In the last years of his life, movie showman/producer extraordinaire, Samuel Bronston never stopped planning his big comeback. Although the onset of Alzheimer’s did much to slow down this once wily entrepreneur, Bronston’s clear-eyed approach to making movie epics on a grand scale arguably never dimmed. In retrospect, the epic is the hardest sub-genre to make well; the pitfalls of an unwieldy, elephantine spectacle, with its thousands of extras, exorbitant budget and lengthy shooting schedules is enough to stifle even the most progressively-minded movie maker. But Bronston was a rarity…or rather, ought to have been. By his own account he was a scrapper cum gentlemanly maverick; a visionary arrived too late to the lavish house party that had exemplified Hollywood hedonism a la the 1920’s and 30’s, but who, during its penultimate decline and fall had the foresight to relocate his entire family and film-making apparatus to more cost-effective Madrid, Spain; investing his fortunes in four stupendous movie epics that dwarf the grandeur and majesty of all those gone before; even including The Ten Commandments (1956) and Ben-Hur (1959).
In hindsight, it is a minor miracle so many epics have gone on to have a life apart from their own time. And yet, some of the lesser known, most decidedly, should not be overlooked. Case in point: Bronston’s monumental production of Nicholas Ray’s 55 Days at Peking (1963); a mind-boggling spectacle lensed in Super-Technirama 70; sheathed in Veniero Colasanti and John Moore’s superlative production design. It is one thing to build free-standing outdoor sets of China’s Forbidden City as mere false fronts made of painted plywood and gypsum; quite another to construct a fully-functional, three dimensional facsimile out of real building materials. The sets for 55 Days at Peking are actually built to scale and researched down to the very last detail. No expense has been spared to ensure their absolute authenticity.
Bronston’s drama about the siege of the foreign legations’ compounds in Peking at the height of the 1900 Boxer Rebellion has the mark of quality written all over it; from its magnificently star-studded cast (Charlton Heston, Ava Gardner and David Niven) to Jack Hildyard’s gorgeous cinematography and Dimitri Tiomkin’s towering score, 55 Days at Peking goes well beyond any expectation one might have for an A-list production. It is, quite easily, in a class apart. Regrettably, the movie also seems to sport the mark of Cain; an ill-fated crippling investment made by Bronston with funds inveigled from the Du Pont dynasty under Bronston’s own assurances that such investment was practically guaranteed to pay off in handsome dividends. The financial failure of 55 Days at Peking incurred the Du Pont’s wrath; the family doing everything they could to discredit Bronston as a rake and a charlatan who had taken them for a ride.
Although few would deny the fact that under Samuel Bronston’s cultured façade there beat the heart of a gypsy, as few would be quick to suggest Bronston’s motives for producing such a movie were anything less than altruistic – to entertain the masses and hopefully show a profit at the end of the day. Bronston was a creative type first/businessman second. It is this lethal combination that ultimately spelled disaster for Bronston and led to his undoing – not any deliberate attempt to abscond with monies allotted elsewhere. In producer Samuel Bronston we have an interesting dichotomy between the man who ‘would be king’ and a lonely Russian immigrant, desperately craving the autonomy of a legendary movie mogul. By the time his gargantuan and costly epic, The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964) debuted in theaters, Bronston’s best years as a film maker were, arguably, already behind him. Most certainly, his golden period in Spain had come to an abrupt and unfortunate end.
A scant three years earlier, Bronston had been justly celebrated as the producer of El Cid (1961) – one of the undisputed greatest epics ever made. Broston’s flair for the lavishly appointed costume action/drama had been well suited to the 1960’s, a decade in which virtually all the major studios indulged in their own ‘super productions’. However, in Bronston’s case, the overwhelming success of El Cid proved as illusive, imaginary and fleeting to repeat as any mirage set upon the desert sands. 55 Days at Peking catches the pendulum of Bronston’s heady success at the apex of its upswing. He was riding the crest of newfound fame he had never known; calling the shots from his own studio and able to cajol and otherwise lure major talent to star in his movies. There is some truth to the rumor, however, that many who came to the trough to drink were not altogether interested in how long Bronston’s lucky streak and glistening El Dorado would last. When one is a success, the sycophants surround. And Bronston was generally the benevolent sort - to a fault and to his own detriment.
