55 Days at Peking (1963) – Nicholas Grey and Guy Green

Charlton Heston, Ava Gardner and David Niven headline this recommendation from the Great Movies – 100 Years of Film book following my screening of Lawrence of Arabia. The Boxer Rebellion of 1900 is at the heart of the story, as a cast of characters are swept up into the drama, and terror of the siege on the International Compound in Peking, China.

A Marine, Major Matt Lewis (Heston) and British Consul, Sir Arthur Robertson (Niven) and countless others living in the compound must hold their ground during the Rebellion that could see them all ousted and killed during the uproar. Of course, with Heston and Gardner, there is a but of a love story thrown in as Lewis falls in love with the Baroness Natalie Ivanoff (Gardner).

Opposing viewpoints within the Compound must be set aside just to survive in this gloriously shot film that was nominated for two Oscars.

I’ve never been a fan of Heston, but the rest of the cast is top-notch and they handle most of the heavily lifting, letting Heston brood and be a man of action, and the film is beautifully designed. The costumes, camerawork, the entire production is gorgeous.

In turn, it is also frustrating to watch all these other nations that came into China, and didn’t try to adapt to the culture and the world, but instead tried to impose their own belief structure onto the Chinese.


As events lead up to the siege, we are introduced to the cast of characters, and get glimpses of the Chinese culture of the time, though it’s seen through Western eyes.

Lewis is bold, occasionally crass, and undeniably American while Niven’s Robertson is the perfect example of the Englishman and recognises the need for diplomacy and negotiation.

I think my favourite sequence in the film is where the Compound is prepping for the siege and Boxer knives keep appearing everywhere, delivered unseen, revealing that the entire country is becoming hostile to their presence, and any and everyone could be an enemy.

The story moves along briskly, and no matter where you fall on the political and cultural aspects of the story and actual event, the film is simply stunning to watch. It is epic in every sense of the word, and the production value is stunningly without equal.

This one ends up being an entertaining ride, giving a glossed over version of the Boxer Rebellion, and brings up some other questions throughout the films two and a half hour run time.

I had shied away from this one previously, because of Heston, but now, having viewed it, I can say it’s exceptional, and Niven is amazing no matter what he does.



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