55 Days at Peking is a 1963 American epic historical war film dramatising siege of the foreign legations’ compounds in Peking (now known as Beijing) during the Boxer Rebellion, which took place in China from 1898 to 1900.
It is produced by Samuel Bronston for Allied Artists, with a screenplay by Philip Yordan and Bernard Gordon with uncredited contributions from Robert Hamer and Ben Barzman. Noel Gerson wrote a screenplay novelization, under the pseudonym Samuel Edwards, in 1963.
The film was directed primarily by Nicholas Ray, although Guy Green and Andrew Marton took over in the latter stages of filming after Ray had fallen ill. Both men were uncredited.
It stars Charlton Heston, Ava Gardner, and David Niven, with supporting roles by Flora Robson, John Ireland, Leo Genn, Robert Helpmann. Harry Andrews, and Kurt Kasznar.
It also contains the first known screen appearance of future martial arts film star Yuen Siu Tien. Japanese film director Juzo Itami, credited in the film as “Ichizo Itami”, appears as Col. Goro Shiba.
Starvation, widespread in China, is affecting more than 100 million peasants by the summer of 1900. Approximately a thousand foreigners from various western industrialised countries have exploited their positions inside Peking’s legations, seeking control of the weakened nation. The Boxers oppose the westerners and their Christian religion and are planning to drive them out.
The turmoil in China worsens as the Boxer secret societies gain tacit approval from the Dowager Empress Cixi. With 13 of China’s 18 provinces forced into territorial concessions by those colonial powers, frustration over foreign encroachment boils over when the Empress encourages the Boxers to attack all foreigners in Peking and the rest of China. When the Empress condones the assassination of the German ambassador and “suggests” the foreigners leave, a violent siege of Peking’s foreign legations district erupts. Peking’s foreign embassies are gripped by terror, as the Boxers, supported by Imperial troops, set about killing Christians in an anti-western nationalistic fever.
The head of the US military garrison is US Marine Major Matt Lewis, an experienced China hand who knows local conditions well. A love interest blossoms between him and Baroness Natasha Ivanoff, a Russian aristocrat, who it is revealed had an affair with a Chinese General, causing her Russian husband to commit suicide. The Russian Imperial Minister, who is Natasha’s brother-in-law, has revoked her visa in an attempt to recover a valuable necklace. Although the Baroness tries leaving Peking as the siege begins, she is forced by events to return to Major Lewis and volunteers in the hospital, which is battered by the siege and is running out of supplies. To help the defenders, the Baroness exchanges her very valuable jeweled necklace for medical supplies and food, but she is wounded in the process and later succumbs.
Lewis leads the small contingent of 400 multinational soldiers and American Marines defending the compound. As the siege worsens, Maj. Lewis forms an alliance with the senior officer at the British Embassy, Sir Arthur Robertson, pending the arrival of a British-led relief force. After hearing that the force has been repulsed by Chinese forces, Maj. Lewis and Sir Arthur succeed in their mission to blow up a sizable Chinese ammunition dump.
As the foreign defenders conserve food and water, while trying to save hungry children, the Empress continues plotting with the Boxers by supplying aid from her Chinese troops. Eventually, a foreign relief force from the Eight-Nation Alliance arrives and puts down the Boxer’s rebellion. The troops reach Peking on the 55th day and, following the Battle of Peking, lift the siege of the foreign legations. Foreshadowing the demise of the Qing Dynasty, rulers of China for the previous two and a half centuries, the Dowager Empress Cixi, alone in her throne room, having gambled her empire and lost, declares to herself, “The dynasty is finished”, repeating the phrase three times…
When the soldiers of the Eight-Nation Alliance have taken control of the city, after routing the Boxers and the remnants of the Imperial Army, Maj. Lewis gathers up his men, having received new orders from his superiors to leave Peking. He stops and circles back to retrieve Teresa, the young, half-Chinese daughter of one of his few Marine friends who was killed during the 55 day siege. Aboard his horse, she and Maj. Lewis leave the city behind, followed by his column of marching Marines.
