Movie watch: 55 Days At Peking and the China narrative

Anna Chen – 3 February 2008, China

55 Days at Peking review by Anna Chen - David Niven, Robert Helpmann, Charlton Heston & Ava Gardner
David Niven, Robert Helpmann, Charlton Heston & Ava Gardner in 55 Days at Peking

Review of 55 Days at Peking (1963)

by Anna Chen 3 February 2008. Directors: Nicholas Ray, Guy Green, Andrew Marton

I suppose I should be breaking out the Mao Tai and celebrating in style as this glorious annus mirabilis of the Beijing Olympics is, so I’m told, my year.

And about time, too. After a lifetime of invisibility and stuck with a status somewhere between ninja manicurist and evil opium warlord, British Born and Anglo Chinese like me are set to be in yer face for the whole of 2008.

This means the TV schedulers, lazy and stoopid, falling over themselves to make the most of this ready-made theme, and dusting off the archives for repeat heaven. Yes, an hour after you’ve seen one, you’ll be wanting another.

Already this week we’ve had the rarely aired Love Is A Many Splendoured Thing from the book by Han Suyin. Today, at nearly three hours but feeling like the entire eight weeks, 55 Days At Peking, a cold-war era jingoistic wet dream starring skullhead Charlton Heston, he of the “cold dead hand” and hero of the US gun lobby.

As there’ll be lots of this rubbish coming thick and fast with no taste and discrimination exercised (oh, okay, lots of discrimination but not exactly the way I wished), you’ll be needing a bit of orientation (har, har) around the subject.

Cometh the hour, cometh the blog – I guess that’s me, then.

China carve-up

So …

55 Days At Peking, directed by Nicholas Ray who should’ve known better and was sacked from the job for his pains. (And briefly seen in a cameo role as the wheelchair-bound American ambassador.)

Set in 1900, 55 Days purports to tell the story of the Boxer Rebellion, when indigenous Chinese made a last effort to get the rapacious foreign powers out of their own country. Eleven imperialist nations occupied major chunks of China with 13 out of 18 Chinese provinces under foreign control. The diplomats found themselves holed up in the Peking legation compound awaiting relief by their armies with nothing but Chuck Heston’s US Major Lewis, David Niven’s Sir Arthur Robertson, and Ava Gardner’s Baroness Natasha Ivanoff (as the romantic interest) between them and the Yellow nightmare.

Now I know that one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter. However, it is interesting to unpack the process by which a noble aim is turned into an evil act, and heroes made villains.

The only background you get to the rebellion is when the opening narration tells us that 100 million Chinese are hungry and that the famine is fanning the winds of discontent. Nothing else. Nothing about the British Opium Wars from 1839 when, as top dog in the imperialist pack, Britain transformed what had been an upper class vice in China into a nationwide calamity. They forced China to import cheap Bengal opium to offset the crippling balance of trade, with such august institutions as the Midlands Bank (now HSBC) and the East India Trade Company helping to bring China to its knees.

Movie Watch China - 55 Days at Peking reviewed by Anna Chen
Flora Robson and Robert Helpmann in 55 Days at Peking

The perfectly fair statement by sinister wily Prince Tuan (Robert Helpmann) that, if the Chinese Boxer rebels destroy the foreign forces, it shows that China is no longer helpless; “It will be the beginning of freedom,” is turned on its head.

This laudable objective is undermined by the constant reminder that these heathens, being subhuman and degenerate, have no right to the same treasured rights as you and me. OK, maybe not me, ’cause I’m a sinister wily oriental, but you get my drift.

So off we go on a trip showing us exactly how lowly and undeserving the antagonists are. We know that one of the themes of the film is what makes a person “whole” and what is incomplete. What is human and what is Other. To the injured Mancunian squaddie lying in the makeshift hospital, the prospect of losing his leg terrifies him as the worst thing in the world. “I don’t want to live as half a man,” he begs.

And here they are, surrounded and about to be swamped by such half-men.

China cruelty trope hammers away

To the Chinese of this world, life is not valued except in cash terms. A Chinese life is worth 20 dollars, while the tortured English priest is priced at 40 dollars.

Interestingly, the priest is strapped crucifix-style to a water wheel by sinister wily Chinese Boxers (this is Christian values under assault by pagan scum, after all), and plunged into the water until he drowns. Not like waterboarding, then, as used by the CIA.

