Book into Film: “The Bramble Bush” (1960)

Few novels have been as abruptly shorn as Charles Mergendahl’s massive bestseller – seven million copies sold – The Bramble Bush. The last quarter of the original story was just dumped. For screenwriters seeking to heighten every emotion this was a very strange decision for it is in the last section that the book delivers huge dramatic punch.

The film – SPOILER ALERT – ends with Guy (played in the film by Richard Burton) judged not guilty of the murder of dying best friend Larry. Guy’s one-night stand with Larry’s wife Margaret (Barbara Rush) has made her pregnant but now widowed she leaves him on the grounds that he will be unable to live with what he has done. It’s a sad enough ending but it’s nothing compared to the book.

The trial section takes place three-quarters of the way through the novel. In the film, it is placed much closer to the end so there are only five minutes or so to tidy up in a rather ho-hum manner, nothing highly dramatic, no floods of tears, just Margaret leaving him behind.  

Following the trial in the book, however, Margaret’s departure is much more sudden. There is no goodbye. She just vanishes. While judged innocent of murder, Guy has lost his license to practice so in the absence of professional commitments is free to spend months hunting for her. And find her he does.

The dramatic point you would have thought would be simply whether she can ever accept as a lover the man who has injected her husband with a fatal dose of morphine regardless of whether this was done with the best of intentions and could be construed as a mercy killing. But the author isn’t finished with these characters yet. Yes, they are reconciled and in fact get married.

But it’s too late. Margaret has tuberculosis – a considerably more dangerous condition in those days than now, and in some cases as untreatable as the incurable Hodgkin’s Disease that afflicted her husband. That puts both her life and that of her unborn child in danger. Guy faces another dilemma, just as he did with her husband. If he has to choose, whose life would he want to save.

The baby is born, and both survive. But only for the time being. Margaret’s TB has not abated. Since Guy’s license has by now been restored, they return to the town. But he’s in for a shock. The town is outraged. The public which had stoutly defended him and the jury which had set him free now turn against both, aware through the arrival of the child that they must have had an affair while the husband was still alive, which therefore clouds the issue of exactly why Guy committed euthanasia.

But before Guy can decide to move elsewhere and nurse his sickly wife and care for his newborn child – called Larry after the dead husband – Margaret dies.

That turns the book into a three-handkerchief tragedy that the film never was. Except for running time, you wonder why the screenwriters elected to miss all this out. Maybe the movie would have run over the two-hour mark, perhaps two hours fifteen minutes, but that would hardly make it so undesirable to exhibitors nor so offensive to the public given the ending was so much more dramatic.

Even then, the author isn’t finished. He provides an ironic ending The rejected Fran – dumped also by this point by Bert, Guy’s lawyer– determines that she will look after the child, allowing Guy to recover from his ordeal. And there is the hope – although she would not press her love for Guy on him – that in due course he will come to appreciate her and reciprocate her love.

Quite a different ending indeed from that foisted on moviegoers. Hard to say whether readers were disappointed, but when a novel is such a huge success it is generally because the public likes the story the author has devised. So to rob them of that seems extremely odd.

The novel had raced to the screen. The book was published in September 1958 and the film opened in February 1960, barely seventeen months later. When the gap between novel and movie is so short, it generates feverish public anticipation. And it seems almost perverse to deny the waiting audience the movie they expected.

Naturally, in the transition from book to screen there are other eliminations – and additions. And there is also the usual welter of changes made for no particular reason, for example the town of East Dereham becomes East Norton in the film.

Certainly, the aim of a movie being to heighten drama and combine disparate elements into a more cohesive whole, you can see why in the film it raises the stakes for the lawyer Bert Mosley (Jack Carson) to already be campaigning for district attorney rather than, as in the novel, only dreaming about it. Although both his parents are dead, Guy came from far more prosperous stock in the film than the book, the hospital named after his father in the film but not the novel.