- Charlton Heston as Maj. Matt Lewis (based upon John Twiggs Myers).
- Ava Gardner as Baroness Natasha Ivanoff.
- David Niven as Sir Arthur Robertson (based upon Sir Claude MacDonald)
- Flora Robson as Empress Dowager Tzu Hsi.
- John Ireland as Sgt. Harry.
- Leo Genn as Gen. Jung-Lu.
- Harry Andrews as Father de Bearn.
- Robert Helpmann as Prince Tuan.
- Juzo Itami as Col. Goro Shiba.
- Kurt Kasznar as Baron Sergei Ivanoff.
- Philippe Leroy as Julliard.
- Paul Lukas as Dr. Steinfeldt.
- Lynne Sue Moon as Teresa.
- Elizabeth Sellars as Lady Sarah Robertson.
- Massimo Serato as Menotti Garibaldi.
- Jacques Sernas as Maj. Bobrinski.
- Jerome Thor as Capt. Andy Marshall.
- Geoffrey Bayldon as Smythe.
- Joseph Furst as Capt. Hanselman.
- Walter Gotell as Capt. Hoffman.
- Alfredo Mayo as Spanish Minister.
- Martin Miller as Hugo Bergmann.
- José Nieto as Italian Minister.
- Eric Pohlmann as Baron von Meck.
- Aram Stephan as Gaumaire.
- Robert Urquhart as Capt. Hanley.
- Burt Kwouk as Old Man (voice).
- Fernando Sancho as Belgian Minister (based upon Maurice Joostens).
- Nicholas Ray as U.S. Minister (based upon Edwin H. Conger).
- Félix Dafauce as Dutch Minister.
- Carlos Casaravilla as Japanese Minister.
- R.S.M. Ronald Brittain as Sgt. Britten.
- Alfred Lynch as Gerald.
- Michael Chow as Chiang.
- George Wang as Kaige, Boxer Chief.
- Lucille Soong as Concubine.
- Yuen Siu Tien as Court Boxer.
- John Moulder-Brown as Tommy.
- Milton Reid as Boxer.
On 08 September 1959, producer Jerry Wald announced he would be producing a film on the Boxer Rebellion tentatively titled The Hell Raisers for 20th Century Fox. He hoped to star David Niven as a British officer, Stephen Boyd as a United States Marine commander while Hope Lange and France Nuyen were sought for supporting female roles. A weeks later, on 24 September, it was reported that Wald had signed Niven, Boyd, Nuyen, and Stuart Whitman for their respective roles.
Meanwhile, producer Samuel Bronston had enjoyed commercial success from making historical spectacles in Spain, particularly King of Kings (1961), directed by Nicholas Ray, and El Cid (1961), directed by Anthony Mann starring Charlton Heston. In Paris, screenwriters Philip Yordan and Bernard Gordon were brainstorming ideas for potential historical epics. During one story conference, Gordon suggested the Boxer Rebellion having recalled reading a theatrical play while working in the Story Department for Paramount Pictures during the 1940s. Yordan dismissed the idea, but later on having returned from a cruise in London, his wife located a book with a chapter titled “Fifty-five Days at Peking” inside a bookstore and showed it to him. Fascinated with the title alone, Yordan pitched the idea to Gordon, who noted that he had earlier pitched the Boxer Rebellion. Bronston said he was attracted to the Boxer Rebellion because it showed “the unity of peoples, no matter what their beliefs, in the face of danger. This incident is what the UN symbolises but has not yet achieved.”
