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55 Days at Peking (Nicholas Ray, 1963)


    Sometime during 55 Days at Peking, Nicholas Ray's war epic and farewell to Hollywood filmmaking, a character describes the horrors of "an enormous, empty, Chinese limbo," and unfortunately that seems a perfectly apt description of this overblown and talky ode to imperialism. Set in 1900, during the Boxer Rebellion, the movie finds Ray adopting a pessimistic attitude throughout until he pulls a "happy" ending out of his ass so that he can celebrate the country’s hostile takeover. Shot in 70mm ‘Scope, the film offers lavish production values instead of the humane ideas that are present in so many of the director’s other films. The rebelling Chinese (who are mostly played by Hollywood actors) are portrayed as a radical group of Christian-slaughtering monsters, and never is there an attempt made to offer more than desperation as an excuse for their actions. The Westerners who oppose them are given the carte blanche of principle to exempt theirs. There’s an uneasy mixture of the film’s desire to be a simple siege western in an exotic setting and its attempts to tackle bigger political themes. Since so much time is spent setting up the political tension that exists between the Chinese and everyone else, when it never fully develops, the reduction of everything to pawns in an impressively filmed, but essentially disconnected, battle sequence disappoints.

      There are demonstrations, somewhere around the midway point of Peking, of the reticence of all those involved in the conflict, but since practically every character has a simultaneous crisis of conscience, the gesture feels contrived. It's no surprise when the film launches back into its earlier warmongering attitudes for an even more explosive finale. When the cavalry arrives in the final reel, and their cannon fire crashes into the water with a splash and a rainbow, the spectacle becomes almost too much to believe. The subsequent, seemingly endless parade of colorful, multinational troops, each eager to claim the newly defeated China as their own, is a disgusting display. Any internal conflict that might have existed is washed away in a wave of bombastic pageantry, which is a fairly offensive sentiment considering the sense of nationalism that the Boxer rebellion brought to China. Of course it would be silly to expect a big-budget film made during sixties to treat China with a sympathetic eye. That scarcely excuses 55 Days in Peking’s lopsidedness, though. Instead of presenting a believable recounting of the events of the attacks, the movie offers the viewer a jingoistic cartoon.


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Jeremy Heilman