Some of the changes must have seemed to create more drama, but I’m not so sure. What difference did it make whether it was Guy or the dying Larry (Tom Drake) to be the one returning home? In the film it’s Guy, in the book Larry. In the book Guy is kind to the town drunk Stew (James Dunn) but it’s the opposite in the book, hostile and physical abusive to him from the outset. In the book we learn why – Stew was Guy’s mother’s lover and their affair triggered the suicide of his father – from an internal monologue, but in the film this plays out in more dramatic fashion when Margaret confronts Guy about what she sees as his unfair treatment of the older man.

There’s an elimination that’s so shocking you can’t understand why it was left out by the screenwriters. In the book we discover that Stew is in fact Guy’s father, a fact ignored in the film. And in the last section of the book when Guy is tracking down Margaret in different towns he takes Stew’s surname as his own. And one core element of the film – Larry pushing Guy and Margaret together – is the screenwriters’ invention. (Perhaps audiences would view Guy in a lesser light if he simply took advantage of his friend’s illness to sleep with his wife). And to tie things up more neatly, it’s Guy in the film who prescribes sedatives for Margaret whereas in the book that’s not part of his role.

On the other hand Larry’s father Sam is hostile to Guy for reasons that are kept from us in the film – but in the book we find out it’s because Sam blames Guy’s father (also a doctor) for his wife dying in childbirth, an incident that caused him to lapse into the insanity mentioned in the trial scene in the film.

You can see why some elements of the book are not included. The creepy newspaperman Welk (Henry Jones) who blackmails Fran (Angie Dickinson) into posing nude for him later dupes his assistant into doing the same. Bert falls for a tough Boston reporter Sylvia for whom he quits town and dumps Fran.  On discovering she is pregnant by Guy, Margaret’s initial reaction is to seek an abortion. And there’s a section where hospital chief Dr Kelsey and Fran discuss the various ethical ways doctors have of letting exceptionally ill babies die.  The judge suggests to the jury that Guy could be acquitted due to temporary insanity. And there is a bunch of peripheral characters whose main purpose is to highlight the jealousies inherent in small-towns.

But there are two character turnarounds the screenwriters choose to ignore. The first is that the drink-sodden Stew becomes a recovering alcoholic after discovering he is a grandfather. The second is more touching. After Fran was rejected early on by Guy and later dumped by Bert she had resigned herself to a life of “doing terribly immoral things.” But the book ends with, as mentioned above, her taking a huge emotional leap by giving herself the task of nursing both motherless child and widowed father.

It’s always fascinating to see how screenwriters tee up a book for the big screen treatment, deciding what to leave in and what to take out, occasionally (as in Mirage, for example) using little more than the title and the original idea and jettisoning the rest. Of course, limitations may be imposed on the screenwriters of which we are unaware, star demands or budget impositions and other factors. Here, I felt that screenwriters Milton Sperling (also the producer) and Philip Yordan did not get the best out of the book.

The Bramble Bush (1960) ***

The secrecy business was working overtime in small-town America according to the Peyton Place template. And that wouldn’t be so bad here except returning big city doctor Guy (Richard Burton) has a few of his own in the locker but more importantly the unfolding of so many secrets detracts from the time available for the main dramatic premise which is an absolute corker.

We might as well account straight-off with the secret Guy drags around behind him like a two-ton weight thus explaining his general surliness, tight-lipped demeanor and occasional flashes of temper. As a twelve-year-old he told his father he had caught his mother in bed lover with Stew (James Dunn) which prompted his dad to chuck himself off a cliff.

The other big secret, dealt with fairly promptly, is that local nurse Fran (Angie Dickinson), who held a torch for Guy, now makes do with district attorney Bert (Jack Carson), that clandestine affair coming to light not so much in flagrante but in full beam when the illicit couple require treatment following a fire in a hotel bedroom.

The unravelling of both secrets impacts on Guy’s emotional state. The fire leads to Fran admitting her feelings to Guy, happy to have him use her for sex if love is not possible, “I love you so much I have no shame,” she proclaims, to no avail, but the hotel business also makes her fall prey to blackmail by local newshound Parker (Henry Jones), a budding amateur photographer of the unsavoury kind. Recounting his personal tragedy results in a Guy having a one-night stand with the married wannabe artist Margaret McFie (Barbara Rush).

