Sunday 3 February 2008

Movie watch: 55 Days At Peking

I suppose I should be breaking out the Mao Tai and celebrating in style as this glorious annus mirabilis of the Beijing Olympics is, so I'm told, my year.

And about time, too. After a lifetime of invisibility and stuck with a status somewhere between ninja manicurist and evil opium warlord, British Born and Anglo Chinese like me are set to be in yer face for the whole of 2008.

This means the TV schedulers, lazy and stoopid, falling over themselves to make the most of this ready-made theme, and dusting off the archives for repeat heaven. Yes, an hour after you've seen one, you'll be wanting another.

Already this week we've had the rarely aired Love Is A Many Splendoured Thing from the book by Han Suyin, and today, at nearly three hours but feeling like the entire eight weeks, 55 Days At Peking, a cold-war era jingoistic wet dream starring skullhead Charlton Heston, he of the "cold dead hand" and hero of the US gun lobby.

As there'll be lots of this rubbish coming thick and fast with no taste and discrimination exercised (oh, okay, lots of discrimination but not exactly the way I wished) you'll be needing a bit of orientation (har, har) around the subject.

Cometh the hour, cometh the blog - I guess that's me, then.

So ...

55 Days At Peking, directed by Nicholas Ray who should've known better and was sacked from the job for his pains. (And briefly seen in a cameo role as the wheelchair-bound American ambassador.)

Set in 1900, 55 Days purports to tell the story of the Boxer Rebellion, when indiginous Chinese made a last effort to get the rapacious foreign powers out of their own country. Eleven imperialist nations occupied major chunks of China with 13 out of 18 Chinese provinces under foreign control. The diplomats found themselves holed up in the Peking legation compound awaiting relief by their armies with nothing but Chuck Heston's US Major Lewis, David Niven's Sir Arthur Robertson, and Ava Gardner's Baroness Natasha Ivanoff (as the romantic interest) between them and the Yellow nightmare.

Now I know that one man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter, but it is interesting to unpack the process by which a noble aim is turned into an evil act, and heroes made villains.

The only background you get to the rebellion is when the opening narration tells us that 100 million Chinese are hungry and that the famine is fanning the winds of discontent. Nothing else. Nothing about the British Opium Wars from 1839 when, as top dog in the imperialist pack, Britain transformed what had been an upper class vice in China into a nationwide calamity when they forced China to import cheap Bengal opium to offset the crippling balance of trade, with such august institutions as the Midlands Bank (now HSBC) and the East India Trade Company helping to bring China to its knees.

The perfectly fair statement by sinister wily Prince Tuan (Robert Helpmann) that, if the Chinese Boxer rebels destroy the foreign forces, it shows that China is no longer helpless; "It will be the beginning of freedom," is turned on its head.

This laudable objective is undermined by the constant reminder that these heathens, being subhuman and degenerate, have no right to the same treasured rights as you and me. OK, maybe not me, 'cause I'm a sinister wily oriental, but you get my drift.

So off we go on a trip showing us exactly how lowly and undeserving the antagonists are. We know that one of the themes of the film is what makes a person "whole" and what is incomplete; what is human and what is Other. To the injured Mancunian squaddie lying in the makeshift hospital, the prospect of losing his leg terrifies him as the worst thing in the world: "I don't want to live as half a man," he begs.

And here they are, surrounded and about to be swamped by such half-men.

To the Chinese of this world, life is not valued except in cash terms; a Chinese life is worth 20 dollars, while the tortured English priest is priced at 40 dollars. Interestingly, the priest is strapped crucifix-style to a water wheel by sinister wily Chinese Boxers (this is Christian values under assault by pagan scum, after all), and plunged into the water until he drowns. Not like waterboarding, then, as used by the CIA.

The sinister pitiless Dowager Empress Tzu Hsi, played by Flora Robson, orders two lots of unjust executions. General Yung Lo (Leo Genn) attempts to halt the first in his best British thesp accent, the execution of a Chinese Colonel who has tried to impose order on Prince Tuan's favoured Boxers. Despite his superior argument, having a somewhat rational western mind to go with his perfect diction, she insists the victim be executed for the petty "crime" of making them quarrel.

The second incident is a mass beheading of Boxers who have just carried out the killing of the German minister at the behest of fiendish Prince Tuan. They may be ours, but even our friends are expendible. The Dowager Empress tells Sir Arthur, "Chinese justice is swift and thorough." To which he replies, "Where's the guilt - those who wield the sword, or those who give the command?" because the British care about these things, and Sir Arthur, such a delicate civilised soul, is shocked despite being a military man. (Ask Craig Murray, former ambassador to Uzbekistan until he tried to put these principles into practice.)

Of course the Brits never carried out executions and massacres, did they? Amritsar is a whole 19 years in the future, and they ruled Empire with kid gloves. Yeah, right.

The Brits have much to teach: "China is learning new arts of peace from the West." And then watch how Sir Arthur's oily charm delivers a threat as a compliment. Having contemptuously kicked away the cushion on which he is expected to kneel in the Imperial court, he tells the Dowager Empress, "China's greatest virtue is her patience. ... If not, then the blood of millions will be shed."

He continues; "I have come here with the Truth." Being a heathen, she tells him, "We reject your truth," and orders them all to leave the country. Ooh, now we're not even occupying the same world of perception. We ain't in Kansas any more.

Meanwhile, as the Boxers are marauding, "killing every white man" and Chinese Christians in numbers that I am guessing would be dwarfed if Britain plunges the country into a major armed conflict, the westerners are humanised and made compassionate and worthy of compassion at every opportunity. Ye gods, how different these big-nose white devil invaders are. They care about the enemy as well as their own side, they introspect, they question themselves, they have God on their side.