The sinister pitiless Dowager Empress Tzu Hsi, played by Flora Robson, orders two lots of unjust executions. General Yung Lo (Leo Genn) attempts to halt the first in his best British thesp accent, the execution of a Chinese Colonel who has tried to impose order on Prince Tuan’s favoured Boxers. Despite his superior argument, having a somewhat rational western mind to go with his perfect diction, she insists the victim be executed for the petty “crime” of making them quarrel.

The second incident is a mass beheading of Boxers who have just carried out the killing of the German minister at the behest of fiendish Prince Tuan. They may be ours, but even our friends are expendable. The Dowager Empress tells Sir Arthur, “Chinese justice is swift and thorough.” To which he replies, “Where’s the guilt – those who wield the sword, or those who give the command?” because the British care about these things, and Sir Arthur, such a delicate civilised soul, is shocked despite being a military man. (Ask Craig Murray, former ambassador to Uzbekistan until he tried to put these principles into practice.)

British imperialism wears kid gloves

Of course the Brits never carried out executions and massacres, did they? Amritsar is a whole 19 years in the future, and they ruled Empire with kid gloves. Yeah, right.

The Brits have much to teach: “China is learning new arts of peace from the West.” And then watch how Sir Arthur’s oily charm delivers a threat as a compliment. Having contemptuously kicked away the cushion on which he is expected to kneel in the Imperial court, he tells the Dowager Empress, “China’s greatest virtue is her patience. … If not, then the blood of millions will be shed.”

He continues; “I have come here with the Truth.” Being a heathen, she tells him, “We reject your truth,” and orders them all to leave the country. Ooh, now we’re not even occupying the same world of perception. We ain’t in Kansas any more.

Boxers come up short in China

Meanwhile, as the Boxers are marauding, “killing every white man” and Chinese Christians in numbers that I am guessing would be dwarfed if Britain plunges the country into a major armed conflict, the westerners are humanised and made compassionate and worthy of compassion at every opportunity.

Ye gods, how different these big-nose white devil invaders are. They care about the enemy as well as their own side, they introspect, they question themselves, they have God on their side.

Major Lewis urges his men to treat the Chinese as human. “Pay your money and don’t expect any free samples.”

In turn, Major Lewis is reprimanded by Sir Arthur for the death of the Boxer – who was about to shoot Lewis dead.

Fearful that her injured son – the little innocent Tommy – is somewhere in “An enormous, empty Chinese limbo,” Lady Sarah Robertson crumples while her man grapples with the Big Questions. Whose ambitions is he serving? Who gains? How many children must die?

Well may he ask. Sir Arthur’s rather anodyne conclusion is, “The pain is not yours alone”. He is rewarded with the observation by his wife that “Only an honest man would ask such a question.” These are, after all, the marks of the civilised man.

And these civilised men have no defences against the barbarism waiting outside the compound except for their books piled and squeezed into makeshift barricades.

“Don’t go through there, Ma’am,” the young soldier advises the Baroness just before he is cruelly cut down by a sniper. “There are Chinese on the other side.” There are, actually, Chinese on both sides, but who’s counting?

The only good Chinese …

All the representatives of the foreign powers are thus depicted as human, rounded, full with an inner life. Even the bloody Japanese officer, Colonel Shiba, is played by a proper Japanese actor (the “delicious”, according to some, Juzo Itami) who happens to be dashingly attractive unlike the wily sinister Chinese. Did the filmmakers not understand Japanese history in China? Good grief!

There are good Chinese, though, represented by the mixed race Teresa, a pretty eleven year old daughter of a US captain and a Chinese woman, now dead. Teresa has been deposited in a Chinese orphanage for the duration, where she seems to have no relation to her peers, but pines for her white daddy who has promised to take her back “home” to Illinois. She lives for his rare appearances in Peking but, unbeknown to her, Daddy is having second thoughts. He tells Major Lewis, “They’d treat her like a freak back home.” Lewis agrees; she is “better off with her own kind, ” even though she has no mother.

When Captain Marshall – her father – dies, Major Lewis is transformed from a soldier merely doing his job into the father of the spirit of the new post-imperial China as embodied by Teresa; the good, free, non-threatening Chinese spawned by our side (again, not me, but, you know …). As the priest tells Lewis, “The only language a child understands – love. Every man is the father of every child.”

Only two years before making this film, Heston was again transformed, this time in El Cid, from man into myth, when his cold dead corpse is strapped to his horse and sent flying through the enemy, scattering them and winning Spain from the swarthy heathen scum. Chuck’s good at these roles.