But here’s the brilliant twist. Margaret’s husband Larry (Tom Drake) wants her to end up with Guy – but after his death. Larry, Guy’s best friend from childhood, is dying, the doctor scuttling back to a town that harbours too many bad memories in order to act as his personal physician. Larry’s never going to recover, he has the incurable illness Hodgkin’s Disease. His dying wish is that Guy marry Margaret.

Margaret is revolted by the idea, “I don’t want to be beautiful for anyone but Larry,” but unable to cope with his with illness is living on a cocktail of drink and drugs. And although Guy, who distrusts any woman, is similarly ill-inclined, Margaret becomes dependent on his medical ability, treating both husband and wife. Larry turns out to have another crazy idea – he wants Guy to kill him, medically speaking of course, some extra, illegal, doses of morphine would do the trick.

This incredible bucket list provides Guy with a huge dilemma, never mind what to do with Fran throwing herself at him and having to put up with the hypocritical Bert, and Stew, now the town drunk, begging for forgiveness, and Larry’s father Sam (Carl Benton Reid), who, for reasons unspecified, hates the doctor.  

There’s more twists to come, just in case you thought you had everything worked out. But you can see the problem over-complication creates. The euthanasia-please-have-sex-with-my-beautiful wife combination would have set the movie up nicely from the get-go. Guy wouldn’t need to have a deep secret to find himself in very deep waters. How he would react to either or both outcomes, how Margaret would equally react to the possibility of ending her husband’s suffering in a quick and painless manner, would be more than enough to provide the dynamic the picture required. The movie then pivots on Guy being charged with murder.

It’s certainly interesting enough but Guy is too buttoned-down to incur sympathy and his revelation, devastating though it is, doesn’t suddenly make him an instantly more attractive screen character. In fact, it’s Fran who elicits the greater sympathy, the woman bedding someone who views her only  as a sex object, yet willing to become a sex object for someone she does love if that’s all she can have. Eventually, the two key issues are put in the spotlight, which certainly puts a spark in the picture. But the poster promises a passion that just doesn’t exist.

Richard Burton (The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, 1965) plays this character in a lower register than his screen persona, the sonorous voice toned down, and although the look of someone who doesn’t want to be back rings true the performance lacks variety and there are only occasional glimpses of the fiery actor. Barbara Rush (Robin and the 7 Hoods, 1964) has her own legitimate reasons for being dispassionate and the vibrant character her husband married never really gets an airing. Angie Dickinson (Jessica, 1962) comes across as a more human character with, in emotional terms, a greater flaw, and a more tragic figure, even though there is nothing life-or-death about her circumstances. Two veterans are showcased: Jack Carson (Mildred Pierce, 1945) and James Dunn (Bad Girl, 1931).

Television director Daniel Petrie (A Raisin in the Sun, 1961) was making his movie debut. The screenwriting team of Milton Sperling and Philip Yordan (Battle of the Bulge, 1965) drew on the bestselling novel by Charles Mergendahl.

Hard to find DVD so Ebay is the best source.

Behind the Scenes: “Battle of the Bulge” (1965)

It was Hollywood’s worst nightmare. Two major studios – Columbia and Warner Brothers –  were competing to make films about the Battle of the Bulge, one of the most famous episodes of the Second World War. Rival movies on similar or the same subject  – classic examples You Only Live Twice (1967) vs Casino Royale (1967) or Deep Impact (1998) vs.  Armageddon (1998) – risked cannibalizing each other, each entry eating into the prospective audience of the opposition.

At first it seemed like the Columbia entry had the upper hand. Writer-producer Anthony Lazzarino had spent four years preparing The 16th of December: The Story of the Battle of the Bulge (the date referring to the start of the battle). Lazzarino’s project was endorsed by the U.S. Department of Defense which offered exclusive cooperation. Advisors were of the top rank – General Omar Bradley,  General Hasso E. von Manteufel who had commanded the Panzers during the battle, British generals Sir Francis de Guingard and Robert Hasbrouck and Colonel John Eisenhower (son of Ike) plus the cooperation of the legendary Eisenhower himself and Field Marshal Montgomery.