To some extent, Samuel Bronston’s ability to cordially liaise with the highfaluting jet-set had always made him the most appealing and elegant of social sponges – schmoozing wealthy friends as he lightened their pockets for dream projects that, as yet, he had neither the means nor the wherewithal to actually produce. To suggest he was a visionary is perhaps a stretch. For although Bronston firmly believed in the proliferation of film as art, there was absolutely nothing cutting edge about his approach to the work. What set Bronston apart from most his contemporaries was his inexhaustible optimism and insatiable passion for generating and regenerating ideas.
In hindsight, Samuel Bronston and his adopted country – Spain – are a perfect fit. Neither Bronston nor Spain had been particularly well-received on the world stage. Both were in line for a major overhaul to their public image, and, each had their sights set on bigger and brighter futures ahead. Arguably, the renaissance of Samuel Bronston’s reputation begins and ends with El Cid. None of his three remaining epics, including 55 Days at Peking lived up to expectations at the box office. Even so, Spain provided the ideal working conditions for Bronston to briefly thrive: an agreeably year-round warm climate and dirt-cheap labor costs. While other filmmakers had exploited Spain for precisely these reasons before running back to Hollywood, Bronston dug in his heels and established his studio on the outskirts of Madrid, with funding provided by the Rockefellers and Pierponts; two of the most influential and wealthy families in the United States.
Bronston’s key investor was Pierre du Pont III; a man of considerable clout and affluence as part of the Du Pont Corporation. Under du Pont’s personal assurances and guarantees with various banks across America, Samuel Bronston was afforded unprecedented loans to kick-start his operations. Unfortunately for du Pont, the onus for repayment of these loans was not predicated on Bronston’s success. Should Bronston fail to produce a hit film, the responsibility of paying back creditors would revert to du Pont. Evidently, Bronston’s checkered financial past and shaky personal credit were of little concern to du Pont. After all, his own credit was exemplary. Indeed, the Du Ponts were wealthier than most of the financial institutions from which these monies had been borrowed.
For outside investments, Bronston employed a savvy ‘pre-sell’ marketing philosophy, virtually unheard of in its time. In essence, Bronston would shoot some of his most impressive set pieces first; then use the footage to sell shares in the movie to potential investors and distributors. But the slickest of all his bait and switches involved a financial arrangement between Bronston and Franco’s government; Franco licensing Bronston to act as an intermediary in the purchase and import of oil/Bronston purchasing the crude at a fixed price on the open market, then selling it to Spanish refineries for a considerably higher premium, skimming the differential off the top and funneling the cash back into his film productions. The Franco government was well repaid in the court of popular public opinion. Once regarded as a pariah state, Spain was now officially recognized as a tourist Mecca, catering to an endless stream of visiting dignitaries and international stars being paraded through the gates of Bronston’s Studios.
Very early on, Samuel Bronston realized what he needed was a ‘heavy’ in his front office – someone with dedicated business acumen. That man was Philip Yordan, an attorney whose own deal with Bronston created quite a stir. For his services as writer/script doctor, Bronston agreed to pay Yordan a then unheard of $400,000.00 per project. In turn, Yordan, who actually knew very little about scriptwriting, would tap blacklisted writers from Hollywood for a mere stipend; thus guaranteeing the quality of the work. Using Yordan as a front, blacklisted screenwriters Ben Barsman and Bernie Gordon began churning out properties for Bronston’s newly amalgamated dream factory to produce.
The success of El Cid was largely perceived to be the result of Charlton Heston’s box office clout, prompting Samuel Bronston to secure the star’s services again for The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964). Judging the project too similar in scope and theme to both The Ten Commandments (1956) and Ben-Hur (1959 – the latter for which Chuck won his Best Actor Oscar), Heston turned the project down. As Bronston usually had more than one project on the go, he now approached Heston with doing 55 Days at Peking, despite the fact set construction was already well underway on the Roman forum for the aforementioned movie. Heston’s acceptance of 55 Days at Peking prompted Bronston to bulldoze the Roman sets, embarking on the construction of the Forbidden City for ‘Peking’s shoot instead. At the time, the Forbidden City set was the largest ever constructed for a motion picture – a record Bronston would break one year later when he ordered an exact replica of the Roman forum rebuilt for The Fall of the Roman Empire.
