for 55 days, from June 20 to August 14. A total of 473 foreign civilians, 409 soldiers from eight countries, and about 3,000 Chinese Christians took refuge in the Legation Quarter. Under the command of the British minister to China, Claude Maxwell MacDonald, the legation staff and security personnel defended the compound with small arms and one old muzzle-loaded cannon discovered and unearthed by Chinese Christians who turned it over to the allies; it was nicknamed the International Gun because the barrel was British, the carriage Italian, the shells Russian, and the crew American.
I wonder what the Chinese view of this movie is. I missed any of the intro or afterword commentary on TCM.

So I'm glad to have seen this Technicolor flop at the box office. David Niven ends up winning this movie for me -- we expect Charleton Heston to be chewing up the scenery to good effect, but Niven's character is not what he seems at first, something he's very good at.

Dr. Phil
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