With a budget in the $6 million – $8.4 million range, and shooting set to start in winter 1965, William Holden was lined up to play General Eisenhower and Kirk Douglas for  General Hasso. Although initially intending to film in the Ardennes and Canada, ultimately the producers settled for the cheaper option of  Camp Drum, one of the largest military installations in the U.S, a remote area in upper New York where the buildings could stand in for Bastogne, around which much of the real battle revolved, production there feasible because the Camp closed for winter. .

But that meant it would already be behind the eight-ball since Battle of the Bulge intended opening at Xmas 1965. Richard Fleischer (The Boston Strangler, 1968) was signed to direct. But he had become embroiled in a lawsuit with producer Samuel Bronston (El Cid, 1961, The Fall of the Roman Empire, 1964) whose production outfit had gone bust, killing off a deal for Fleischer to make The Night Runners of Bengal. The director was seeking $910,000 in compensation.

Warner Brothers had enlisted Cinerama as co-producer, the studio’s first involvement in the stunning widescreen process and the first time war was considered a subject. The process had been utilised in other Hollywood pictures most notably MGM How the West Was Won (1962), but that had been as a supplier of the equipment, and taking a small share of the profits. But now Cinerama planned to enter the production business and had contracted with WB to shoot the film in the single-lens process instead of the more complicated three-camera approach which had led to vertical lines on the giant screen.

Neither company was in great shape. Cinerama had posted a $17.9 million loss in 1964, WB $3.8 million. But whereas WB had My Fair Lady on the horizon, Cinerama was less reasons for optimism. Its income stream relied on sales of its equipment, either for filming or projection, and a levy from every cinema using the process. Expansion was seen as key to renewal. With only 67 cinemas equipped to show Cinerama in the U.S. and only 59 overseas, a major program was underway to reach 230 by 1967. Setting up a production division would ensure there were enough films to feed into Cinerama houses, and since such films were intended as roadshows, they would keep the cinemas product-secure for months on end.

Cinerama planned to spend $30 million on five films – John Sturges  western The Hallelujah Trail (1965) budgeted at $5 million, Battle of the Bulge ($5.75 million) while $6.5 million had been allocated to an adaptation of James Michener bestseller Caravans, $6 million for Beyond the Stars which became 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and $7 million for Grand Prix (1966). Added to the list was epic William the Conqueror, due to film in England in early 1966 with Robert Shaw taking top billing.

The WB-Cinerama project, which had taken a year to negotiate, was to be filmed in Spain under the aegis of producer Philip Yordan, one time associate of Bronston who had built a mini-Hollywood there. Yordan, Bronston’s chief scriptwriter, had written the screenplay along with his co-producer Milton Sperling. Instead of seeking official support or reproduce the battle in documentary detail, Yordan and Sperling aimed for a fictional account that took in the main incidents. The cast would include “ten important stars.”

Barbara Werle seizes her moment – as a courtesan attempting to seduce Robert Shaw.

Just what constituted an “all-star cast,” one of the key ingredients of the roadshow phenomenon of the 1960s, was open to question. While The Longest Day (1962) boasted stars of the pedigree of John Wayne, Robert Mitchum, Richard Burton and Sean Connery, it was also liberally sprinkled with actors of little or no marquee value. David Lean in Lawrence of Arabia (1962) had loaded his film with the likes of Oscar winners Alec Guinness, Anthony Quinn and Jose Ferrer to offset unknowns Peter O’Toole and Omar Sharif as the leads. While The Great Race (1965) could boast Jack Lemmon, Tony Curtis and Natalie Wood, It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963) only had Spencer Tracy amid a host of television comedians.

But none of the stars of the hit Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines (1964) had successfully opened a major picture. Of the Battle of the Bulge contingent only Henry Fonda could truly be called a current star, although his box office star had considerable dimmed since the days of The Grapes of Wrath (1939) and Fort Apache (1948). Former stars Robert Ryan and Dana Andrews were now supporting actors, Ty Hardin best known for television, Charles Bronson (The Great Escape, 1963) not achieved top billing and while James MacArthur had done so that was in youth-oriented movies. Initially, Italian prospect Pier Angeli (Sodom and Gomorrah, 1962) was announced as “the only principal female role” – playing a Frenchwoman – for a touching scene showing the effect of war on innocent women caught up in the conflict.