In September 1961, Bronston announced he was planning a trilogy of historical epics in Spain, among of which was 55 Days at Peking and The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964). Additionally, Alec Guinness was being sought for a lead role while a British director was to be selected. Filming was slated to begin in spring 1962. That same month, Wald told the New York Times that he was unhappy about Bronston’s plans as his project had long been in development. He noted that he had spent $150,000 developing The Hell Raisers with a final script draft being written by Barre Lyndon, and that he also wanted Guinness to star. Lastly, he stated that he consulted lawyers and a filed a complaint with the Motion Picture Association of America as he had approached Yordan to write a script in 1956. In April 1962, Wald instead sold the project to NBC as a television film, but Wald’s death three months later prevented its continuation.
In September 1961, Heston was initially slated to star in The Fall of the Roman Empire, but he had disliked Yordan’s script for the film. In November 1961, Bronston presented Heston with a treatment for 55 Days at Peking and by this stage, Ray was attached to direct. “It might be an interesting period for a film,” wrote Heston. “I’d like to work for Nick, too.” However, Heston was still reluctant. In December 1961, following the Madrid premiere of El Cid, during a flight trip back to Los Angeles, Yordan and Ray again pitched the idea to him. Heston agreed to star in the film writing in his journal, “I feel uneasy, but I’m now convinced I must go basically on what confidence I have in a director’s talent.” Subsequently, Roman Empire was placed on hold as the already-built sets were later demolished and replaced with the Forbidden City sets for 55 Days at Peking.
In March 1962, Bronston told columnist Hedda Hopper that he had hoped Katharine Hepburn would portray Empress Dowager Tzu Hsi. Also, Bronston wanted Ava Gardner for the female lead, although Heston did not want to work with Gardner and instead pushed for Jeanne Moreau. Meanwhile, the role had been offered to Melinda Mecouri who turned it down wanting rewrites. On 11 June, it was reported that Gardner and Hepburn had joined the cast. In the lobby of the Grand Hotel in Rome, Bronston offered David Niven a role in the film for a salary of $300,000, to which he accepted without seeing a script. On 12 June, David Niven’s casting was announced. By late June 1962, Flora Robson had replaced Hepburn to portray the Chinese empress while Robert Helpmann would play Prince Tuan.
In 1977, Ray recalled, “The pressure was tremendous. On a $6 million production, I had no production manager, and a 21-year-old assistant director. No script. I had two artists in my office, one Chinese and one Spanish. I’d describe the scene to them, they’d draw it and then I’d give it to the so-called writers and say, “Write a scene around this?” Prior to filming, Gordon and Ray had worked on a draft in which the former struggled writing as he contracted “colds and the flu and constantly ran a low-grade fever.” After four weeks of work, they presented pages of their draft to Yordan, who ordered them to “go back to square one and write the kind of clumsy, impersonal, fat historical opus” that the international distributors wanted. With filming nearly approaching, Yordan suggested hiring Arnaud d’Usseau to assist Gordon with writing some scenes, particularly those with Gardner. Gordon later recalled that d’Usseau worked meticulously slow and “simply couldn’t find his way into our script.” Following four weeks of work, d’Usseau left the project with none of his work being used. Shortly after this, blacklisted screenwriter Julian Halevy accepted Gordon’s offer to rewrite some scenes, among of which were new scenes for the Dowager Empress.
By May 1962, Gordon delivered a 140-page shooting script, but most of the scenes were merely summarized or sketched in. That same month, Heston received the script, but disapprovingly jotted in his journal that “[t]he love story is very arbitrary, I think; the dialogue primitive.” Filming would proceed without a finished script and on-set rewrites were frequent. It had been suggested that a native British screenwriter should revise the dialogue for Niven’s character for which Robert Hamer had been hired for the task. Ultimately, his services were later turned away as Hamer had sunken into alcoholism. Yordan then recruited Jon Manchip White to help rework the script, but it did not pan out. Four weeks later into production, Niven threatened to walk off set unless the script was rewritten. Yordan ordered Gordon to write “a Hamlet scene for him, and he’ll shut up.” Gordon then wrote four to five pages of monologue for Niven’s character to self-reflect on his actions. The new scenes were sent to Niven for which he returned to finish filming.
