55 Days at Peking

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"A handful of men and women held out against the frenzied hordes of bloodthirsty fanatics!"
  • NR
  • 1963
  • 2 hr 30 min
  • 6.7  (7,360)

55 Days at Peking is a historical epic set in China during the Boxer Rebellion of 1900. The film stars Charlton Heston as the American naval officer Major Matt Lewis, Ava Gardner as the Russian Baroness Natalie Ivanoff, and David Niven as the British ambassador Sir Arthur Robertson. The movie begins with a brief introduction to the Boxer Rebellion, a violent movement that aimed to expel all foreigners from China. In response, several European powers and the United States form an eight-nation alliance to suppress the rebellion and safeguard their interests in China.

The main plot of the movie revolves around the siege of the foreign legation compound in Peking (now Beijing) by the Boxers and the Qing dynasty army. The compound houses foreign diplomats, their families, and other foreign nationals, who are trapped inside for 55 days, from late June to mid-August 1900.

Major Lewis, the commander of the American detachment, is tasked with organizing the defense of the compound, which is under constant attack by the Boxers and the Chinese army. He is aided by various other foreign officers and soldiers, including the brave French Captain Pierre Julien (played by Jacques Sernas), the sharpshooter Italian Sergeant Benelli (played by Mario Valdemarin), and the impulsive German Lieutenant Klemm (played by Kurt Kasznar).

Baroness Ivanoff, who has a shady past and a friendly relationship with the Boxer leader Prince Tuan, arrives in Peking and enters into a complicated romantic triangle with Major Lewis and Sir Arthur. Her presence causes tension and suspicion among the foreign community, but she also has valuable information and skills that could help the besieged defenders.

Sir Arthur, a seasoned diplomat who is determined to maintain British prestige and interests in China, faces another challenge in the form of the aggressive and arrogant French ambassador Baron de Sigognac (played by Philippe Leroy-Beaulieu). The two men clash over tactics, priorities, and resources, and their rivalry threatens to undermine the coalition of the eight-nation alliance.

The movie depicts the grueling and harrowing conditions of the siege, including the shortage of food, water, and medical supplies, the constant danger of snipers and artillery fire, and the psychological strain of isolation and uncertainty. The movie also shows some of the cultural clashes and misunderstandings between the foreigners and the Chinese, as well as the internal conflicts and alliances within the Boxer movement and the Qing court.

As the days tick by and the situation becomes more desperate, the foreign commanders face a dilemma: whether to wait for the relief force that is supposed to arrive from Tientsin (now Tianjin), or to launch a risky and costly assault on the nearby Chinese arsenal and artillery position, which are the main threats to the compound. The decision involves intricate debates and negotiations among the various factions, as well as daring reconnaissance and sabotage missions led by Captain Julien and Sergeant Benelli.

The climax of the movie is a spectacular and intense battle sequence, in which the foreign attackers, aided by Chinese Christian converts and a few loyal Qing soldiers, storm the Chinese positions and make their way back to the compound under heavy fire. The relief force finally arrives and the foreign legations are rescued, but at a high cost of casualties and destruction.

55 Days at Peking is a grand and ambitious production, with impressive sets, costumes, and cinematography that capture the sweeping scale and beauty of China as well as the brutality and chaos of war. The movie features an epic music score by Dimitri Tiomkin, and some memorable performances by the leads and the supporting cast. The film also raises some interesting and poignant questions about imperialism, nationalism, and human nature.

55 Days at Peking
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  • Release Date
  • MPAA Rating
  • Runtime
    2 hr 30 min
  • Language
  • IMDB Rating
    6.7  (7,360)