Just before filming was about to start, Fleischer pulled out, citing differences of opinion with the producers. Yordan turned to British director Ken Annakin, who had helmed the British sequences in The Longest Day and all of Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines. There was soon a double whammy from the rival picture. Realizing he was losing ground, and hoping to sabotage the opposition’s progress, Larrazino sued WB for $1 million, claiming that “another film, less accurate, would be confused with his picture.” Just as filming of the Battle of the Bulge got underway in January 1965, it was hit by a temporary restraining order. While failing to shut down the production, it imposed a marketing blockade. WB was prevented from publicizing its picture, a potentially major blow given how dependent big budget roadshows were on advance bookings which could only be generated by advance publicity.

Annakin’s immediate response to the directorial opportunity was delight. He commented that he had a “lot of toys to play with.” He found inspiration for his approach from an unusual source, the Daleks (“an apparently irrevocable onslaught of metal monsters”) from the BBC television series Dr Who. He decided he would use Cinerama as “a kind of 3D, shooting in such a way that the tanks would loom up as monsters against humans whom I would make small and puny.”

Although he had no influence over the casting, Annakin was already familiar with some of the actors, James MacArthur from Swiss Family Robinson (1960) and Werner Peters and Hans Christian Blech from The Longest Day. He did not receive such a warm welcome from Robert Shaw whom he had rejected for a role in The Informers (1963).

He found Fonda “a remarkable professional…always on time, patient, eager to get to work, and always knew his lines.” Fonda confessed to being a reluctant movie actor, preferring the stage, and had not been a big office draw since his work with John Ford in the 1930s and 1940s. Even critical successes like Twelve Angry Men (1957) had lost money, some of it the actor’s own, and prestige movies like The Best Man (1964) and Fail Safe (1964) failed to attract sufficient audiences. “In the theatre,” he said, “the actor achieves fulfilment from beginning to end. But on a picture you create a minute here and a minute there over a twelve-week period. When it’s finished there’s no recollection of what you did…Films are a director’s medium.” Battle of the Bulge was his 59th picture, after completing a supporting role in Otto Preminger’s In Harm’s Way (1965) and taking second billing to Glenn Ford in modern western The Rounders (1965).  

There was a stand-off with Bronson on his first day after the actor kept the crew waiting while fiddling too long with his costume. Ty Hardin (television’s Bronco, 1958-1962) was accident-prone, tumbling into a frozen river in full kit, and whacking the director’s wife in the face with his helmet. Dana Andrews had a drink problem so that in some scenes Fonda and Ryan would be surreptitiously holding him up.

Andrews was enjoying career resurgence. His movie career had been at a standstill, a long way from a peak like Laura (1944), his last significant top-billed parts over a decade past. “I was starting to get nothing for a while but offers came swarming in when I told my agent to go ahead and try for Walter Huston parts.” After only television roles in the four years since Madison Avenue (1961), Battle of the Bulge would mark his eighth role in 1965, including The Satan Bug and In Harm’s Way.

Winter in Spain was cold which meant it provided the ideal backdrop for the WB version. The chosen location, 4,500ft high in the mountains of Segovia, provided identical conditions to the actual battle. Spain had provided 80 tanks including Tigers mounted with 90mm guns and Shermans. Half of the 20-week shoot would be spent in Segovia with interiors filmed at studios in Seville and the Roma facility in Madrid.

The WB adviser was General Meinrad von Lauchert, a divisional tank commander during the battle. He hoped the picture would show the German soldier “as he was, brave and good” rather than clichéd presentation and not give the “impression that the American Army had nothing to do but walk into Germany.” He wanted the film to reflect the truth that the “Americans had to pay a high price for every yard.”

