Open main menu

55 Days at Peking

55 Days at Peking is a 1963 American epic adventure historical drama war film, shot in Technirama and Technicolor, that was produced by Samuel Bronston and directed by Nicholas Ray, Andrew Marton (credited as second unit director), and Guy Green (uncredited). Released by Allied Artists, the film stars Charlton Heston, Ava Gardner, and David Niven. The screenplay was written by Philip Yordan, Bernard Gordon, Ben Barzman, and Robert Hamer, while the music score was composed by Dimitri Tiomkin; the theme song "So Little Time" was composed by Tiomkin with lyrics by Paul Francis Webster. In addition to directing, Nicholas Ray, in a minor role, plays the head of the American diplomatic mission in China. This film contains the first known screen appearance of future martial arts film star Yuen Siu Tien. Japanese film director Juzo Itami, credited in the film as "Ichizo Itami", appears as Col. Goro Shiba.

55 Days at Peking
Directed byNicholas Ray
Guy Green (uncredited)
Andrew Marton (uncredited)
Produced bySamuel Bronston
Written byPhilip Yordan
Bernard Gordon
Robert Hamer
Ben Barzman
Based on55 Days at Peking
1963 novel
by Noel Gerson
StarringCharlton Heston
Ava Gardner
David Niven
Flora Robson
John Ireland
Leo Genn
Robert Helpmann
Kurt Kasznar
Paul Lukas
Music byDimitri Tiomkin
CinematographyJack Hildyard
Edited byRobert Lawrence
Distributed byAllied Artists
Release date
May 29, 1963
Running time
153 minutes
CountryUnited States
Budget$9 million[1]
Box office$10,000,000[2]

The film is a dramatization of the siege of the foreign legations' compounds in Peking (now known as Beijing) during the Boxer Rebellion, which took place in China from 1898 to 1900. It is based on the book by Noel Gerson.

55 Days at Peking was released by Allied Artists on May 29, 1963 and received mixed reviews, mainly for its historical inaccuracies. However, the film was praised for its acting, direction, music, action sequences, and production design. In addition to its critical failure, the film grossed $10 million at the box office against a budget of only $9 million. Despite its financial failure, the film was nominated for two Academy Awards, and in the years that followed, it became a cult film.


Starvation, widespread in China, is affecting more than 100 million peasants by the summer of 1900. Approximately a thousand foreigners from various western industrialized countries have exploited their positions inside Peking's legations, seeking control of the weakened nation. The Boxers oppose the westerners and their Christian religion and are planning to drive them out.

The turmoil in China worsens as the Boxer secret societies gain tacit approval from the Dowager Empress Cixi (Flora Robson). With 13 of China's 18 provinces forced into territorial concessions by those colonial powers, frustration over foreign encroachment boils over when the Empress encourages the Boxers to attack all foreigners in Peking and the rest of China. When the Empress condones the assassination of the German ambassador and "suggests" the foreigners leave, a violent siege of Peking's foreign legations district erupts. Peking's foreign embassies are gripped by terror, as the Boxers, supported by Imperial troops, set about killing Christians in an anti-western nationalistic fever.

The head of the US military garrison is US Marine Major Matt Lewis (Charlton Heston), an experienced China hand who knows local conditions well. A love interest blossoms between him and Baroness Natasha Ivanoff (Ava Gardner), a Russian aristocrat, who it is revealed had an affair with a Chinese General, causing her Russian husband to commit suicide. The Russian Imperial Minister, who is Natasha's brother-in-law, has revoked her visa in an attempt to recover a valuable necklace. Although the Baroness tries leaving Peking as the siege begins, she is forced by events to return to Major Lewis and volunteers in the hospital, which is battered by the siege and is running out of supplies. To help the defenders, the Baroness exchanges her very valuable jeweled necklace for medical supplies and food, but she is wounded in the process and later succumbs.

Lewis leads the small contingent of 400 multinational soldiers and American Marines defending the compound. As the siege worsens, Maj. Lewis forms an alliance with the senior officer at the British Embassy, Sir Arthur Robinson (David Niven), pending the arrival of a British-led relief force. After hearing that the force has been repulsed by Chinese forces, Maj. Lewis and Sir Arthur succeed in their mission to blow up a sizable Chinese ammunition dump.

