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55 Days at Peking is a historical epic film made by Samuel Bronston Productions and released by Allied Artists. It was produced by Samuel Bronston and directed by Nicholas Ray, Andrew Marton (credited as the second unit director), and Guy Green (uncredited). The screenplay was written by Philip Yordan, Bernard Gordon, Ben Barzman ,and Robert Hamer, the music score by Dimitri Tiomkin, and the cinematography by Jack Hildyard.

The large cast was headlined by Charlton Heston, Ava Gardner, and David Niven. In addition to directing, Nicholas Ray plays the minor role of the head of the Americanmarker diplomatic mission in Chinamarker. This film is also the first known appearance of future martial arts film star Yuen Siu Tien. The acclaimed Japanese film director Juzo Itami, credited in the film as "Ichizo Itami", appears as Colonel Goro Shiba.


55 Days at Peking is a dramatization of the Boxer Rebellion which took place in 1900 China. Fed up by foreign encroachment, the Dowager Empress Tzu-Hsi uses the Boxer secret societies to attack the foreigners within China, culminating in the siege of the foreign legations' compounds in Peking (now Beijing). The film concentrates on the defense of the legations from the point of view of the foreign powers, and the title refers to the length of the defense by the colonial powers of the legations district of Peking.

The foreign embassies in Peking are being held in a grip of terror as the Boxers set about massacring Christians in an anti-Christian nationalistic fever. U. S. Marine Corps Major Matt Lewis heads an army of multinational soldiers and Marines defending the foreign compound in Peking. Inside the besieged compound, the British ambassador gathers the beleaguered ambassadors into a defensive formation. Included in the group of high-level dignitaries is the sultry Russian Baroness Natalie Ivanoff who begins a romantic liaison with Lewis. As Lewis and the group conserve food and water and try to save some hungry children, they await the arrival of expected reinforcements, but the wily Empress Tzu Hsi is, in the meantime, plotting with the Boxers to break the siege at the compound with the aid of Chinese troops. Eventually however, the forces of the Eight-Nation Alliance arrive and lift the siege over the legations district and put down the rebellion, an event which foreshadowed the demise of the Qing Dynastymarker.



  • The film maintains a certain curiosity value for cinephiles due to its credited director Nicholas Ray. Best known for his 1955 film Rebel Without a Cause, starring James Dean, 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. The premonition proved correct when Ray collapsed on the set, half-way through the shooting. Unable to resume working (the film was finished by Andrew Marton and Guy Green), he never received another directorial assignment. In the final months of his life, he collaborated with Wim Wenders, on the 1979 feature Lightning Over Water aka Nick's Film/Nick's Movie, which recorded his last moments.
  • The film was shot in the vicinity of Madridmarker, and most (thousands) of the Chinese residents of Spainmarker, and some from other parts of Europe were hired as extras.
  • The film gives little background of the humiliating military defeats suffered during the Opium Wars, Sino-French War and Sino-Japanese war or the effect of the Taiping Rebellion in weakening the Qing Dynastymarker. However, situations in which the various colonial powers exerted influence over China (great source of outrage that drove many Chinese to violence) are alluded to in the scene in which Sir Arthur Robinson and Major Lewis visit the Empress after the assassination of the German minister.
    • Dowager Empress - "....the boxer bandits will be dealt with, but the anger of the Chinese people cannot be quieted so easily. The Germans have seized Kiaochow, the Russians have seized Port Arthur, the French have obtained concessions in Yunnan, Kwan See and Kwantang. In all, 13 of the 18 provinces of China are under foreign control. Foreign warships occupy our harbours, foreign armies occupy our forts, foreign merchants administer our banks, foreign gods disturb the spirit of our ancestors. Is it surprising that our people are aroused?"
    • Sir Arthur Robinson - "Your Majesty if you permit me to observe, the violence of the Boxers will not redress the grievences of China"
    • Dowager Empress - "China is a prostrate cow, the powers are not content milking her, but must also butcher her."
    • Sir Arthur Robinson - "If China is a cow your majesty, she is indeed a marvelous animal. She gives meat as well as milk...."

  • According to Charlton Heston, the working relationship between himself and Ava Gardner was very bad, in large part, according to Heston, because Gardner was very difficult to work with and that she behaved unprofessionally throughout filming. By contrast, Heston said he greatly enjoyed working with David Niven.
  • 55 Days at Peking was filmed in Technicolor and Technirama, which involved the horizontal use of 35-millimeter film, resulting in 70-millimeter printed film format. The aspect ratio was 2.20:1, with the image viewed at 2.35:1 on 35-millimeter prints.

Academy Award nominations

The film received two Academy Award nominations for Dimitri Tiomkin (Best Song and Original Music Score).

Home media

DVD release came on February 28, 2001, nearly thirty-eight years after the film's premiere


  1. IMDB trivia.

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