By 1963, Charlton Heston had already portrayed Moses, a Judean prince, William Clark (of Lewis and Clark), Andrew Jackson and was still several years away from playing Michelangelo, John the Baptist, and Marc Anthony. If there was an actor better suited to the historical epic -- and reveling in it at the same time -- I can't come up with a name. Something about his style, his acting ability, it just worked well in period pieces, like 1963's 55 Days at Peking.
I'll be the first to admit that while U.S. history is one of my favorite subjects, I know very little about Asian history whether it be China, Japan or anything in between. The subject covered in 'Peking' is the Boxer Rebellion, which I've always been aware of but couldn't have told you one thing about it. Reading some reviews and critiques of the movie, it seems history was handled fairly and mostly honestly. Looking at it that way, it serves then as both a history lesson and an entertaining epic.
Arriving in 1900 Peking with a company of U.S. Marines, Major Matt Lewis (Heston) finds a city in turmoil and on the brink of war. The Boxers, a large group of anti-imperialism/anti-catholic citizens, are ready to revolt. The world powers all have an ambassador and embassy in Peking with a token force of their military -- around 400 total men -- there for protection. British ambassador Sir Arthur Robertson (David Niven) somehow convinces the other ambassadors to stay even when a revolution seems imminent that could take all their lives. The armed forces along with all family, women and children move into the Legation Quarter, a walled city that can serve as a fortress. But with limited supplies, including food and ammunition, can the multi-national group survive until reinforcements arrive?
Based on the actual Boxer Rebellion history, 'Peking' holds many similarities with 1960's The Alamo both in history and in movies with composer Dimitri Tiomkin doing the score for both. After some background, both historical and character driven, most of the movie settles in for the extended siege of the Legation Quarter. Director Nicholas Ray -- who usually worked on smaller, more manageable movies -- has his work cut out for him. Making a siege interesting to watch is a challenge, but Ray succeeds. The almost two-month long battle is never dull with plenty of tension and action, but more on that later.
Once past the big name stars, 'Peking' doesn't have a cast of thousands of A-list stars, but the leads more than handle their own. Heston is an ideal choice for the tough U.S. Marine trying to do what's right, and Niven hits all the right notes as a former soldier turned ambassador trying to prove he belongs. Rising above just an unnecessary eye candy role, Ava Gardner nails her part as Baroness Natalie Ivanoff, a woman being kicked out of the city forced to re-enter upon the attack. She has an instant connection with Heston's Lewis, but thankfully the script calls for her to dig deeper as Natalie sees the horror of the fighting. Also starring are Flora Robson as Empress Tzu-Hsi, John Ireland as Sgt. Harry, one of Heston's Marines, and Harry Andrews as Father de Bearn, a priest with some military background. There's also a worthwhile subplot with a Chinese girl (Lynne Sue Moon) who's father is a Marine.
A good test if whether the movie you're watching is an epic has an overture, intermission, and exit music. If you answered 'yes' to the question, enjoy YOUR EPIC! 'Peking' has spectacle written all over it from the cast to the sets to the thousands of extras. Huge sets were constructed in Spain, and they're a site to behold, giving the story a real authenticity that would have been lost with models or green screens. Hundreds and thousands of extras fill the screen for the battle scenes which are some of the bigger ones ever committed to the screen. With the list of differing armed forces nationalities, there's even some humor, like Ireland's Sgt. waking up soldiers in a litany of languages.
Now for whatever reason -- probably because it's a good movie and what'd be the point of it -- this movie has not been released on DVD, not a good one at least. It's one of those epics where you can honestly say 'they don't make them like that anymore.' 'Peking' is everything that was big and grand about a roadshow version of a movie with great casting, a bigger than life historical story, memorable score, huge action, and surprisingly enough, an effective message. After all, the Boxers just want their country back...even if they go about it in an extreme fashion.
I was unable to find a trailer -- an English one anyways, if you understand German I can help you out -- but TCM has posted 4 clips you can watch through their website. The print shown on TCM was pretty near flawless if you ask me so how about those studio execs get off their butts and get this one on DVD.
55 Days at Peking (1963): *** 1/2 /****