As the foreign defenders conserve food and water, while trying to save hungry children, the Empress continues plotting with the Boxers by supplying aid from her Chinese troops. Eventually, a foreign relief force from the Eight-Nation Alliance arrives and puts down the Boxer's rebellion. The troops reach Peking on the 55th day and, following the Battle of Peking, lift the siege of the foreign legations. Foreshadowing the demise of the Qing Dynasty, rulers of China for the previous two and a half centuries, the Dowager Empress Cixi, alone in her throne room, having gambled her empire and lost, declares to herself, "The dynasty is finished", repeating the phrase three times...

When the soldiers of the Eight-Nation Alliance have taken control of the city, after routing the Boxers and the remnants of the Imperial Army, Maj. Lewis gathers up his men, having received new orders from his superiors to leave Peking. He stops and circles back to retrieve Teresa, the young, half-Chinese daughter of one of his few Marine friends who was killed during the 55 day siege. Aboard his horse, she and Maj. Lewis leave the city behind, followed by his column of marching Marines.


Depictions of historical persons and eventsEdit

The historical events depicted were, and remain, politically charged. The film's storyline addresses race-relations, colonialism, and nationalism as they were at the end of the 19th century and reflect the 1960s' growing concerns about these issues, rather than those of the Boxer Rebellion period. The conflicts between Chinese, Japanese, and European nationalism are also addressed.

Most of the starring Chinese roles, including the Empress Dowager and her Prime Minister, are played "yellowface" by white performers. However, the Japanese characters in the foreign legation are played by Asian actors, though their roles are minor.

Chinese view of "foreign powers"Edit

The film opens with cacophonous displays of nationalism inside the Foreign Legation quarter, with each nation raising its own flag, while playing its signature national anthem. The camera pans over to two old Chinese men eating a meal in a crowded street:

  • Old Chinese Man 1: (with hands over ears): "What is this terrible noise?"
  • Old Chinese Man 2: "Different nations saying the same thing at the same time, 'We want China!'"

The resentment of the Chinese Imperial Court at having to accept the presence of foreign powers in China is given its sharpest voice in the character of Prince Tuan (played by Australian ballet dancer Robert Helpmann) who counsels the Dowager Empress (British actress Flora Robson) to support the rebel Boxer "patriots" seeking to wipe out the foreigners. Opposing this aggressive stance is Gen. Ronglu (British actor Leo Genn).

  • Gen. Jung Lu: "If the Boxers remain unchecked, a dozen foreign armies will descend on China".
  • Prince Tuan: "We are tens of millions – let them come!"

The general warns the Empress that the Boxer rebels will be unable to match the modern armies of the foreigners. The Empress's sympathy for the Boxers grows, however and, in a later scene, she orders her general to turn back the foreign armies, declaring:

  • Dowager Empress: "China's condition can be no worse than it is! Even if we were to start a war and lose it, what more can the powers take from us?"

When the siege has ended in defeat for the Boxers, the Empress is seen at the Dragon throne, in distress and without her robes of state: "The dynasty is finished," she repeats to herself three times.


In 1959 Jerry Wald announced he would make a film on the Boxer Rebellion called The Hell Raisers. He hoped to star David Niven and Stephen Boyd.[3]

Best known for his 1955 film Rebel Without a Cause starring James Dean, Nicholas Ray was a tortured individual at the time of the production of 55 Days at Peking, somewhat akin to the Dean persona he helped to create for Rebel. Paid a very high salary by producer Samuel Bronston to direct 55 Days, Ray had an inkling that taking on the project – a massive epic – would mean the end of him and that he would never direct another film again.[citation needed] Ray's premonition proved correct when he collapsed on set halfway through shooting. Unable to resume working (the film was finished by Andrew Marton and Guy Green), he never received another directorial assignment.[4] In the final months of his life, he collaborated with Wim Wenders, on the 1979 feature Lightning Over Water, a.k.a. Nick's Film/Nick's Movie, which recorded his last moments.

Charlton Heston later stated that the working relationship between himself and Ava Gardner was very bad. He claimed that Gardner was very difficult to work with and behaved unprofessionally throughout the filming. In contrast, Heston said he greatly enjoyed working with David Niven. Heston would later work with Gardner again, in the 1974 Universal disaster film Earthquake.

