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55 Days at Peking

55 Days at Peking

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Rating: 4 stars
Summary: Enjoyable epic and star vehicle
Review: "55 Days At Peking" is an unusual and enjoyable epic and star vehicle. Not least among its admirable characteristics is a set re-creating in Spain an authentic impression of the old Legation Quarter of Peking. The set makes sense to anyone who knows the actual site in modern-day Beijing. That is a considerable achievement in the pre-digital cinematic art of illusion. It shows, too, that there was a great deal of China knowledge behind the making of the movie. Well into the 1990s, many Boxer Rebellion-era structures survived in the old Legation Quarter of Beijing. Due to enduring political and cultural sensitivities, the historical significance of these structures was unsignposted and ignored by the official Chinese tourist authorities, and most of the area was occupied by Chinese Government organisations. The gate of the former British Legation which was recreated for the movie could still be seen just off Chang'an Avenue in Zhengyi Street, a short walk southwest from the Beijing Hotel. The layout and other striking architectural features of the area are well-recorded in books such as Michael J. and Yeone Wei-Chih Moser's "Foreigners Within The Gates" (Oxford 1993). The movie takes liberties with history--overplaying, for instance, the US military contribution, and making the British Minister (played by David Niven) appear a more militarily energetic figure than he seemed to contemporary observers of the siege of the legations. Some purists might find jarring the poor Chinese calligraphy in graffiti, and the casting of (generally well made-up) Caucasian actors in major Chinese roles. However, the standard caveat applies that this is an entertainment, not a documentary. Talent like Chow Yun-Fat, John Lone, Gong Li, Zhang Yimou and Wayne Wang wasn't available to western moviemakers in 1963. "55 Days At Peking" entertains with a creditable impression of this historical episode when China warred by proxy on the rest of the world. It is an interesting film to compare with "Khartoum", in which Charlton Heston also plays the lead, as part of the canon of epic moviemaking about imperial and colonial wars. The casting and illusion of China is worth comparing with "The Inn Of The Sixth Happiness" (1958), in which Robert Donat plays a Chinese mandarin and Wales substitutes for China. It would be fascinating to see a remake of this film with a re-worked story and script, a re-arrangement of Dimitri Tiomkin's excellent score, digital technology, and cross-cultural casting and direction. However, as it probably still could not be shot in China without unacceptable interference, it might need "Red Corner" treatment.

Rating: 5 stars
Summary: From the halls of Montezuma....
Review: ...to the streets of Pekin, there is nothing better to have a Marine at hand. True that the "semper perennis" British sense of balance is truly appreciated. And evidently if you add to this a nice and misterious Russian countess, a poor orphan girl and a scientific priest those 55 days will pass faster.

Samuel Bronston was in the 60's one of the aces the Generalisimo had to show to the world that even a country like Spain could have glamour. He build in Chamartin a big studio with dozens of sets trying to compite with the Italian Cinecitta. And after the Cid this project was his new jewel to the crown.

To make an epic film you need an epic actor, and this means that you can have Charlton Heston, or you can have....Charlton Heston. But he is not the only right election in this film. Ava Gardner is splendid as the countess trying to survive in a city where strangers are surrounded by the Boxer menace. Who could play a better British ambassador than that charming man who was David niven? or being a more helpful priest that that wonderful Harry Andrews?
But the best, in my humble opinion is the trio of the Chinese characters. Flora Robson, Leo Genn and Robert Helpmann are splendid. I have to say that specially Flora Robson. A wonderful actress that belongs to that glorious club of the supporting actresses.

The film is a nice one that , even full of historical faults, and a funny insistence of showing every now and then the Spanish ambassadro without any reason, has certainly great moments like the night assault of the Imperial army to the legation area, or the subtil and wicked scene between Heston and Ava at the hotel, among with the sweet scene when Heston must tell the daughter of Capt. Andy he is death.

