In addition to directing, Nicholas Ray plays the minor role as the head of the American diplomatic mission in China. This film is also the first known appearance of future martial arts film star Yuen Siu Tien. Japanese film director Juzo Itami, credited in the film as "Ichizo Itami", appears as Col. Goro Shiba.
In the final years of the 19th century, Peking is an open city with the Chinese and several European countries vying for control. The Boxers, who oppose Christianity, are agitating against the foreigners and the western powers who still exercise complete sovereignty over their compounds and their citizens. The head of the U..S military garrison is Maj. Matt Lewis, USMC (Charlton Heston), an experienced China hand who knows local conditions well. The political situation is tense with the Boxers having the tacit approval of the Dowager Empress (Flora Robson).
Fed up with foreign encroachment, the Dowager Empress Cixi uses the Boxer secret societies to attack foreigners within China. This leads to the siege and subsequent defense of the foreign compounds, from June 20 to August 14, 1900, by the colonial powers in the legations district of Peking.
The foreign embassies in Peking are being held in a grip of terror as the Boxers set about killing Christians in an anti-Christian nationalistic fever. Lewis heads a contingent of multinational soldiers and American Marines defending the compound. When the Boxers attack, Lewis, working with the senior officer from the British Embassy, Sir Arthur Robinson (David Niven) tries to keep them at bay pending the arrival of a multinational relief force.
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 (Ava Gardner), who begins a romantic liaison with Lewis. As the group conserves food and water while trying to save hungry children, it awaits reinforcements, but Empress Tzu Hsi is plotting with the Boxers to break the siege with the aid of Chinese troops.
Eventually, the forces of the Eight-Nation Alliance arrive to put down the rebellion. They relieve the siege of the foreign ligations compound following the Battle of Peking, foreshadowing the demise of the Qing Dynasty, rulers of China for the previous two and one-half centuries.
The historical events which this film concerns were, and remain, politically charged. The film depicts attitudes on race-relations, colonialism, and nationalism as they existed at the end of the 19th century, and it reflects the 1960s attitudes to these issues, rather than those of the period of the Boxer Rebellion. The conflicts between Chinese, Japanese, and European nationalism are addressed.
Most of the starring Chinese roles, including the Empress Dowager and her Prime Minister, are played by white performers. The Japanese in the foreign legation are played by Asian actors, but they have relatively minor roles.
The film opens with cacophonous displays of nationalism inside the Foreign Legation quarter, with each nation raising its own flag, and playing a signature national anthem. The camera pans to two old, Pekingese men eating a meal in a crowded Chinese street:Old Pekingese Man 1: (with hands over ears): "What is this terrible noise?"
Old Pekingese Man 2: "Different nations saying the same thing at the same time, 'We want China!'"
The resentment of the Chinese Imperial Court at having to accept the presence of foreign powers in China is given its sharpest voice in the character of Prince Tuan (played by Australian ballet dancer Robert Helpmann) who counsels the Dowager Empress (British actress Flora Robson) to support the rebel Boxer "patriots" seeking to wipe out the foreigners. Opposing this aggressive stance is Gen. Ronglu (British actor Leo Genn).Gen. Jung Lu: "If the Boxers remain unchecked, a dozen foreign armies will descend on China".
Prince Tuan: "We are tens of millions - let them come!"
The general warns the Empress that the Boxer rebels will be unable to match the modern armies of the foreigners. The Empress's sympathy for the Boxers grows however and, in a later scene, she orders her general to turn back the foreign armies, declaring:Dowager Empress: "China's condition can be no worse than it is! Even if we were to start a war and lose it, what more can the powers take from us?"
When the siege has ended in defeat for the Boxers, the Empress is seen at the Dragon throne, in distress and without her robes of state: "The dynasty is finished," she repeats to herself several times.
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. His premonition proved correct when Ray collapsed on set halfway through 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.
Charlton Heston later stated that the working relationship between himself and Ava Gardner was very bad - he claimed that Gardner was very difficult to work with and behaved unprofessionally throughout filming. In contrast, Heston said he greatly enjoyed working with David Niven. Heston would work with Gardner again, in the 1974 Universal disaster film Earthquake.
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.
It was shot in the studios built by Samuel Bronston in Las Rozas de Madrid, near Madrid. Due to the commercial failure of the film and other enterprises by Bronston, the area is now a residential compound in Las Matas. 4000 extras were required, including Chinese people brought from restaurants and laundries across Europe since there were not enough available Chinese people in Spain for the mass scenes.
Dong Kingman painted the watercolors for the titles and also made an uncredited appearance in the film.
55 Days at Peking was a commercial disaster in the U.S. Produced on a then-enormous budget of $17 million, the film's domestic gross was $10 million, earning only $5 million in theatrical rentals. It was the 20th highest-grossing film of 1963. The figures quoted ignore foreign box office receipts where the film was much more successful than in the U.S.
The film received two Academy Award nominations for Dimitri Tiomkin (Best Original Song (Lyrics by Paul Francis Webster) and Original Music Score).
DVD release came on February 28, 2001, nearly thirty-eight years after the film's premiere. A Blu-ray release came in April 2014 on the UK Anchor Bay label.Gold Key: 55 Days at Peking (September 1963)