Major Lewis urges his men to treat the Chinese as human; "Pay your money and don't expect any free samples."

In turn, Major Lewis is reprimanded by Sir Arthur for the death of the Boxer - who was about to shoot Lewis dead.

Fearful that her injured son - the little innocent Tommy - is somewhere in "An enormous, empty Chinese limbo," Lady Sarah Robertson crumples while her man grapples with the Big Questions; Whose ambitions is he serving? Who gains? How many children must die? Well may he ask. Sir Arthur's rather anodyne conclusion is, "The pain is not yours alone," and he is rewarded with the observation by his wife that "Only an honest man would ask such a question." These are, after all, the marks of the civilised man.

And these civilised men have no defences against the barbarism waiting outside the compound except for their books piled and squeezed into makeshift barricades.

"Don't go through there, Ma'am," the young soldier advises the Baroness just before he is cruelly cut down by a sniper. "There are Chinese on the other side." There are, actually, Chinese on both sides, but who's counting?

All the representatives of the foreign powers are thus depicted as human, rounded, full with an inner life. Even the bloody Japanese officer, Colonel Shiba, is played by a proper Japanese actor (the "delicious", according to some, Juzo Itami) who happens to be dashingly attractive unlike the wily sinister Chinese. Did the filmmakers not understand Japanese history in China? Good grief!

There are good Chinese, though, represented by the mixed race Teresa, a pretty eleven year old daughter of a US captain and a Chinese woman, now dead. Teresa has been deposited in a Chinese orphanage for the duration, where she seems to have no relation to her peers, but pines for her white daddy who has promised to take her back "home" to Illinois. She lives for his rare appearances in Peking but, unbeknown to her, Daddy is having second thoughts. He tells Major Lewis, "They'd treat her like a freak back home." Lewis agrees; she is "better off with her own kind, " even though she has no mother.

When Captain Marshall - her father - dies, Major Lewis is transformed from a soldier merely doing his job into the father of the spirit of the new post-imperial China as embodied by Teresa; the good, free, non-threatening Chinese spawned by our side (again, not me, but, you know ...). As the priest tells Lewis, "The only language a child understands - love. Every man is the father of every child."

Only two years before making this film, Heston was again transformed, this time in El Cid, from man into myth, when his cold dead corpse is strapped to his horse and sent flying through the enemy, scattering them and winning Spain from the swarthy heathen scum. Chuck's good at these roles.

So, there you have it. China as a pretty loveable malleable child in need of rescue by the paternal force of US imperialism. At the end, as Lewis is riding out of the city at the head of his troops, he bends down to Teresa: "Here, take my hand". And she rides off on the back of his horse - presumably into a future where she'll learn fast, trounce him at manufacturing, and poison his dogs and his kids with tainted pet-food, toothpaste and leaded toys. Heh, heh! And serves him right.

Don't ask me about the Ava Gardner/Baroness Natasha Ivanoff storyline with its diamond necklace MacGuffin thread that goes nowhere. The budding romance between her and the Major is strangely underdeveloped with more passion occurring between ol' granite-jaw and Sir Arthur, than with her. (Appropriate, though, as the British Foreign Office has always had the experience and the brutality to keep one of the biggest empires afloat and has played a leading backroom role in US adventures. Don't forget Britain's little lesson with the dodgy dossier and Niger uranium when the nature of the US/British relationship came to light.)

As soon as she admits to shagging a Chinese General you know she's doomed. And, indeed, she dies from a Boxer bullet while performing heroics and bringing opiates for the wounded and fruit for the children. How’s this for classic dialogue?

“I want the drugs and a wagonload of fruit for the children.”

Hmm, recreation and roughage - just my sort of heroine. Or heroin. Which is why it was an eleven year old girl on the back of the Major's horse and not the glamorous transgressive Baroness. The tabloids would have a field day - unpack that, Rebecca Wade!

On one level, 55 Days is just another siege movie. It could have been cowboys against Indians, or plantation owners versus African tribes. Here it's brave white soldiers versus the yellow hordes and their fiendish wave attacks representing the hostile Other.

On another, it's a 1963 Cold War epic set on dehumanising an ideological enemy in crude terms.

It boggles my fine mind to think that as recently as 1963, when this ponderous bit of colonialist propaganda was made, Hollywood was still putting western actors in yellow-face and epicanthic eyelids.

In the villains' corner, Flora Robson, who has one of the biggest schnozzles in cinematic history, is the cunning and sinister Dowager Empress, Chinese not being best known for noses the size of Beachy Head. Arch fiend Prince Tuan is played by the ballet maestro Robert Helpmann with an accent ... what the hell was that accent? A eunochoidal RADA twang via Widow Twanky.

However, the more human the character (read - sympathetic to the cause of the white westerners), the less their vowels were in an uproar. Hence, Leo Genn's General Yung Lo, who wants to curb the Boxers, is allowed to thesp away like a Saturday matinee in Leatherhead.

Finally, that opium.

The doctor struggles to look after the wounded with no alcohol, iodine or painkillers. They are "back in the dark ages".

The Doctor Han tells the Baroness, now working selflessly as his nurse, "We are in the land of opium and there are no opiates."

Perhaps he should have asked his dealer. I would have tried Sir Arthur, myself. He looks like a man who knows.

Channel 5 followed 55 Days with a Jackie Chan movie. This was not adequate compensation.

A big thank you to Babeuf for enduring this pomp-fest with me and who will have a thing or two to say about The King And I ...