Extras were drawn from the Spanish village of El Molar, with a population of just 2,400, which specialised in that supply. Locals could earn 200 pesetas a day. A pair of tavern owners had established this lucrative side-line, demand so high at this point that “they can play Russian World War One deserters for Doctor Zhivago (1965) one day and shipped to World War Two the next for Battle of the Bulge.” Whenever Annakin found himself in trouble with the script he turned to the senior actors, Fonda, Ryan and Andrews who could improvise their way round scenes and “give me hints and lead me into changes.”

For the first scene, a week’s worth of white marble dust, representing snow, had been spread over the ground before 40 tanks emerged from a pine forest. But just as the cameras begun to turn, unexpectedly, against all weather forecasts, it began to snow. While initially a boon, when it continued to fall for five weeks the snow turned into a liability. Nobody was prepared for snow, not to the extent of snowploughs or even salt and it was a three-mile hike uphill to reach the tank location until army vehicles could be used to transport the crew. The tanks churned up so much mud that three or four cameras were required to catch the action.

“It was a director’s feast,” recalled Annakin, salivating about the prospect of a “vast panoramic” employing the entire array of tanks. To speed production, he had two units one hundred yards apart and jumped from one to the other, thus achieving 30-40 set-ups a day while the effects team exploded tubes and burned rubber tyres to create a fog of black battle smoke. A small town, already wrecked and shelled from the Spanish Civil War, added an air of realism when standing in for Bastogne.

Midway through shooting the producers realised the movie lacked a theme and from then on Annakin was faced with daily rewrites as new scenes were added to bring out the humanity implicit in war. Then Cinerama boss William Foreman arrived and demanded the insertion of the type of shot he believed his audiences were expecting, the equivalent of the runaway train and the ride through the rapids in How the West Was Won. He angled for a jeep racing downhill or a plane spinning and diving and happy to stump up any extra costs.

Such a request was more easily accommodated than his insistence that a role be found for his girlfriend Barbara Werle, a bit part actress Tickle Me (1965). While Yordan, wearing his producer’s hat, was willing to keep one of his main funders happy, the director and Robert Shaw were not. Shaw refused to do the scene until Foreman pleaded with both, explaining that in a vulnerable period of his personal life – when, in fact, he had been imprisoned – Werle had helped him out and he owed her a favour.

In Annakin’s opinion Werle was “willing but completely dumb…as though you had picked a girl straight from the cash desk of a supermarket.” Her one scene, as a courtesan offered to Robert Shaw by a grateful superior, was used to mark out the German commander as a man of honor when he rejected such temptation out of hand.

To overcome problems of matching earlier Panzer footage with the climactic battle to be shot on the rolling hills of Campo – in the earlier shots the ground was covered in snow, but now it was summer and the ground was scorched by the sun – Annakin relied on aerial shots, shooting downwards, “keeping as close as possible so as not to reveal what the terrain actually looked like” while on the ground two units shot close-ups of the action. This was augmented by 30 model shots with miniature explosions.

When shooting was completed, there was a race to get the movie ready for its scheduled launch, on December 16, 1965, the 21st anniversary of the start of the battle. There were ten weeks left to do post-production. Four editors had already been working on the material but Yordan asked Annakin, who had not been near a moviola for two decades, to personally edit the climactic battle scene. The director found the experience exhilarating: “matching my location footage with miniature shots; a four-foot helicopter (i.e. aerial) shot cut with a couple of feet of a U.S tank rounding rocks to face a Panzer; a shot of Telly Savalas at his gun site yelling ‘Fire’ intercut with a miniature tank blowing up.” But all his intricate work never made it into the final cut. Another editor fiddled around with the material and since no one had thought to make a dupe of Annakin’s original it was lost.

Although the challenge from Lazzarino had died away, the Pentagon was unhappy with the amount of time allocated to the German perspective. Yordan had the perfect riposte, pointing  the finger at Annakin and saying “see what happens when you get a limey director.”  

Werle had the last laugh. She was billed sixth in the credits (Angeli came fifth) but in the same typeface as Fonda, Shaw, Ryan and Andrews, and above the likes of Bronson, MacArthur and Hardin who not only all had substantially greater screen experience but had a bigger impact in the movie.