So, there you have it. China as a pretty loveable malleable child in need of rescue by the paternal force of US imperialism. At the end, as Lewis is riding out of the city at the head of his troops, he bends down to Teresa. “Here, take my hand”. And she rides off on the back of his horse – presumably into a future where she’ll learn fast, trounce him at manufacturing, and poison his dogs and his kids with tainted pet-food, toothpaste and leaded toys. Heh, heh! And serves him right.

Drugs … and a wagonload of fruit for the children

Don’t ask me about the Ava Gardner/Baroness Natasha Ivanoff storyline with its diamond necklace MacGuffin thread that goes nowhere. The budding romance between her and the Major is strangely underdeveloped with more passion occurring between ol’ granite-jaw and Sir Arthur, than with her. (Appropriate, though, as the British Foreign Office has always had the experience and the brutality to keep one of the biggest empires afloat and has played a leading backroom role in US adventures. Don’t forget Britain’s little lesson with the dodgy dossier and Niger uranium when the nature of the US/British relationship came to light.)

As soon as she admits to shagging a Chinese General you know she’s doomed. And, indeed, she dies from a Boxer bullet while performing heroics and bringing opiates for the wounded and fruit for the children. How’s this for classic dialogue?

“I want the drugs and a wagonload of fruit for the children.”

Hmm, recreation and roughage – just my sort of heroine. Or heroin. Which is why it was an eleven year old girl on the back of the Major’s horse and not the glamorous transgressive Baroness. The tabloids would have a field day – unpack that, Rebecca Wade!

On one level, 55 Days is just another siege movie. It could have been cowboys against Indians, or plantation owners versus African tribes. Here it’s brave white soldiers versus the yellow hordes and their fiendish wave attacks representing the hostile Other.

On another, it’s a 1963 Cold War epic set on dehumanising an ideological enemy in crude terms.

Yellowface vowels in an uproar

It boggles my fine mind to think that as recently as 1963, when this ponderous bit of colonialist propaganda was made, Hollywood was still putting western actors in yellow-face and epicanthic eyelids.

In the villains’ corner, Flora Robson, who has one of the biggest schnozzles in cinematic history, is the cunning and sinister Dowager Empress, Chinese not being best known for noses the size of Beachy Head. Arch fiend Prince Tuan is played by the ballet maestro Robert Helpmann with an accent … what the hell was that accent? A eunochoidal RADA twang via Widow Twanky.

However, the more human the character (read – sympathetic to the cause of the white westerners), the less their vowels were in an uproar. Hence, Leo Genn’s General Yung Lo, who wants to curb the Boxers, is allowed to thesp away like a Saturday matinee in Leatherhead.

Finally, that opium.

The doctor struggles to look after the wounded with no alcohol, iodine or painkillers. They are “back in the dark ages”.

The Doctor Han tells the Baroness, now working selflessly as his nurse, “We are in the land of opium and there are no opiates.”

Perhaps he should have asked his dealer. I would have tried Sir Arthur, myself. He looks like a man who knows.

Channel 5 followed 55 Days with a Jackie Chan movie. This was not adequate compensation.

SEE ALSO YELLOWFACE: Dehumanisation starts by being rendered invisible and turned into a blank canvas onto which constructed images are projected, supplying a permanent reservoir of scapegoats. A raft of exclusions despite Britain’s record of colonisation embed yellow peril stereotypes deep into the collective unconscious. Examples can be found at this page.

The Opium War by Julia Lovell: review by Anna Chen. Western academia’s rationalisation of the coming war on the rising superpower resorts to victim blaming and defence of the narco-capitalists who carved up China in the 18th century Opium Wars.

SHAKEDOWN: Timeline of America’s 21st century war on China

55 Days at Peking: Full movie in 4K on YouTube

11 thoughts on “Movie watch: 55 Days At Peking and the China narrative”

  1. Good review. I could not bear to sit through
    this movie. Caught a few minutes then switched channels, having known pretty well what to expect. Typical of imperialist treatment of history and foreigners, particularly non-Europeans.
    At the time the film was released and for some years after wee were being geared up for war with “Red China”. A friend who was training in the TA “ever-readies” told how every time the seargeant was showing them a new weapon he would say “Now, suppose there were a thousand Chinese coming up the hill towards you..”
    Eventually when he asked for questions Pat asked “How come you keep saying ‘Chinese’? Do you know something we don’t know?”
    Of course the British government had brought in Dayak headhunters to demonstrate Christian
    civilised conduct against Chinese guerrillas in Malaya, and in 1965 the Foreign Office ran a radio station aimed at Indonesia broadcasting anti-Chinese propaganda rather in the way Britain’s Czarist allies used antisemitism, to incite pogroms and help prepare the right-wing military coup and anti-communist massacres that followed.
    I also remember there was a peculiar episode outside the Chinese embassy, kind of thing I suspect our “intelligence” services contrive from time to time.

