The year is 1900 and Peking, China, is the base for a number of nations who for some time now have been doing their best to control the nation, sending troops and missionaries to guide the locals in the way the foreigners prefer. This has engendered a lot of ill-feeling, and a new group nicknamed the Boxers have started to gain a foothold against the occupiers thanks to their use of the most brutal forms of violence. For American Major Matt Lewis (Charlton Heston), he sees the trouble brewing yet feels powerless to stop it, following his orders but finding his attempts to intervene in an increasing atmosphere of threat, largely futile. The Dowager Empress (Flora Robson) is plotting...
Very much the Boxer Rebellion from the point of view of the folks they were rebelling against, 55 Days at Peking was a factual tale populated with fictional characters, and by all accounts an absolute trial to make and even complete. Director Nicholas Ray had made the gospel story King of Kings for producer Samuel Bronston, and had emerged from the experience mostly unscathed so signed on for one of the overseer's other epics, as Bronston was trying to establish himself as a superproducer in the Cecil B. DeMille mould, though of course DeMille tended to direct his efforts as well, which he did not. Soon he and Ray were clashing as the project hit severe budget troubles.
Basically, Bronston was spending money like water, and though the end result did pretty well at the international box office, the fact it had cost such an astronomical amount, wastefully so in some aspects, meant it made a loss and effectively scuppered his ambitions: his other works from the nineteen-sixties were already in progress at the time this was made, and after they were done, more or less so was he in the industry. Hubris or bad luck? To stage something on this scale you have to have some size of ego, but his reach just could not match his grasp, and along with his The Fall of the Roman Empire, this style of historical blockbuster went far out of fashion as audiences tired of them.
Not that historical epics went out of favour completely, and even today they continue to be a halfway viable genre for some studios, though the way that people behaved in the past was problematic to sensitive viewers of the twenty-first century means that a lot of rough edges must be sanded off. Yet you could argue they did that back in the twentieth century as well, as here when the opium trade the Westerners were making such a profit from may be mentioned, but not as a stick to beat the heroes' attitudes with, for instance. Acting, too, has changed: back as late as 1963 casting white stars as other ethnicities was acceptable if it was believed they could deliver a good performance that did the character or historical figure justice: now it's hotly protested if the actor or actress does not share a close resemblance to many of their characters' racial or even sexual aspects.
That said, 55 Days at Peking is not worth getting that het up about, as its issues are plain to see: a sprawling, everything but the kitchen sink affair, we get a poor orphan for Cheston to dote over, Ava Gardner as a fallen Russian noblewoman for him to romance (they hated each other on the set, though she was suffering a breakdown and the cast and crew had no time for this), David Niven stole the show as the British diplomat who realises he has placed his family in danger when he would have been better staying at home and forgetting his shot at glory, and when they grew desperate they threw in a The Guns of Navarone-style bombing raid on Dame Flora's munitions supply. It reminded you of that description of a camel as a horse designed by committee - the committee had gone to town on this, and it's not that clear if it should be included as part of Ray's cult canon in light of his heart attack part way through the shoot that saw him replaced by the less showy Guy Green. It couldn't help but be spectacular, and if that was your bag it satisfied, but you'd be better looking elsewhere for the history which naturally was a lot more complicated than the simple siege of savages we saw here. Music by Dimitri Tiomkin.