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Tuesday, December 14, 2010

An epic problem's not a problem for me: 55 DAYS AT PEKING (1963)

Directed by Nicholas Ray (and Andrew Marton and Guy Green)
Starring Charlton Heston, Ava Gardner, David Niven, John Ireland and a bunch of white people in yellowface make-up (including poor Robert Helpmann)

I better start off by admitting I've never seen King of Kings. I know Nicholas Ray as the guy who made Johnny Guitar and Rebel Without a Cause (among others). And they're big films, epic emotionally and physically, but still personal.

55 Days at Peking doesn't feel personal. It feels like a Samuel Bronston production. Mr. Cairns, whose Late Show Blog-a-thon I'm piggy-backing on, has already gone into Samuel Bronston's gift for Spanish tax shelters and destroying talented auteurs from the '50s (poor Anthony Mann). (At least Uwe Boll's main artistic victim is himself.)

And we're back in Spain (here playing Peking), with star Charlton Heston, and now it's poor Nicholas Ray having a heart attack trying to dramatize an epic historical event.

And it certainly feels like the kind of film that would give someone a heart attack. In most of the crowd scenes, the details are way too busy, overwhelming the eye and the attention, to the detriment of the story and shot composition. Eventually the story itself overwhelms any attempt at characterization by about an hour and a half in (about the time the intermission ends), and characters disappear for long stretches of time, to be replaced by explosions and extras. Spectacle qua spectacle just drains you, weakening previous effective scenes with repetition.

There are some nice grace notes, especially in the first part of the film. When Ray (or whoever is behind the camera) is shooting a couple of people together, it can be very effective. There are two scenes practically back-to-back about an hour and fifteen minutes in which first Heston's character and then Niven's character are put through the wringer as they risk losing someone they love to combat. Heston actually emotes in a subtle way, battling back a mix of prejudice, anger and despair as he tries to tell a half-Chinese girl her American father is dead. And it's framed in a half-ruined church, with a priest checking in from over an altar, in half-light.

On the acting front, Ava Gardner is flirty and beautiful, Charlton Heston is comfortably being Charlton Heston and Robert Helpmann, so wonderful in The Red Shoes and The Tales of Hoffman, decides to try out for a role as Republic serial villain.
Robert Helpmann will finally crush Flash Gordon!

David Niven's the one who comes out of this film smelling like roses. It helps that his character is the most complex. He's a good husband, a loving father, and a talented diplomat; he's charming and friendly even to someone as frustrating as Heston's Major Lewis. But in the name of peace he's willing to risk the lives of everyone in the foreign sector, including innocent civilians, and we already know his larger goal of preventing large-spread violence is going to fail.

An interesting sidebar: I wonder if this film could have been released any time other than 1963. Earlier than that and too many people might been bitter about the Korean War to want to see a movie about China's first fight against the West. Make it so much as a year later, and too many people would have seen uncomfortable parallels with what was going on in Vietnam. The muddled politics would have probably made it too hard for either side, left or right, to cheer it on (unlike, say, The Ballad of the Green Berets). As it is, when Heston's Marine says something like, "I'm just a soldier patrolling rice paddies in the back country" before demanding more soldiers, I get an uncomfortable shudder knowing what is coming down the pike for '60s America.

Anyway, the Boxer Rebellion ought to be a dramatically interesting subject for a movie. The problem is that this film is wedded to a "oh no, these white people are in danger" story-line that really limits it. Perhaps the problem is that, after a certain point, all the initiative and maneuvering is taking place in other military camps or in the Forbidden City, so that we only see our heroes reacting to things. The plot itself becomes a war of attrition on our attention, which is thematically appropriate but rather boring when it happens unintentionally.
I'm pretty sure they stole this shot for Ghostbusters.

Maybe part of it is just that I keep thinking a movie about the Peking embassies trying to maintain their Western way of life in the face of logistical and political impossibilities on the eve of the Boxer Rebellion would have been a fascinating film. But it's not one that would have starred Charlton Heston and Ava Gardner, let's be honest.

So we get a happy ending where a multi-national force marches in to strip China of its autonomy and Charlton Heston reaches out his hand from astride a horse to a little half-Chinese girl (who is really us, we all suddenly realize in the audience as the horns toot and strings swell and a supporting character gives an approving glance) and offers to give her a ride back to America.

But then again, there's a strain of cynical irony deep down in the grain of the film as we hear Russian aristocrats and Austro-Hungarian diplomats talking about imposing their will on China, not realizing they'll be in the dustbin of history in less than two decades. Or when Heston and Gardner flirt and waltz in an ancient temple, as an austere, ageless, uncaring Buddha stares down at them, knowing that this too shall pass. People come and go, but they won't stay. Nations come and go. Trends come and go.

And an exhausted Charlton Heston, worn out from a day of subduing natives, will collapse on his bed, a cross between the pieta and the dying Marat, and that little half-Chinese girl will look out from behind the rubble, afraid to approach. And she waits.

4 comments:

DavidEhrenstein said...

It's no wonder this rang down the curtain for Ray. He had tried to find a place for himslef in Europe after leaving Hollywood. But Bronson proved just as controlling as MGM, if not more so. Lovely to look at throughout, of course. And that cast! Ava is indeed delightful, as is Niven. And as wella ll know, Charlton Heston is an axiom of the cinema.

C. Jerry Kutner said...

Such a bloated, elephantine mess of a film. It would've worked much better as a Sam Fuller B-movie.

Mr. K said...

David: Well, a man who works with General Franco might not be the most tolerant and helpful producer. My snark aside, there certainly are some moments where the sumptuous production values are used to full benefit, especially in that wall-clearing setpiece with the jury-rigged cannon.

C. Jerry: Of course, in the main, I agree with you. For every clever set-piece or moment of bracing despair/anger, there are three more that are perfunctory and bland. Someone like Fuller (or Alex Cox if you were making this 20 years later) might have turned in a movie as nasty and cynical as the occasion demanded. On the other hand, if it has to be a meandering film full of longeurs, it's a shame someone like Rivette or Herzog couldn't have made it and turned that elephantine quality to use.

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