  2. Thanks, Charlie.

    “How come you keep saying ‘Chinese’? Do you know something we don’t know?”

    Har, har!

    Caught a few minutes then switched channels, having known pretty well what to expect.

    Yes, nearly three hours some of us had to endure. Three hours of my life I want back. Now!

    Anyhow, expect a lot more of this in the next year.

  3. It’s a dreadful old chestnut, isn’t it? And as usual, the natives are mostly reduced to this threatening mass outside the gates.

    I’m still hoping they’ll repeat Battle Beneath The Earth, just for the comedy value of the Brits’ attempt at paranoid Cold War drama. The Chinese digging a huge tunnel under the Pacific to invade America? Only the stiff-upper-lip British action hero can save the free world? Yup, sounds plausible to me.

  4. Unfortunately, Madam Miaow, there are some today in the People’s Republic, who wouldn’t take such a dim view of 55 Days at Peking. I’ve seen the same in Ireland – those locked into and benefitting from “globalisation” find the old revolutionary history embarrassing, and set in motion a wave of revisionism among the historians. Here’s the Washington Post (25 Jan 2006) on one such historian in China:

    The piece, written by Yuan Weishi, a reform-minded scholar at Zhongshan University in the southern Chinese city of Guangzhou, criticized Chinese textbooks for teaching an incomplete history of China’s last imperial dynasty, the Qing, that fosters blind nationalism and closed-minded anti-foreign sentiment.
    For example, he challenged the textbooks for portraying the 1900 Boxer Rebellion as a “magnificent feat of patriotism” without describing the violence committed by the rebels or their extreme anti-foreign views. He also criticized the books for blaming the Opium Wars of the mid-1800s entirely on foreign nations, without mentioning the Qing government’s record of violating treaties by refusing foreign merchants access to Chinese cities.

    I suppose the best analogy would be “Yeltsinism” – opening up the country to the worst depredations of the Western banks. The fact that the Chinese authorities closed down the magazine that published Weishi’s article shows that they’re not inclined to go down this road. That may be a bad thing for a few “reform-minded” intellectuals who have hopes for greater rewards from abroad than the Chinese state gives them at present, but I don’t think we should shed too many tears for that bunch.

  5. Thanks, Charlie for your fascinating comment – most of that was before I was born, and I wasn’t quite sure how much official propaganda was directed against China in the period when 55 Days was made.

    Returning to the condemnation of the Boxer Rebellion from within China today, here are a couple of extracts from the article I mentioned, which criticises present-day Chinese history textbooks for their coverage of Chinese anti-imperialist history, including the Boxer Rebellion:

    The textbook did not mention anything about how the Boxers were hostile to modern civilization or they blindly rejected foreigners and all foreign civilizations through extremely ignorant ways. … The textbooks did not condemn the Qing dynasty and the Boxers for killing the innocent and their barbaric and cruel crimes in burning, killing and looting.
    Besides, these criminal actions brought unspeakable suffering to the nation and its people! These are all facts that everybody knows, and it is a national shame that the Chinese people cannot forget. Yet our children’s compulsory textbooks will not speak about it.

    “Modernization and History Textbooks”, Yuan Weishi (Zhongshan University professor); publ. 11 Jan 2006 in Freezing Point, a supplement to China Youth Daily

    The author is very clear that the Boxer Rebellion is a live issue, and that (to his mind) it offers a set of entirely negative lessons for today:

    But one thing is for certain: it is necessary to find a peaceful international environment to win enough time for national reform and construction. If this is more or less right, then we have to look back at the Boxer incident and see how it was a reactionary affair that ran in the completely opposite direction of social progress. Furthermore, butchering foreigners is anti-humanitarian and anti-civilization, as are the violent acts that are extremely stupid and dangerous to the interests of China.

    Sir Arthur (David Niven), the British envoy in 55 Days would have been delighted. And I’m sure he would have ensured that such efforts didn’t go unrewarded. Perhaps his successors today think the same.

  6. Thanks, Babeuf.

    While it is true that the old Qing imperial dynasty was decrepit and corrupt and needed sweeping away, it sounds as if the writer you quote may have an eye on the main chance.

