55 Days at Peking (1963)



Director:     Nicholas Ray.

Starring:    Charlton Heston (Major Matt Lewis), Ava Gardner (Baroness Natalie Ivanoff), David Niven (Sir Arthur Robertson), Flora Robson, John Ireland, Paul Lukas, Jacques Sernas.

Boxer Rebellion against western imperialism in China.



Charlton Heston plays the part of American army Major Matt Lewis who has been stationed in Peking, China.  He has come at a crucial time for the Boxer Rebellion has begun.  Day by day, tensions increase between the members of the international community in China and those Chinese wanting to force the imperialists out of China. 

While waiting for the inevitable clash, the major begins to fall in love with the widowed Russian Baroness Natalie Ivanoff (Ava Gardner).  Complicating his life even further, the Major has to step in to help save the orphaned half-Chinese daughter of one of his own soldiers. 

As war approaches, along with the informal leader of the international compound, British Sir Arthur Robertson (David Niven), the Major becomes more and more involved with planning the defenses of the compound.  When the war actually comes to Peking, the two men work together on a covert operation to destroy the local Chinese ammunition dump.

Things look bleak for the internationals, as the Chinese are able to use cannon to destroy large sections of their compound.  And, given the huge population of China, there is a seemingly endless parade of Chinese attackers. 

I first saw this movie as a youngster and still remembered the story after some 50 years or so.  It obviously made an impression on me.  It's a good movie, but not a great one.  The injustices inflicted on the Chinese by the international community of imperialists are not given much treatment, the movie only being concerned with the survival of the foreigners and not the health of the host country.   


Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D.


Historical Background:


Throughout the nineteenth century, China's emperors had watched as foreigners encroached further and further upon their land. Foreign regiments, armed with modern weapons, consistently defeated entire imperial armies. Now, as a new century was about to begin, Tsu Hsi, empress dowager of the Ch'ing Dynasty, searched for a way to rid her empire of foreign parasites.

Austria, France, Germany, Great Britain, Italy, Japan, and Russia all claimed exclusive trading rights to certain parts of China. They had divided  China into "spheres of influence." By acquiring the Philippines, the United States had a strong base just 400 miles from China.   

John Hay, Secretary of State, knowing that American public opinion, strained by the Philippines war, would not support the use of force in China, decided to negotiate America's way into China. He suggested an "Open Door" policy in China whereby equal trading rights for all foreign powers and non-interference among the foreign nations each within its sphere would be guaranteed. The other nations said that the policy was good, but not supportable or enforceable. Hay conveniently interpreted the polite rejection as an acceptance of  the Open Door in principle, thereby giving the United States the go-ahead.

In northern Shandong province, starvation following a devastating drought pushed people to rebellion.  A secret society, known as the Fists of Righteous Harmony, began to grow.  Foreigners called members of this society "Boxers" because they practiced martial arts. The Boxers also believed that they had a magical power -- that foreign bullets could not harm them.

Their cause, at first, was to overthrow the imperial Ch'ing government and expel all "foreign devils" from China. The crafty empress, however, saw a way to use the Boxers. Through her ministers, she began to encourage the Boxers with the slogan -- "Support the Ch'ing; destroy the foreigner!" 

In the early months of 1900, thousands of Boxers roamed the countryside. They attacked Christian missions, slaughtering foreign missionaries and Chinese converts. Then they moved toward the cities, attracting more and more followers as they came.

The empress dowager told the nervous foreign ministers that the Chinese government would stop the Boxers, but in reality she did nothing and the Boxers entered the capital. Foreign diplomats, their families, and staff lived in a compound just outside the Forbidden City's walls in the heart of Beijing. They had to quickly throw up defensive works.  20,000 Boxers advanced carrying standards of red and white cloth and creating a mighty roar with their gongs, drums and horns. A volley from the defenders forced the Boxers back, but they soon returned. Surrounded, the foreigners could neither escape nor send for help.

For almost two months, they withstood the fierce attacks and bombardment. They had lost 76 from their ranks along with many more wounded. Moreover, they had run out of almost all ammunition, food, and medical supplies. They knew they could not withstand further assaults. 

But unknown to the besieged foreigners, after a month of no news from their diplomats, eight foreign powers assembled an international relief force of soldiers and sailors. The United States sent 2,500 sailors and marines. The force arrived just in the knick of time for the besieged foreigners.  The foreign troops looted the capital and even ransacked the Forbidden City.  The empress dowager, disguised as a peasant, escaped the city in a cart. She returned a year later, but by then the power of the Ch'ing dynasty had been destroyed.

 Hay called for an expanded "Open Door" for foreigners in all parts of China, allowing foreign access to China's market until World War II closed it.


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