Given that this is filmed in black-and-white, it seems a curious title. So I’m assuming the color is a reference to a scarlet woman which, indeed, Ava Gardner (On the Beach, 1959) is, working in a “cabaret” in an unnamed town at the start of the Spanish Civil War. Strangely enough, the decision to shoot in black-and-white works in the actress’s favor. She was one of the last relics of the Hollywood Golden Age when brilliant cinematographers used innovative lighting to capture on screen not so much great beauty but tantalizing emotion.
The close-up was almost exclusively the preserve of actresses who could convey deep feeling with minute changes of expression or simply through their eyes. Here, a couple of joint close-ups prove the point: Gardner’s face illuminated, struggling to contain passion; that of lover Dirk Bogarde (Song without End, 1960) merely the same as always.
This Italian-American production is part homily, part reverential, part brutal. Bogarde plays a priest on the run from the invading Communist forces during the Spanish Civil War. He takes refuge in a cabaret (code for brothel) where he is sheltered by Gardner. He has just denounced his faith so when captured is not executed as an enemy of the state, thus allowing him to begin a relationship with her. They share an unusual type of innocence, Gardner because, as what was known in those days as a woman of easy virtue, she has never known true love, Bogarde, for obvious reasons, the same. Their trembling acceptance of this wondrous state of affairs is the beauty of the film. No one can portray a fallen woman like Gardner, but even as a mature woman her steps towards true love are hesitant, almost believing it is tucked away beyond the rainbow far out of reach, while inner conflict had become central to the Bogarde screen persona.
The love story which would surely in any case have a tragic outcome unfortunately too often plays second fiddle to a subsidiary tale of safeguarding a sacred relic – about whose importance, strangely enough, both sides are agreed – and of arguments between various other political characters over the conflict. Joseph Cotten as a cynical journalist – are there any other kind? – bears testimony to the opposing perspectives while Vittorio de Sica has a glorious cameo as a no-nonsense general who nonetheless deplores the “dirty” war. Neither side comes out well in the war, the Communists, like a mob storming Dracula’s castle, destroy the cathedral, the Republicans committed to killing all prisoners so as not to hold up the advance of their troops. Only the clergy retain their principles even when tortured.
Writer-director Nunnally Johnson had good reason for choosing to film in black-and white – it permitted use of newsreel footage of diving Stuka bombers and more importantly since much of the story takes place at night it creates a haunted background of dark alleys. Color would have destroyed such a vision. You could argue there is artistic purpose here, filming a country which has fallen into spiritual darkness. But that would not be true of the star – black-and-white allows rare opportunity to show what the camera adores in Gardner, her face, even in repose, absorbing the light, as if she were, indeed, redemption.
Donald Trump and the recent insurrection bring this picture bang up to date. Democracy is a dangerous weapon in the hands of the people. Can they be trusted to make the correct decision? That’s in part the thematic thrust of this high-octane political thriller that pits two of the greatest actors of their generation in a battle to decide the fate of the world. This was the era of the nuke picture – Dr Strangelove (1962), Fail Safe (1964), The Bedford Incident (1965) – all primed by the real-life Cuban Missile Crisis and the growing threat of the Cold War. But since that threat has never gone away – if anything it has worsened – the movie is as relevant today.
Just as the President (Fredric March) is about to sign a nuclear treaty with the USSR, much to the fury of the majority of Americans judging by opinion polls, Colonel Jiggs Casey (Kirk Douglas) uncovers signs of a military coup headed by hawk General James Mattoon Scott (Burt Lancaster).
The movie divides into the classic three acts. In the first, Douglas investigates the existence of a secret army unit in El Paso comprising 3,600 men trained to overthrow the government and needs to persuade the President the country is in danger. The second act sees the President hunting for proof of the imminent coup and identifying the conspirators. The third act witnesses showdowns between March and Lancaster and Lancaster and Douglas.
At the heart of the story is betrayal – Lancaster of his country’s constitution, Douglas of his friend when he takes on the “thankless job of informer.” Douglas proves rather too ruthless, willing to seduce and then betray Ava Gardner, Lancaster’s one-time mistress. Both Gardner and March prove to have higher principles than Douglas. For both Douglas and Lancaster who operate at a high threshold of intensity and could easily have turned in high-octane performances the tension is even better maintained by their apparently initial low-key confrontations. Douglas has a trick here of standing ramrod straight and then turning his head but not his body towards the camera.
As a pure thriller, it works a treat, investigation to prove there is a conspiracy followed by the the vital element to conspiracy theory – the deaths and disappearances of vital people – and finally the need to resolve the crisis without creating public outcry. The only flaw in the movie’s structure is that Douglas cannot carry out all the investigations and when presidential sidekicks Martin Balsam and Edmond O’Brien are dispatched, respectively, to Gibralter and El Paso the movie loses some of its intensity. But the third act is a stunner as March refuses to take the easy way out by blackmailing Lancaster over his previous relationship with Gardner.
Of course, there is a ton of political infighting and philosophizing in equal measure and speeches about democracy (“ask for a mandate at the ballot box, don’t steal it”), the American Constitution and the impact of nuclear weapons on humanity. But these verbal volleys are far from long-winded and pack a surefire punch. The coup has been set up with military precision and must be dismantled by political precision.