To suggest Bronston’s approach on matters of budget was lackadaisical is an understatement. Indeed, sets designed by production manager C.O. ‘Doc’ Erikson were not only full scale, but also three dimensional. They weren’t props. Bronston was actually building a city! Ironically, Jack Hildyard’s cinematography in 55 Days at Peking would utilize only a third of the enormous Forbidden City set. But this did not concern Bronston, who derived a certain modicum of pleasure from entertaining world historians and the press with jaw-dropping recreations to dwarf their imagination as it boggled their minds. So long as Bronston could roll the profits from one ‘super production’ into the next, this precarious cycle of financial turnover in his film empire remained renewable. Unfortunately for Bronston, 55 Days at Peking did not perform as well at the box office as El Cid, placing a strain on the studio’s next project; The Fall of the Roman Empire.
In retrospect, 55 Days at Peking has the look of genius, though regrettably, not its spark; the screenplay accredited to Philip Yordan, though actually more the work of Robert Hamer, Bernard Gordon and Ben Barzman, lumbers through a series of vignettes that fictionalize and place a human face on the Boxer Rebellion; some more successfully executed than others. Worse for the film, its three megawatt personalities – Charlton Heston, Ava Gardner and David Niven – are underutilized; the movie’s most fascinating character studies arguably, Flora Robson’s Dowager Empress Tzu-Hsi, and Robert Helpmann as the deceiver, Prince Tuan. There is plenty of spectacle on hand with all the glitter an estimated $17,000,000 can buy. But director, Nicholas Ray never seems at ease with the enveloping lushness that surrounds; Jack Hildyard’s camera capturing what is directly before it, but without creating any necessary synergy between the sights and spectacle.
For all intent and purposes, the drama is tediously scripted; the clumsy romance between American Major Matt Lewis (Charlton Heston) and exiled Russian Baroness Natalie Ivanoff (Ava Gardner) tepid at best; barely going beyond the ‘as you desire me’ phase of glamorous movie love-making. From the outset the casting of Gardner was heavily contested. Bronston had wanted Deborah Kerr for the role, while Heston heavily championed to have either Jeanne Moreau or Melina Mercouri as his costar. Director Nicholas Ray insisted on Ava Gardner, who remains wooden and out of place throughout the story. Heston’s resistance to his co-star resulted in several of their scenes being pruned down in the editing process, presumably because there was no spark or chemistry between them. Heston could be known to be aloof – even vicious with leading ladies he did not care for. His rows with co-star Sophia Lauren on another Bronston epic, El Cid, are legendary.
David Niven is wasted in the role of ineffectual British diplomatist, Sir Arthur Robertson; spending the bulk of the movie’s runtime waffling with faux concern over whether to flee the Forbidden City or make the chivalrous attempt to withstand the onslaught from the machete-wielding anarchists. The Chinese are whitewashed as schemers, perjurers, villains and murderers; this, of course, totally ignoring the fact that western influencers in their midst and in their country no less are partly, if not entirely responsible for the violent outbreaks and bloody uprising. At least both Heston and Niven’s characters are loosely based on real-life counterparts; Matt Lewis actually modeled on Lieutenant General John Twiggs Myers, and Robertson on Sir Claude Maxwell MacDonald; the de facto commander of the foreign legations.
After a series of impressionist watercolors under the main title credits, 55 Days at Peking opens with a flourish of pomp and circumstance; the various nations in the legations compounds raising their respective flags with an orchestral serenade of their respective national anthems. Inadvertently, this melodic interlude results in a convolution of overlapping chords distilled into noisy clatter and chaos. One Pekinger in the market square asks another what all the ruckus is about, to which his compatriot astutely replies, “Different nations saying the same thing at the same time - we want China!” It’s the one bit of truth exposed within the screenplay as light comedy. Arguably, any film based on the Boxer Rebellion should not make light of what was ultimately an extremely brutal conflict. But 55 Days at Peking leaves no room for even the possibility of a respite from this decidedly dower excursion into state-sanctioned bedlam.