55 Days at Peking, filmed in Technicolor and Technirama, involved the horizontal use of 35mm film, resulting in a 70mm printed film format. The aspect ratio was 2.20:1, with the final image viewed at 2.35:1 on 35mm prints.

The film was shot in the studios built by Samuel Bronston in Las Rozas de Madrid,[5][6] near Madrid. Due to the commercial failure of the film and other enterprises by Bronston, the area is now a residential compound in Las Matas. Four thousand extras were required, including Chinese people brought from restaurants and laundries across Europe[7] since there were not enough available Chinese people in Spain for the mass scenes.

Dong Kingman painted the watercolors for the titles and also made an uncredited appearance in the film.


Box officeEdit

55 Days at Peking was a commercial disaster in the U.S. Produced on a then-enormous budget of $17 million,[1] the film's domestic gross was $10 million,[2] earning only $5 million in theatrical rentals.[8] It was the 20th highest-grossing film of 1963. The figures quoted ignore foreign box office receipts where the film was much more successful than in the U.S.

Academy Award nominationsEdit

Dimitri Tiomkin received two Academy Award nominations for Best Original Song (“So Little Time”, lyrics by Paul Francis Webster), and for Original Music Score.

Historical inaccuraciesEdit

Several sections of the film were historically inaccurate or had created roles. Mention is made that a dozen nations from around the world were in Peking's international zone. Only eight nations offered soldiers to fight. Another part showed an English missionary being water tortured, and when the American Major intervened, a Boxer attempted to kill him but he was shot and killed instead by an American Marine. The film implies that this triggered the conflict. In another part of the film, the English hosted a party celebrating Queen Victoria's birthday. Her birthday was actually May 24, so this could not have happened at the time shown. The head of the English contingent, Sir Arthur when meeting the Dowager Empress, kicks aside the pillow which traditionally is used to kneel upon. Sir Arthur's son is shot by Boxers in another scene. Niven's character also takes part in blowing up the Chinese munitions dump. Ava Gardner plays an apparently fictional Russian Baroness in possession of a valuable necklace which she later barters for badly-needed food and medicine for the defenders. There are also several scenes which involve a priest who had a knack for creating weapons. Finally, as the American Major (Charlton Heston) and Sir Arthur (David Niven) sit atop the wall, they mention it's 5:30 in the morning on August 14, 1900 and the sun is high overhead. At the film's climax, a Boxer attack takes place with bombs dropping everywhere, then armies from all of the nations involved arrive to save the day.[original research?]

Home mediaEdit

Universal Studios Home Entertainment released the film on DVD February 28, 2001. A UK Blu-ray from Anchor Bay Entertainment was released in April 2014.

Comic book adaptationEdit

  • Gold Key: 55 Days at Peking (September 1963)[9][10]
  • René Bratonne also made a French newspaper comic adaptation of this film, assisted by Pierre Leguen, Claude Pascal and his son, who worked under the pseudonym Jack de Brown.[11]

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ a b Box Office Information for 55 Days at Peking. IMDb. Retrieved September 5, 2013.
  2. ^ a b Box Office Information for 55 Days at Peking. The Numbers. Retrieved September 5, 2013.
  3. ^ Scott, J. L. (September 8, 1959). Wald rushes plans for 'hell raisers'. Los Angeles Times (1923–Current File) Retrieved from
  4. ^ Nat Segaloff, Final Cuts: The Last Films of 50 Great Directors, Bear Manor Media 2013 p 239-241
  5. ^ (in Spanish)Curiosidades. Official site of Las Rozas.
  6. ^ (in Spanish)NO-DO newsreel Nº 1037A from November 19, 1962.
  7. ^ (in Spanish) Madrid: cuentos, leyendas y anécdotas, Volumen 2, by Javier Leralta, page 50, Sílex Ediciones, 2002. ISBN 8477371008
  8. ^ "All-Time Top Grossers", Variety, January 8, 1964 p 69
  9. ^ Gold Key: 55 Days at Peking at the Grand Comics Database
  10. ^ Gold Key: 55 Days at Peking at the Comic Book DB
  11. ^

External linksEdit