55 Days at Peking is a 1963 American movie starring Charlton Heston, Ava Gardner and David Niven. It dramatizes the siege of the Legation Quarter in Peking during the Boxer Rebellion in 1900. Due to Communist China’s hostility and its isolation from the Western world, a full-scale, admirably accurate replication of parts of old Peking, including sewers, was built in Spain on a compound of 240,000 square meters.
Filming began on July 2nd, 1962 in Las Matas, now part of Las Rozas, northwest of Madrid. 3,000 extras were required, including 1,500 Chinese. As there were only about 300 suitable Asian-looking adults in Spain at the time, the rest was hired in Great Britain, Italy, France and Portugal.
Produced on a big budget of 10 million US dollars, the film was much more successful abroad than in the United States. With some of the most beautiful settings in history, it recreated a whole quarter with all luxury of details and walls built to their actual height. Some of the imperial dresses, rescued by an Italian diplomat from the Forbidden City, were borrowed from an anonymous collaborator in Florence.
Impressive two and a half hours long, it fascinated spectators for its production design and cinematography, and many came out feeling lucky to have survived a real siege. On the other side, the weak script didn’t match the excellent technical side. A lack of character depth as well as a totally fictitious and implausible love story illustrate the problem.
I saw it on Spanish television when I was a boy, a few years before I got mesmerized by Chinese culture through my Sinology studies. It remains one of the few early cinematographic experiences that I still remember. “So little time” was nominated for Best Original Song at the Academy Awards, but probably the military theme is much more famous. Although the melody remains the same, the lyrics of the English, German, Japanese, Spanish and Italian versions are definitely not identical. Nowadays, the content would be politically incorrect for glorifying imperialism and praising military cooperation in semi-occupied China.
As a tribute to the country that hosted the shooting, and maybe because the Spanish Ambassador in Peking helped draft the Boxer Protocol that ended the conflict, Spain’s national flag appears at the beginning. It is rumored that foreign correspondents took pictures on the set, pretending that they had been in Asia. Francisco Franco´s ministers and even the Generalissimo himself sometimes seemed to have dropped by to enjoy the stunning scenario.