We are thrust into the thick of things as returning United States Marine Corps Major Matt Lewis, heading a contingent of multinational soldiers, witnesses the drowning of a Christian priest strapped to a rather large waterwheel in the town square. Matt makes the Boxer torturers a promise to buy the priest for forty gold sovereigns, but only if he is alive. As the priest is already dead, Matt refuses to pay anything. He is threatened by the Boxers; his second in command, Sgt. Harry (John Ireland) shooting one of the torturers dead after an attempt is made on Matt’s life with a rifle.
In another part of the city, Baron Sergei Ivanoff (Kurt Kasznar) is threatening his wife, the Baroness Natalie with enforced exile from her hotel suite for her spurious love affairs. Natalie, so it is assumed, is caught in a loveless marriage; the Baron assessed as boorish and forceful. Sergei orders the hotel’s proprietor to toss Natalie’s bags into the street. Either she lives with him or nowhere. Instead, Natalie latches on to Matt almost immediately as he pursues a cool drink in the hotel’s lounge. But their initial ‘cute meet’ is more adversarial than advantageous. Meanwhile, Capt. Andy Marshall (Jerome Thor) is reunited with his Eurasian daughter, Teresa (Lynne Sue Moon). Despite having promised to one day take Teresa back home with him, Andy is all too aware she would be considered even more of an outcast anywhere else in the world except China. After Andy meets with an untimely end, Teresa comes to befriend Matt, who also promises to take her away from the ravages of this rebellion but, in fact, has no real plans to do so.
We progress into the secluded temple of the Forbidden City where Dowager Empress Tzu-Hsi is entertaining opposing viewpoints from Prince Tuan and General Jung-Lu (Leo Genn); the latter encouraging tolerance and patience. But the Empress is discontented with the foreign encroachment all around her, and satisfied to allow the Boxers – who are, in fact, anarchists – their revenge on the legations. In another part of the city, Britain’s minister, Sir Arthur Robertson and his wife, Lady Sarah (Elizabeth Sellars) are entertaining guests at a lavish reception. These include Matt, who arrives with the Baroness on his arm, creating quite a public scandal; also Prince Tuan, who interrupts the night’s festivities with a display of swordsmanship by the Boxers, culminating with a challenge made to Matt. He accepts it on his own terms and is successful at thwarting what might otherwise have been another attempt on his life without spilling any more blood.
After Matt witnesses Prince Tuan give the order for the Boxers to slaughter the German Ambassador in the streets, Matt makes his discovery known to Sir Arthur, who immediately requests an audience with the Dowager Empress. Already anticipating his displeasure, the Dowager has decided to round up convicts and stage a public beheading to quell Sir Arthur’s concerns. It is a token gesture at best, one that sours when Sir Arthur tells the Dowager the man who gave the order is still very much alive and, in fact, in their presence. When Sir Arthur tells the Dowager that Prince Tuan is that man, she admonishes him with a threat of her own and a warning; that the rebellion is coming and all foreigners would be wise to leave China immediately or face certain death.
The rebellion breaks out and the foreign contingents seek refuge within their legations compound under heavy siege. At the height of the conflict, Natalie becomes a nurse at the hospital, caring for the wounded under the auspices of the rather stern, Dr. Steinfeldt (Paul Lukas) who eventually comes to admire her unwavering resolve. Matt becomes involved in a plan to blow up the Boxers’ stockpile of ammunitions on the eve Prince Tuan is giving the Dowager a lavish ceremony to celebrate their seemingly imminent victory against the foreigners. Matt departs the relative safety of the compound with a small entourage, promising Natalie to return when the mission has been completed. Predictably, the lovers are doomed never to be reunited. In desperate need of food and other supplies for the hospital, Natalie bribes a Chinese market vendor with her jeweled necklace in exchange for the necessary supplies. She is mortally wounded by the Boxers as her caravan approaches the legations compound; dying a short while later inside the hospital with Dr. Steinfeldt at her side.
Matt’s mission to blow up the Boxers’ weaponry and gunpowder is a success. He returns to the legations compound to find it heavily under fire; Sir Arthur and the priest, Father de Bearn (Harry Andrews) at their last stand. Remarkably, they have withstood the assault for fifty-five days; the cavalry arriving just in time to smite the rebellion and restore order. Matt learns from Sgt. Harry that Natalie has died. In the final moments of the movie, Matt elects to keep the promise he made to Teresa; taking the child astride his steed as the cavalry moves out of Peking – presumably headed back to their respective homes.