    There is a valid criticism of blind nationalism. Chinese nationalism – any nationalism – can be weird, especially in its extreme forms.

    From the quotes you found, Mr Yuan doesn’t seem to offer any understanding as to why this section of Chinese society might have responded to extreme circumstances in an extreme way. In condemming the Boxers outright he does appear, at least on the surface, to be sucking up to the West.

    Furthermore, butchering foreigners is anti-humanitarian and anti-civilization, as are the violent acts that are extremely stupid and dangerous to the interests of China.

    Considering eleven imperialist nations were carving up China, with all the brutality that entails, I think Mr Yuan needs a lie down. Charlie gives a good example of warm humane British foreign policy.

    Sun Yat Sen would have been a 34 yr-old activist around the time of the Boxer Rebellion, and his republican movement only had another 11 years to wait until they established themselves as the Chinese govt. So there were other more progressive forces around at the time the movie was set, but you’d never know it.

  7. Very good review.

    It isn’t surprising that Hollywood was producing pro-western, pro-colonialist dross in the early 1960s. There had been various national liberation struggles for independence in countries like Algiers, Congo and so on. And films like this were pushing the ideology of the west.

    “So, there you have it. China as a pretty loveable malleable child in need of rescue by the paternal force of US imperialism”.

    And that still echoes today with Iraq. Imperialism to the rescue….

    Oh, and I too like that line, “I want the drugs and a wagonload of fruit for the children.”

    Fantastic!! I must try it when I next go to Tesco 😉

  8. Madam Miaow says: the priest is strapped crucifix-style to a water wheel by sinister wily Chinese Boxers (this is Christian values under assault by pagan scum, after all)

    Yes MM, and 55 Days wrenches the Boxers’ treatment of missionaries out of context – unsurprisingly. Why were they executed during the Rebellion? Was it just congenital pagan cruelty?

    Senior missionaries were signatories to several of the unequal treaties that established colonies on Chinese territory and which, together with the Opium Wars, laid the groundwork for the economic collapse that led to millions of Chinese deaths in the last quarter of the 19th century.

    The missions often simply grabbed the land they wanted, and once established, they happily used Chinese slave labour, which they kept in order by administering beatings and even exercising the death penalty.

    The well-being and safety of the missionaries served as the pretext of first preference when imperialist governements when they wanted to send troops into an area. Far from being unaware of this, on crucial occasions the missionaries acted as the eyes and ears of the imperialist armies, furnishing them with the intelligence they needed for further killing sprees and land grabbing.

    And if the first missionary seen in the film is a pitiful victim of unexplained Boxer “cruelty”, the other, Father Bearn, who appears throughout film, is a perfect symbol of the colonial missionary – indeed, the film makers are so confident of the audience’s sympathies that they give a little too much away. Father Bearn is presented as the saintly guardian of the Christian Chinese children within the legation compound, gently coaxing Heston’s character into adopting her after her father dies in battle. But on two occasions during the seige, he displays remarkable expertise in the construction of mass killing machines from whatever materials are at hand. When the military professionals are at a loss, Father Bearn is there to show them how they can propel more high explosive into the bodies of the advancing Boxer hordes (as MM points out, they’re always hordes and never individuals). This is not presented as violence, of course – perish the thought. Violence, in this world, is monopolized by the Chinese, just as today’s victims of imperialism are the sole source of “violence” when they have the cheek to fight back.

    And what of those dear, sweet little Chinese Christian children within the legation compound? Were they cared for lovingly, as in the film? Well, no. They were allowed to starve, while the white population of the legation ate all the meat (complaining all the while about having to eat pony meat etc.) And were they swept away by square-jawed white heroes at the end of the siege. Well, no again. They were raped by soldiers of the 20000-strong force that arrived to end the siege. “Unfortunate incidents”, as one recent Western account of the Boxer Rebellion puts it (the spirit of 55 Days is still alive today).

  9. Splinters, Battle Beneath the Earth is fantastic. Paranoid cold war propaganda seldom comes more far fetched and, well, paranoid.

    MM wrote: “After a lifetime of invisibility and stuck with a status somewhere between ninja manicurist and evil opium warlord, British Born and Anglo Chinese like me are set to be in yer face for the whole of 2008.”

    When you’re a household name by the summer, will you still remember your humble blogging friends and comrades?

  10. Yes, Phil. If they haven’t burnt me at the stake by then.

    Great comment on the missionary position from Babeuf. Thanks for that. A gruesome final paragraph. Where did the info about the rape of the Chinese Christians come from?

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