55 Days At Peking (1963)
As has been remarked before, yellowface has proved the undoing of many a great director and this barely disguised western in an exotic setting is no exception as one of the all time greats, Nicholas Ray (Rebel Without A Cause, Bigger Than Life, Johnny Guitar), comes a serious cropper with this lavishly mounted and reasonably compelling Boxer Rebellion drama that nevertheless trades in dubious stereotypes and poor casting decisions as well as being overlong and more than a little dull. Indeed, Ray is said to have had a premonition that the film would finish his career and so it proved as the great man collapsed on set halfway through shooting, was replaced and never received another directing job again.
The film boasts handsome photography and stirring action sequences as well as strong performances from Charlton Heston and David Niven (showing much more depth here than his reputation as a light comedian would lead one to expect) but Ava Gardner’s character is something of a bore and Heston apparently found her “unprofessional”. The film’s best scenes though come in what is easily the most involving subplot between Heston and Lynne Sue Moon as an orphaned Eurasian girl who Chuck becomes a reluctant father-figure to.
You can all relax though, there’s nothing seedy in it, and the old pro-gun lobbyist gets to show a tender side while Moon is a poignant figure throughout. Incidentally I can find virtually no info on Lynne. She appeared in four films in the 60’s (including the great To Sir With Love) but appears to have vanished afterwards. One can hardly blame her. It’s difficult enough to be an East Asian actor in Britain today let alone then.
Where the film really falls down though is in its depiction of the Chinese. There are sympathetic East Asian characters – the already mentioned Lynne Sue Moon’s Teresa, an old man (voiced by Burt Kwouk) who Gardner befriends and there are genuine East Asian actors; as well as the previous two, the Japanese film director Juzo Itami appears as a Nippon army colonel and the great martial arts star Yuen Siu Tien (Drunken Master) makes his debut (though he’s uncredited).
In general though the Chinese are portrayed as a bunch of Christian murdering blood-lusters who are also a bit weird. At one point Peking is described as a “backwater” and Niven’s wife breaks down fearing her injured son will be lost in “an endless Chinese limbo”.
The main Chinese characters are represented by three simply horrendous yellowface performances that make up a triumvirate of naffness. As Empress Cixi, Flora Robson (but of course!) is reasonably restrained, coming over as an old battle-axe in chinoiserie in an end of pier production of Charley’s Aunt.
Full marks to her though for at least showing some commitment. The same cannot be said unfortunately for Leo Genn as General Jung-Lu who appears to treat the whole idea with contempt, though maybe this is understandable.
The very worst offender though (indeed, maybe a serious contender for worst yellowface perf of all time IMHO) is the Australian actor Robert Helpmann as Prince Tuan who seems to have make-up several times more ludicrous than either Flora or Genn, the most ridiculous long fingernails I’ve ever seen and an accent that beggars belief.
It’s worth bearing in mind while watching this fiasco of an interpretation that this man would have been paid quite well for that performance. I’m sure Robert was a very fine actor in the rest of his career but for this he should hang his head in shame frankly.
My favourite scene? The one where Helpmmans Prince Tuan takes the Empress’s terms to the assembled representatives of the great colonial powers who all sit around looking at this latex-eyebrow’d ,golden finger-nailed cartoon caricature as if they can barely believe what they’re seeing. Or maybe they’re just relieved it’s not them.
Yellowface Film Review #6 will see us go forwards or backwards in cinematic history, depending where the fancy takes us. Meanwhile don’t forget to book tickets (if you haven’t already) for the “wildly satirical and steeped in sexual innuendo” (The Upcoming) The Fu Manchu Complex at Ovalhouse http://www.ovalhouse.com/whatson/detail/the-fu-manchu-complex Some people are saying they want to come and watch it twice. A hilarious evening guaranteed.