Principal photography began on 02 July 1962. The film was shot on location in Las Matas. Three thousand extras were required, including 1,500 Chinese. There were estimated to be 300 adult Chinese people in Spain so the rest were imported from all over Europe, particularly London, Rome, Marseilles, and Lisbon.
As production continued, Gardner was difficult during the shoot, often turning up late, disliking the script, and drinking heavily. One day, she walked off set claiming an extra had taking her photograph. Ultimately, the idea to write Gardner out of the film came from screenwriter Ben Barzman, who had rewrote El Cid. According to Heston, Yordan had written a death scene in which the Baroness dies of shrapnel wounds. By the time the scene was shot, Gardner struggled to remember her lines. Heston then suggested giving her lines to Paul Lukas, who was playing a physician.
On 11 September 1962, Ray was hospitalised after suffering a heart attack. At this point, production had fallen six weeks behind schedule with Gardner’s role being nearly complete, but significant scenes for Heston and Niven had yet to be shot. To replace him, Heston suggested Guy Green, who had previously directed him in Diamond Head (1963) to finish the remaining scenes between him and Gardner. Green subsequently left production, and by October 1962, directorial duties were transferred to Andrew Marton, who was directing second unit. Marton reflected, “When I came onboard, I thought the picture was very shallow, just action, action, action – there was no meaning. I wrote a new beginning and a new ending and submitted them to management – who consisted of Bronston and Michael Wasynski…Anyway, they said ‘No’ with a capital N capital O. And I was very unhappy.” Regardless, Marton invited director John Ford onto the set to advise him on shooting the sequences. Heston finished his scenes on 20 October 1962, for which he wrote in his journal, “What I have learned from this, I hope permanently, is never start a film without a good finished script.” Principal photography ended on 15 November 1962.
In May 1962, it was reported that Allied Artists, who had earlier distributed El Cid, had signed to distribute 55 Days in Peking in the United States. Bronston had raised the money by first pre-selling the film to distributors on the basis of the topic, and the involvement of Heston and Ray.
On 28 May 1963, the film received a gala invitational premiere at the Beverly Theatre.
Universal Studios Home Entertainment released the film on DVD 28 February 2001. A UK Blu-ray from Anchor Bay Entertainment was released in April 2014.
55 Days at Peking was a commercial disaster in the US. Produced on a then-enormous budget of $10 million, the film’s domestic gross was $10 million, earning only $5 million in theatrical rentals. It was the 20th highest-grossing film of 1963. The figures quoted ignore foreign box office receipts where the film was much more successful than in the US.
Comic Book Adaptation
- Gold Key: 55 Days at Peking (September 1963).
- René Bratonne also made a French newspaper comic adaptation of this film, assisted by Pierre Leguen, Claude Pascal and his son, who worked under the pseudonym Jack de Brown.
- 55 Days at Peking was released by Allied Artists on 29 May 1963 and received mixed reviews, mainly for its historical inaccuracies and lack of character development.
- However, the film was praised for its acting, direction, music, action sequences, and production design.
- In addition to its mixed critical reviews, the film grossed $10 million at the box office against a budget of only $10 million.
- Despite this, the film was nominated for two Academy Awards.
- It was director Ray’s last film until Lightning Over Water (1980).
Production & Filming Details
- Director(s): Nicholas Ray.
- Producer(s): Samuel Bronston.
- Writer(s): Philip Yordan and Bernard Gordon.
- Music: Dmitri Tiomkin.
- Cinematography: Jack Hildyard.
- Editor(s): Robert Lawrence.
- Production: Samuel Bronston Productions.
- Distributor(s): Allied Artists.
- Release Date: 29 May 1963.
- Running Time: 154 minutes.
- Rating: PG.
- Country: US.
- Language: English.