The film is awash with Oscar talent – Burt Lancaster, Best Actor for Elmer Gantry (1960) and, at that point, twice nominated; thrice-nominated Kirk Douglas; Fredric March, twice Best Actor for Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1931) and The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) plus three other nominations besides; Ava Gardner nominated for Best Actress (Mogambo, 1953); and Edmond O’Brien named Best Supporting Actor for The Barefoot Contessa (1954).
None disappoint. March is especially impressive as a weak President tumbling in the polls who has to reach deep to fight a heavyweight adversary. Lancaster and Douglas both bristle with authority. Although Lancaster’s delusional self-belief appears to give him the edge in the acting stakes, Douglas’s ruthless manipulation of a vulnerable Ava Gardner provides him with the better material. Edmond O’Brien as an old soak whose alcoholism marks him out as an easy target is also memorable and Ava Gardner in recognizing her frailties delivers a sympathetic performance.
Rod Serling (The Twilight Zone) does a terrific job of distilling a door-stopper of a book by Fletcher Knebel and Charles W. Bailey II. But the greatest kudos must go to director John Frankenheimer – acquainted with political opportunism through The Manchurian Candidate (1962) and with Burt Lancaster through The Birdman of Alcatraz (1962) – for keeping tension to the forefront and resisting the temptation to slide into political ideology.
Many of the films from the 1960s are to be found free of charge on TCM and Sony Movies and the British Talking Pictures as well as mainstream television channels. But if this film is not available through these routes, then here is the link to the DVD and/or streaming service.
Imperialism is hard to stomach these days but at the start of the twentieth century it was rampant and as shown in this picture not just restricted to the main culprit, the British. China was Imperialism Central, round about a dozen nations including the USA and Russia claiming control of sections of the country or its produce. So they had all set up diplomatic shop in Peking. And the film begins with an early morning roll call of national anthems before this domination by outside interests in shattered by rebellion.
Just as hard to stomach, of course, was the movie mainstream notion in those days that all rebellions must perforce be put down regardless of how put-upon the peasant classes were. Audiences had to rally round people in other circumstances they would naturally hate. So one of the problems of 55 Days at Peking is to cast the rebels (known as Boxers) and the complicit Chinese government in a bad light while ensuring that those under siege are not seen as cast-iron saints. There’s no getting round the fact that the rebels are shown as prone to butchery and slaughter while the Chinese rulers are considered ineffective and traitorous.
So it’s left to the likes of Charlton Heston as the leader of U.S. Marines stationed in the city to bring some balance to proceedings. “Don’t get the idea you’re better than these people because they can’t speak English,” he expounds. David Niven plays the British Consul trying to keep this particular league of nations onside while negotiating with one hand tied behind his back – “we must play this game by Chinese rules” – with the Chinese Dowager Empress (Flora Robson) while knowingly endangering his wife (Scottish actress Elizabeth Sellars, a one-time big British star) and two children. Ava Gardner is an unscrupulous Russian baroness with little loyalty to her home country.
The picture is one-part action, one-part politics and one-part domesticity, if you include in the last section Heston’s romance with Gardner, Niven’s guilt when his son is wounded in an attack and Heston’s conflict over a young native girl (Lynne Sue Moon) fathered by one of his own men who is then killed. Two of the best scenes are these men coping with parental obligation, Niven coping with a wounded son, Heston finding it impossible to offer succour to the child.
The action is extremely well-handled. The siege goes on longer than expected when the expected troops fail to arrive, tension rising as casualties mount and supplies fall low. As with the best battle pictures, clever maneuvers save the day. Two sections are outstanding. The first has Heston marshalling artillery to prevent the Chinese gaining the high ground. The second is a daring raid – Niven’s idea, actually – through the city’s sewers on the enemy’s ammunition dump. Personal heroism is limited – Heston volunteers to go 70 miles through enemy territory to get help but has to turn back when his men are wounded or killed.
There’s a fair bit of stiff upper lip but while Heston, in familiar chest-baring mode, has Gardner to distract him, Niven is both clever, constantly having to outwit the opposition and hold the other diplomats together, and humane, drawn into desperation at the prospect of his comatose son dying without ever having visited England. Gardner moves from seducer to sly traitorous devil to angel of mercy, shifting out of her beautiful outfits and glamorous hats to don a nurse’s uniform, at the same time as shifting her outlook from selfish to unselfish. All three stars acquit themselves well as does Flora Robson in a thankless role.
This was the third of maverick producer Samuel Bronston’s big-budget epics after King of Kings (1961) and El Cid (1961) with a script as usual from Philip Yordan and directed by Nicholas Ray.
All in all it is a decent film and does not get bogged down in politics and the characters do come alive but at the back of your mind you can’t help thinking this is the wrong mindset, in retrospect, for the basis of a picture.
Many of the films from the 1960s are to be found free of charge on TCM and Sony Movies and the British Talking Pictures as well as mainstream television channels. This one I noticed is available on YouTube at the point where I was reviewing it. But if this film is not available through these routes, then here is the link to the DVD and/or streaming service.