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 <email@example.com>
Dong Kingman painted the watercolours for the titles and also made an uncredited appearance in the film. See more »
The rifle used by the US Marines in the film is a .303 Lee Enfield British rifle (the "Long Lee Enfield" Mark 1* model introduced in 1899). Contemporary photographs show the US Marines guard of the US Legation in Peking during the Boxer Rebellion using the 6mm M1895 Lee Navy rifle - a much harder-to-find item for movie armorers. See more »
The fifties and early sixties were the golden age of the large-scale historical epic. Most of these dealt with either Biblical, Classical or Mediaeval history, but there was also a fashion for making movies on a similar epic scale dealing with more recent historical events. Many of these dealt with some aspect of European colonialism or with relations between Westerners and the inhabitants of some other part of the globe, such as "Bridge on the River Kwai", "Lawrence of Arabia", "Khartoum" or "Fifty-Five Days at Peking" which relates, from a Western viewpoint, the story of the Chinese Boxer Rebellion. My thanks are due to T R P Dean for his helpful review setting out the historical background to this event.
The film narrates the story of how the foreign residents of the Legation Quarter of Peking (it was obviously not the fashion to call it "Beijing" in 1963) managed to hold out for a siege of nearly two months in the summer of 1900 before being relieved by a multi-national expeditionary force. The main characters on the Western side are Major Lewis, the commander of the small detachment of American marines in Peking, and Sir Arthur Robertson, the British ambassador. The main characters on the Chinese side, although we see less of that side, are the Dowager Empress Tzu-Hsi and her counsellors, the devious and anti-foreigner Prince Tuan and the more liberal General Jung-Lu, who favours rapprochement with the foreigners.
There were a few things about the film that I did not like. Like a number of others, I felt that it would have been an improvement if the leading Chinese characters had not been portrayed by Western actors. I do not hold to any principle of political correctness that states that a character should not be portrayed by an actor of a different nationality, but in this particular case I felt that Chinese actors would have been more convincing. The action in the second half of the film tended to drag a bit, especially the episode where the Westerners make a raid to destroy the Boxers' arsenal. The decision to add some love-interest in the form of a romance between Lewis and a Russian princess was definitely a mistake. Charlton Heston was generally fine as an action hero but less convincing, as here, as a romantic one. Ava Gardner's performance as Princess Natasha was very much below par; there is little passion in the scenes between her and Heston.
I do not, however, agree with the criticism that the film should have showed more of the historic background to the Boxer Rebellion. The aim was to make an epic adventure story about one particular episode during that rebellion; to have attempted to explore the complexities of Chinese politics during the years leading up to it would have resulted in a very lengthy and tedious film, especially if the filmmakers had tried to include reference to events as remote in time as the Opium Wars, as some have suggested. In the main, that aim was a successful one. At the centre of the film are two fine contributions, particularly from David Niven as Robertson. Robertson is the Westerners' equivalent of Jung-Lu, a liberal by the standards of his period who (unlike many of the other Europeans) hopes to avoid war by taking a conciliatory attitude towards the Chinese. When war comes, he is forced to look inside himself to find reserves of courage and stoicism. Apart from his scenes with Gardner, Heston is also good as Lewis, the tough man of action. Although he is a very different character from Robertson, the two men discover a respect for each other as the crisis brings them together. The spectacular action scenes were mostly well done, and the costumes and architecture of this period of Chinese history were reproduced on a grand scale. Despite a few faults, this was a film that I enjoyed. 7/10
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