With the smallest part of all the listed stars, nonetheless she managed to turn the experience to her advantage, introduced to the press as part of the marketing campaign and attending the world premiere at the Pacific Cinerama on December 16, 1965 in Los Angeles and the New York premiere the following day, brought forward four days, at the Warner Cinerama. In Los Angeles she arrived in style at the head of a marching brigade of 100 service men.

SOURCES: Ken Annakin, So You Wanna Be A Director (Tomahawk, 2001) p167-181; “Du Pont, Bronston, Co-Defendants,” Variety, July 22, 1964, p4; “Schenck-Rhodes Roll Battle of Bulge at Camp Drum in U.S.” Variety, July 22, 1964, p42; “German Military Sensitivity,” Variety, September 23, 1964, p32;  “Columbia Will Distribute Battle of Bulge Film,” Box Office, September 28, 1964, p18; “Plan Battle of Bulge As Cinerama Film,” Box Office, November 23, 1964, p4; “Tony Lazzarino To Produce The 16th of December,” Box Office, December 16, 1964, p4; “Rival Battles of Bulge; Bill Holden Up for Ike in Lazzarino Version,” Variety, December 16, 1964, p5; “Warner Reports Loss of £3,861,00,” Variety, December 23, 1964, p5; “L.A. Court Has Its Battle of Bulge Hearing, 27th,” Box Office, January 25, 1965, pW-2; “Dana Andrews Strategy: Regain Momentum,” Variety, March 10, 1965, p3; “Battle of Bulge Now Being Lensed in Spain,” Box Office, March 15, 1965, pNE2; “Winter in Spain Cold But Correct for Bulge Pic,” Variety, March 17, 1965, p10; “Cinerama Plans Five Films to Cost $30 Mil,” Box Office, April 19, 1965, p13; “For Actor, Satisfying Legit Still Beats Pix, Reports Henry Fonda,” Variety, May 3, 1965, p2; “London Report,” Box Office, May 3, 1965, p8; “One Girl in WB Bulge,” Variety, May 5, 1965, p20; “Battle of Bulge Pic May Roll Next Winter,” Variety, May 5, 1965, p29; “El Molar, Spain’s Village of Extras,” Variety, May 12, 1965, p126; “Cinerama Report Loss,” Variety, May 13, 1965, p15; Advert, Box Office, July 12, 1965, p22; “WB To Film Cinerama Epic in England,” Box Office, October 11, 1965, p11; “Introduce Barbara Werle,” Box Office, October 18, 1965, pE3; “Battle of Bulge Opens N.Y. Now Dec 21,” Box Office, October 18, 1965, p10; “Actress To Attend Bows of Bulge in L.A., N.Y.,” Box Office, December 6, 1965, pW4.

55 Days at Peking (1963) ***

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.

Producer Samuel Bronston built his Peking set on a 250-acre site at a ranch 16 miles from Madrid, Spain, near the foot of the Sierra Guadarrama mountains. To ensure authenticity, a canal was enlarged to supply 15,000 gallons of water a day from a specially-prepared reservoir holding half a million gallons. Over 1.3 million feet of tubular steel – all the scaffolding available in Madrid, Barcelona, Seville and Valencia – was used in the set construction.

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.

To ensure journalists provided authentic coverage of the siege, press materials included a copy of the detailed map printed in the Saturday October 13, 1900, edition of British daily newspaper “The Times” and its account of the action. Producer Samuel Bronston claimed that some of the costumes worn by Flora Robson in her role as the Dowager Empress were actual ones worn by the empress and purchased from an Italian family who had connections in the Italian embassy during the siege.

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.

The film was not released in 70mm roadshow in the United States as originally planned but like “El Cid” went straight into general release in a 35mm version. but it was seen in 70mm in Europe. Among suggested promotional activities were a “guess-the-flag” competition since 11 nations were involved. The tie-ins included a Corgi paperback, the original soundtrack by Dmitri Tiomkin and four singles – Andy Williams singing the theme song “So Little Time,” The Brothers Four with “55 Days at Peking” (also recorded by Kenny Ball and his Jazzmen) and Tommy Riley with “Peking Theme.”

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.

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