During the 1900 Boxer Rebellion against foreigners in China, U.S. Marine Major Matt Lewis, aided by British Consul Sir Arthur Robertson, devises a strategy to keep the rebels at bay until an international military relief force arrives.
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Diplomats, soldiers and other representatives of a dozen nations fend off the siege of the International Compound in Peking during the 1900 Boxer Rebellion. The disparate interests unite for survival despite competing factions, overwhelming odds, delayed relief and tacit support of the Boxers by the Empress of China and her generals. Written by
Martin H. Booda <firstname.lastname@example.org>
I actually enjoyed this film a good deal more than I was expecting to; Charlton Heston epics aren't my thing, and when I noticed the overall running time my heart sank. To be honest, the only real reason I sat down to watch it was because I'd just finished David Niven's highly entertaining autobiography 'The Moon's a Balloon' -- and I was curious to renew my acquaintance with his actual work!
But the film grabbed me from the first, and I simply wasn't aware of its length. And while Heston's still not my favourite actor, mercifully neither he nor the US Marines were allowed to steal the show -- what could so easily have been produced as a 'simple soldiers good, morally compromised diplomats bad' gung-ho display is here allowed more intellectual depth. As Matt Lewis, Heston doesn't get to personally rescue the entire cast from liquidation -- although he does make an attempt! -- and contemporary concepts of 'face' and international affairs are taken into account. The film makes a good stab at explaining the historical background to the events from both sides of the conflict: I can't answer for its accuracy, but it comes across as reasonable and clear-headed, as the Empress first temporises and then commits her full authority to the gamble to expel the foreigners. No individual is exempt from misjudgements or doubt, and as a result none of the characters become really annoying.
So far as watching Niven was concerned I was lucky, as it happened -- he's certainly in a plum part here, cast in a leading 'character' role against the all-American action hero but arguably more central to the story. And it has to be said he makes a very good job of it, aided by an intelligent script; the only scene that seemed a little gratuitous was the arsenal sequence, where this middle-aged diplomat is suddenly taking part in undercover action when he is neither suited to the task nor dispensable from his own duties, with no real rationale provided. (My guess, 'in-story', would be that he was tired of sitting inactive with the deaths of others on his hands -- but if so, it's not given, and one is left to fall back on the story-external suspicion that the actor wanted to be seen to have a part in the heroics...)
As the Russian Baroness Natalie, Ava Gardner is somewhat elusive: ''I have you in my hands; but you keep slipping through my fingers,'' Lewis complains, and she remains cool and detached from life and the concerns of the others -- her surrender to Lewis comes across as that of a woman who no longer values her own body rather than a passionate gift. This would be an excellent piece of characterisation if it were intentional... unfortunately, I strongly suspect that it isn't! Heston is credible in the opening hotel scene as the no-frills soldier out for a quick liaison, with the rules understood on both sides, but he's pretty wooden when it comes to providing genuine emotion; and when the Baroness is challenged on their relationship after several weeks during which we've scarcely seen them exchange a word, I was assuming that she would truthfully retort that there was nothing between them... As a love affair it certainly doesn't look like a grand passion, and she seems to put more devotion into her work in the hospital and the old man in the shop outside that she does to Lewis. The trouble is, I think we're supposed to take it seriously.
Heston's performance is fairly one-note throughout -- the scenes with the little girl are particularly stilted, although it's hard to be sure in that case if it's the character's inability to cope or the actor's -- and I have to say I found it hard to warm much to Major Lewis. His closest touches of humanity seem to be with the fellow-Marines under his command, which could, again, simply be brilliant characterisation rather than limited acting... he's fine when he's being square-jawed and heroic, and at the beginning of the film he does show a dry wit for which there is understandably little scope later on. Otherwise, I'm afraid I felt the film succeeded despite rather than because of Heston's star billing, wisely keeping him to a relatively restrained role in an ensemble cast. I suspect this failure to build up the part of the hero is the root cause of the criticism that '55 Days at Peking' spreads its action over too many unimportant characters, but I found it arguably one of the major strengths of the production.
This film admirably fulfils the function of the epic in that it has a big story to tell and makes a gripping narrative of it through all its ebbs and flows. If the romantic sub-plot is rather weak, this is also a convention of the genre... and it *is* only a sub-plot! For my money, David Niven carries off the acting laurels among the principals, while Ava Gardner's damaged Natalie is intriguing even if not tragic; the script rarely allows us to relax, even in what seem like tranquil moments. There is always a new twist around the corner, and the running-time passes like a flash.
This could have been a thoroughly obnoxious piece of military posturing, but it isn't. To my surprise, I rather liked it.
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