[The following is a contribution to the Nicholas Ray Blog-A-Thon for Tony Dayoub's Cinema Viewfinder.]
The last true feature Nicholas Ray made before his death, the Boxer Rebellion epic 55 Days at Peking perhaps doesn't even count on those terms as he collapsed before its completion. But while We Can't Go Home Again shall perhaps forever be an incomplete assembly of experimental sight and sound and Lightning Over Water is more Wim Wenders' baby, 55 Days at Peking must stand as the last movie to at least look like a Nick Ray movie, though I'm afraid it doesn't ever do much more than that. Often, this is the precise opposite of a problem, Ray's mad style elevating even the most stiff of projects into the realms of pure, glorious spectacle. Here, however, it at last feels like window-dressing, a spring of parsley on a burnt roast made by too many cooks.
But if the film is one of Ray's rare failures, it is nevertheless a necessary viewing, if for no other reason than the grim spectacle of seeing a master fall apart behind the camera. Even then, there are sumptuous visual delights to be had in this over-sprawling clash of West and East. Its clever opening shots, floating over the various embassies of foreign powers as their anthems merge with harmony and disharmony just outside the Forbidden City. As one cynical Chinese man says to a friend, "Different nations say the same thing at the same time: 'We want China.'" The resentment of foreign encroachment (and equal incredulity on the part of the Westerners at the resistance they face at disseminating their values) gives the film a common thread with all late-career Ray features. Sadly, it soon loses focuses and improperly handles the potential incisiveness of the commentary.
Intriguingly, 55 Days at Peking always seems to set every scene in a classical piece of Western staging before pulling back to show the Chinese culture around it. Whether it's the Western look of dusty, Union blue Marines riding in front of the Forbidden City or a martial arts demonstration that becomes the centerpiece of a European-style ball, this constant intrusion of one culture into another contextualizes the film's focus on the outsiders trying to spread their customs to a hostile people. Despite the shown atrocities of the Boxers, Ray likewise does not soft-sell the oblivious paternalism of the free (if you're a Western, white power) trade invasion that threatens China's autonomy through means other than war: economics.
Had the film shaved a good half-hour off its bloated running time and went for meaty themes over epic sprawl, such unorthodox ideas and subject matter might have made this as much a late triumph as The Savage Innocents. But 55 Days at Peking takes too long to get to its subject matter, its inventive juxtapositions of blind Western comfort and boiling Boxer tensions get bogged down in lengthy scenes that put off the true narrative for nearly an hour and derail the action not long after it belatedly begins.
Worse, the film soon gives way to a far more simplistic, reactionary reading as a piece of anti-Chinese Cold War propaganda. China's quest for sovereignty becomes not a reasonable cause against the arrogant cultural intrusion of the US, Great Britain, Russia, Spain, France and the like but a wave of terrorism that depicts Chinese insurrectionists as amoral monsters. They kill missionaries, they kill dignitaries. And lest anyone point out that missionaries and diplomats were hardly blameless in China's slow financial annexation, Boxers even shoot a white child on screen, ensuring our hatred.
I don't know what ideas are Ray's and what are those of producer Samuel Bronston, replacement director Andrew Marton or the team of writers assembled. Judging from Ray's past films, the more even-handed criticism that peeks through at times seems his work: we can see why the Chinese would obviously be upset by the growing influence of other nations, and there's no small amount of irony in an early scene of U.S. Marine Maj. Matt Lewis (Charlton Heston) trying to smooth things over with the local Boxers by bribing them to let a man go, even after he learns the man is dead. The American wants to buy trust, because he is an American and assumes money will win over the Boxers who want their own money back. Likewise, while the final commentary that the dynasty that tacitly endorsed the Boxers to drive out foreign parties effectively signed its death warrant (a clear precursor to Maoist revolt), it also makes for a complex view of how a revolt can spiral into a mob that hurts as much as it helps, as well as adding a dark tinge to the otherwise encouraged victory and assertion of dominance of the white powers.
But these are fitful moments of depth in a plodding, occasionally vile movie that presents the Western powers in an Alamo-like situation of whites defending themselves against the Other, even though the whites happen to be in the Other's territory. The film adheres to so many easy tacks—punishing the woman (Ava Gardner) for sleeping with a Chinese general, celebrating the Eight-Nation Alliance as a show of pan-imperial unity as opposed to a protection of investments—that one wonders if Ray collapsed as much from self-disgust at what he'd been forced into as his crippling addictions. Ray, who elevated the stately Biblical epic King of Kings by paradoxically shrinking its scope to more human levels, here feels trapped by convention, and not even Marton, who worked on another elevated Biblical epic (he was an assistant director on Ben-Hur) can add any life to this material.
Heston and David Niven, playing male rivals common to Ray's work, are both excellent, from Heston's Searchers-lite journey involving the half-Chinese daughter of a captain to Niven's self-doubt over whether he subconsciously allowed this rebellion to happen to boost his social profile and get a promotion. Some action scenes are likewise big and impressive, yet in nearly all cases they trade energy for vacant spectacle, making static even the sight of massive explosions. But it's just not enough. While thankfully not Ray's true swan song, 55 Days at Peking is nevertheless an unfortunate, if not entirely disposable, view of a compromised, splintered artist finally exhausting his last fumes.