The score is magnificent, and is Dimitri Tiomkin at his best, but also the locations are great. (Although I have always wondered how they managed to find so many orientals in Madrid in the 60's)

This is a classic epic film, and has grown better with the years. And all because it has an excellent script and a wonderful cast. Pure enjoyment in the last days of teh cinemascope. This is probably the real swan song of those wonderful superproductions. But what an end!

Rating: 5 stars
Summary: Widescreen fans please note...
Review: ...you can order a very good quality print of this film from Amazon France's marketplace sellers. The only drawback is that the English version has French subtitles which can't be erased using the menu. However, when you see the low price, even accounting for postage, you won't complain.

Rating: 5 stars
Summary: Widescreen fans please note...
Review: ...you can order a very good quality print of this film from Amazon France's marketplace sellers. The only drawback is that the English version has French subtitles which can't be erased using the menu. However, when you see the low price, even accounting for postage, you won't complain.

Rating: 5 stars
Summary: spectacular yet intimate
Review: Before the era of political correctness, Caucasian actors donned make up to play characters of other races; roles which, for whatever reason, could not be filled by non-white actors at that time. If you are the kind of person who gets mad watching white people play "sinister" Chinese roles then stay away from this movie or be prepared for this kind of thing:

Prince Tuan: "Your majesty, the execution has been stopped!"

The Empress: "Who!"

Prince Tuan: "Jung Lu!"

However if you can keep that momentary suspension of disbelief going just long enough to allow yourself to get into the story, then you can believe Flora Robson is the Empress and 55 Days is one of the most underrated films of all time: the action sequences are extremely well paced and choreographed and the film, for the most part, stays faithful to history. Obviously the producers could not reproduce the entire Forbidden City so the "palace" exterior scenes are somewhat hokey, but the legation compound and the city wall are reproduced in a convincing way and as set pieces they are used to great effect.

Look for Walter Gotell (General Gogol from the 007 films) and Nicholas Ray himself (in wheelchair) as the American ambassador.

Rating: 3 stars
Summary: A movie that needs to be remade
Review: Don't get me wrong. This movie is fun but as historical accuracies go, it falls pretty flat. The movie doesn't even use the real names of the people involved.

I'm a big fan of epic period pieces and I think there is a lot going for this kind of movie to be made today (with an international cast)

First I'd choose John Milius, Michael Mann, or Mel Gibson as director

Sample Cast
George Clooney or Billy Zane.....US Marine Major
Catherine Zeta Jones...Russian countess
Elizabeth Hurley....British ambassador's wife
Tom Sizemore.....US Marine sgt
Chow Yun Fat.....Prince Tuan
Michelle Yeoh....Empress Dowager
Brian Cox....British Ambassador
Ioan Gruffudd (Hornblower) or Heath Ledger....British Captain
Jermey Irons....German Colonel
Sophie marceau....French ambassador's wife
Alan Rickman....Russian ambassador

You get the picture :-)

Rating: 2 stars
Summary: Smotheringly Lush
Review: In different times of different tastes, the events of the 1900 Peking siege might have made a decent movie, even if again presented as excuse for historically inspired drivel. To the misfortune of both history and movie watchers, 55 Days at Peking was filmed amidst the sixties craze for grand scale extravaganza. The result is cinema so atmospheric one yearns for an oxygen tube in the throat to counteract sensations of drowning from the humidity.

The time, place, and events lend themselves well to sixties epic. Between picture postcard wide-angle shots of The Exotic East, we are immersed in full dress parades of tasseled soldiers, a formal ball with gowns and glitter, lush silken tunics embroidered with dragons, fiery battle scenes, and further endless cinematic candy. This is film to be appreciated by those attracted to any brand of babble spoken beneath cloaks of braided uniforms and foreign cityscape. Indeed, the set designer and wardrobe master deserve credit as the real stars of 55 Days.

