Cinema: Foreign Devils Go Home

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55 Days at Peking. The year is 1900. In a dragon-encrusted ballroom reminiscent of the lobby of Grauman's Chinese Theater, David Niven, the British ambassador to Peking, is throwing a diplomatic ball to celebrate Queen Victoria's birthday. The music stops, and there is a shiver of terror: a brocaded sedan chair brings Prince Tuan, complete with jeweled-gold fingernail scabbards and about as welcome as Dr. Fu Manchu at a meeting of the A.M.A. Prince Tuan (ex-dancer Robert Helpmann) is the leader of the "Fists of Righteousness" (known as Boxers in the occidental press), those marauding rebels who are going about the provinces killing Western women, children and priests in a fanatical effort to rid China of the foreign devils.

Too bad for Tuan. He is soon upstaged by the arrival of Ava Gardner; the sight of her well-mounted emerald necklace nearly turns the military two-step into a rout. Ava is a mysterious Russian baroness, and her escort is her roommate at the Hotel Mont Blanc, Charlton Heston, splendid in the dress blues of a U.S. marine. Prince Tuan furiously departs, taking with him a troupe of Boxer sword dancers who had terrified the guests with their choreographic snickersnee until Heston got into the act and threatened to slice the fattest of the group into Boxer shorts. Next morning the German ambassador gets a sword right in the middle of the international compound, and Samuel Bronston's spectacularized version of the Boxer Rebellion is under way.

The demoralized diplomats are all for pulling out when the fireworks begin, but Ambassador Niven—gnawing his mustache to denote deep thought—counsels them to stay put, walk softly and hope for the best. Soon hordes of murderous Boxers swarm over the compound, knifing, shooting, burning. Imperial Chinese troops join the attack after the Dowager Empress (Dame Flora Robson in plastic eyelids and black contact lenses) darkly observes: "China is a prostrate cow. The foreigners are not content to milk her, but must also butcher her." Ava goes to work in the hospital like a Pekinese Scarlett O'Hara, pawning her emeralds for food and drugs. On her way back to the compound she gets winged by a Boxer sniper. The kindly old Viennese doctor (kindly old Paul Lukas) tells her that amputation is the only hope. Ava refuses. "Don't you want to live?" he asks. "I've lived." she replies, and promptly ceases to, with several reels to go.

It cost $9,000,000 worth of unrepatriated pesetas to erect a fullscale replica of Peking in the plains of Spain, to populate it with 6,500 assorted movie stars, Spaniards and Chinese extras, and to blow the whole thing up at the end. Pictorially, the film is magnificent, and some of the handsomest scenes—an orange sun rising over the peaks of the Forbidden City, midnight pyrotechnics as the Imperial arsenal blows up, the gates of the great Tartar Wall being stormed by Boxers in scarlet turbans—are almost as good as the evocative paintings by Water-colorist Dong Kingman, which open and close the picture. It was doubtless ghastly to wait 55 days at Peking until a troop of international reinforcements arrived, and the moviegoer who goes through the whole siege in two hours and 30 minutes comes out feeling lucky.