Based on Noel Gerson’s novel, 55 Days at Peking is undeniably extravagant. Regrettably, it is also somewhat profligate in its storytelling – Bronston and director Nicholas Ray relying almost exclusively on the enormity of the exercise to sell the story. Unevenly scripted and even more erratically paced, the film, at times, stumbles for something intelligent to say; the characters speaking the most banal lines of dialogue necessary to provide threadbare cause and effect scenarios. These are meant to form and flesh out the narrative, though they rarely go beyond that remedial function. Star power saves the enterprise from sinking under the weight of its own elephantitis. But we are never entirely treated to ‘performances’ per say, so much as relying on the presence of Heston, Gardner and Niven; each presented herein as variations on a theme of themselves. The film does manage to impress, but not entirely entertain. There’s a magnificence about the expenditures incurred (Bronston’s creative bookkeeping unlikely to reveal exactly how much the finished movie actually cost). But no one can deny 55 Days at Peking cost a fortune, lost a fortune and began Bronston’s slalom into steep financial decline, expedited into supernova-sized implosion with the release of The Fall of the Roman Empire one year later.
Yet Samuel Bronston, once rather kindly described as “a battleship with a fixed rudder” by his own son, remains an underrated and perhaps even misunderstood figure in Hollywood lore. Visionaries are few and far between. The era that spawned them is no more and unlikely to return. And while Bronston’s reputation has remained that of a somewhat loveable, misguided and overzealous ringmaster, commanding the art of the con like a circus, one cannot – and should never – dismiss his achievements outright as grandiosity run amuck.
It is too easy to simply blame Samuel Bronston outright for his inability to harness all the financial and political allies he had accrued until this point. Bronston’s finesse for business matters was always unrefined and clumsy. Despite a federal investigation into ‘secret’ bank accounts in Switzerland (that earned two indictments against Bronston before being overturned by the Supreme Court), the unvarnished truth surrounding Bronston’s personal finances was that he lived the remainder of his years on a meager social security check of $367.00 a month with his children supporting him for the rest of his life. None of this post-history ought to impact one’s enjoyment of revisiting the handsomely mounted super-productions that his Spanish venture into intercontinental film-making briefly wrought. For in the final analysis, Samuel Bronston’s vanishing empires proved just as elusive and magical as that walled-in Forbidden City beyond Peking’s gates.
In yet another asinine marketing decision, 55 Days at Peking receives its long-awaited hi-def debut - not in the United States, or even the UK, but – in France with a release from Filmedia. The back jacket of this disc suggests it is ‘region B’ locked, but actually the disc is ‘region free’; able to be played on any Blu-ray player anywhere in the world. Better still, Pinewood has conducted a meticulous hi-def digital restoration from an 8-perf Super-Technirama 70 negative. (We’re still waiting for Weinstein, the holding company of the U.S. rights to get off their duffs and do the same with Bronston’s other memorable epics: El Cid, The Fall of the Roman Empire and Circus World!!!)
But there is good news ahead. This Filmedia transfer is going to blow you away! Not only are the visual elements presented to us for the first time with razor-sharp clarity, gorgeous color saturation and superb contrast levels, but Filmedia has also stockpiled the extra features to include almost three hours of supplementary footage; including a feature-length documentary on the Boxer Rebellion. Problem: all of the extra features are in French. For those who don’t speak it – you’re sadly out of luck. Even so, owning 55 Days at Peking in such a high caliber video/audio presentation is definitely worth the price of admission. Accessing the main menu one can chose the original ‘English audio’ option in either 2.0 or remastered 5.1 DTS, also turn off the French subtitles. While an ‘English’ release of 55 Days at Peking is promised in the U.K. in less than two weeks, it is highly unlikely it will retain the ‘French only’ extra features. So find a buddy who speaks French and invite him/her over for a night of translations. Because 55 Days at Peking on Blu-ray from Filmedia is definitely worth a purchase. Very highly recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)