Competing for star billing is a soundtrack probably once hailed for richness, but which today sounds over-music'd to distraction. This could perhaps have been a good thing were the score less obvious. Attempts to flavor the film in "oriental" sound frequently recall the Wicked Witch's guards singing "Yo-Hee-Ho" in the Land of Oz. When French sailors leap over a barricade with drawn swords, we hear La Marseillaise interspersed with the orchestral drums and horns. In turn the score shouts similar unimaginative tinsel for each of the other nationalities under siege. Although this is very well written music, it's spawned from hackneyed conceptions of what that music should embody.

The movie is excellently cast as the roles could have been written specifically for each of the nominal stars. Heston plays a down and dirty marine major. Ava Gardner has her usual role of sensitive local slut. Niven is the suave level-headed British ambassador. Each punched the clock and turned in a good days work, predictably living up to type, identical to countless performances before and since with no distinguishing variation from their norm. The characters however are by no means one-dimensional -- most possess at least one and a half; the main cast often exhibits two.
Asians in 55 Days are depicted as a generic alien breed accoutered with expansive cartoon gestures and fortune-cookie dialog, sometimes varied with the folded-arm, hopping gait of coolies from 1950s television. It will look authentic to anyone living in East Rootbeer County.

As an action/adventure movie, the story is not terribly written, and is very well photographed. The battle scenes offer consistent pleasure for those so inclined. The dialog often shows ability to turn the odd memorable phrase. As I take this film to be more fiction than not, I'm unwilling to condemn it for historical inaccuracy. The story however often gnaws the leash of credulity, as when Her Majesty's Ambassador Niven dons his grubbies to crawl a sewer beneath enemy lines to torch an ammo dump.

In their dreams, the makers of 55 Days probably wanted to create a movie which felt like a lazy-man's Lawrence of Arabia. The film valiantly attempts a look of dramatic intelligence. Through exhaustive emphasis on set, costume, music, and a reliable cast of big names marking time, 55 Days squanders its efforts on the external vestments of grand scale epic, with little remaining energy to explore what flesh may lie beneath.

Rating: 4 stars
Summary: Fascinating mixture of spectacle and intimacy
Review: The last theatrical feature film from director Nicholas Ray who made REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE, BIGGERT THAN LIFE, THEY LIVE BY NIGHT, etc., is a historical epic spectacle set in Beijing, China in the midst of the revolt of the Boxers. Producer Samuel Bronston wanted to make an exotic film about war, political intrigue, and international solidarity.

However, epic spectacle is not realy Ray's league. And in the midle of the shooting, Ray had a heart attack. Most of the "big" scenes ended up to be shot by second-unit director Andrew Morton. and while they are effective enough, they arr not that great.

Still, this film bears a lot of the unmisstakable signature of Ray; the master of human emotion. Never before Charlton Heston was able to show such an intimacy, so much of human vulnerability in a film. The scene in which he has to tell the daughter of his best friend's half-chinese daughter that her father was killed in action (a scene that banal directors would treat as a shalow tearjearker) shows how much subtle and truthful emotion Ray was capable to pull out from his actors.

Ava Gardner plays a turnished Russian contessa, and is extraordinary. Her story is perhaps the strongest among this multi-charactered, muti-layered drama.

While the production design is quite adequate considering the film was shot in Spain in the 60's, and surprisingly deprived of phony extoticism for that time, contemporary viewers may take it rather silly. But please remember that at that time, somesthing like THE LAST EMPEROR was impossible. Western film crew were not even allowed to set foot on the Chinese land.

Some scenes still are good example of another trademark directorial touch of Ray; his love for extremely dramatic composition and particulary to pull out the dramatic core of a scene by setting it on an unstable location such as stairs.

It is a flawed film, perhaps, but still extremly beautiful and emotional. Dimitri Tiomkin's score (and the song "So Little Time") is also unforgettable.

Rating: 5 stars
Summary: 55 days at peking
Review: With all the wham, bam, thank you not madam junk that is prevasive now, this has a superb plot and it has class. This is a 5 star in a world of -1 s! Niven is wonderous and Ava is regal with her feet of clay.

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