tagReviews & EssaysMovies and Memory Ch. 01

Movies and Memory Ch. 01

bygunhilltrain©

now look, Captain, I want the walking wounded at
their posts, we can't spare a man, if these
Huns knew our ranks were thinning they'd
eat us alive and rape our women and children
and, god help us, our pets
too!
Charles Bukowski
Stomping at the Savoy


I once saw an interview with a young Matt Dillon in which he was asked about the first movie he had ever seen in a theater. He answered, "I don't remember; it was something with Charlton Heston."

In my case it was indeed a Charlton Heston film, the 1963 release 55 Days at Peking. I was eight years old and my dad took me to the Park Plaza Theater at University and Tremont Avenues in the West Bronx. He was a movie fan and for many years kept track of everything he saw and recorded it in notebook.

I'm sure that few people remember this particular film. Even fewer Americans, if asked in one those person-in-the-street videos by Jay Leno and his many imitators, would know when or where the Boxer Rebellion was or why the United States was involved with it. My dad probably didn't know either but the movie was advertised as a rousing action-adventure flick as well as a historical epic and he wanted to see it. Almost every American movie released then in the waning days of the Production Code would be considered no more than PG-13 now. Thus even though this wasn't a movie "for kids" no one in my family questioned my attendance.

I had known television all of my young life but this new experience of going to the movies just impressed the hell out of me. To start with, the ornate designs of the movie palaces of that era (this one opened in 1925), inside and out, were intended to heighten the mystique of viewing films. Nowadays the assumption for most multiplexes seems to be: the audience is sitting in the dark during the show itself; what do they care about what the building is like as long as they have stadium seating and plenty to nosh on?

I had seen movies on TV but they were invariably cut up by commercials. We didn't have a color set - those were uncommon then and the picture quality was uneven at best and horrible at worst. That afternoon in the Park Plaza was at an entirely different level of involvement. The size of the screen, the quality of the images presented, the almost subliminal vibrations I was picking up from the other, unseen audience members - all those had an impact on me that day. I think I was convinced right then and there of the unequivocal wonderfulness of motion pictures as an invention - and all his could be had at reasonable price just three blocks from my apartment.

I did understand that what I was seeing was a recreation of events that had been staged for my benefit as a member of an audience. I didn't grasp the fame and money that accrued to the people in the industry making these films, including the actors, but if I had known I would have said they deserved everything they got.

*******

One can't relive past events but one can rewatch movies seen years or decades earlier. I think I've seen 55 Days at Peking only once straight through after the original viewing; that was on cable TV sometime in the early 2000s. Recently I've watched chunks of it yet again by using YouTube. The fallibility and decay of memory means I had forgotten many of the scenes I had seen in 1963. A few others, however, seemed to have remained in my mind almost exactly as I had originally perceived them.

As the title implies the film dispenses with much of the twenty-two month history of the war to concentrate on the 1900 siege of the foreign "legations" (communities) in Peking by Chinese rebels called the "Boxers." This "non-state" force, as it would be called now, had some flair for presentation as they actually titled themselves "The Righteous and Harmonious Fists."

The foreigners are about a thousand civilians from the United States, Japan and nine European nations protected by military units of their respective countries. They refuse to surrender because a relief force is supposed to reach them in nine days but they have to fight their way through and arrive about forty-six days late. Thus the movie makers had a scenario that allowed them to present large-scale scenes within a tight, comprehensive frame of time and place. Although the movie seems more than a bit dated and ponderous now (the running time is excessive) it still remains entertaining.

Like in many other epics, a romantic subplot was added to fill in screen time and presumably add a human interest side to pull in an audience. In this case Charlton Heston plays American Marine Major Matt Lewis and Ava Gardner is Russian countess Natasha Ivanoff; both were about forty at the time. In later decades the leads probably would have been considerably younger (see, e.g., Titanic).

At the age of eight I neither knew nor cared what Heston and Gardner were doing up there. During adult viewings I judged their on-screen chemistry to be credible at best. Possibly they both knew their scenes were a sideshow anyway. I'm not sure which of Heston's contemporaries would have done it any better; in earlier decades Clark Gable could bring wit and charm to such material.

Also with a stake in the outcome is the Chinese imperial government; it happens that the action is going on just down the street from the The Forbidden City. Some of the plot revolves whether or not the leaders will throw their support, including deploying the national army, behind the Boxers. (They do, which is historically accurate.)

In 1963 I just assumed that the woman playing the Chinese empress had to really be Chinese or at least East Asian. When seeing the movie as an adult I immediately realized, "This lady is as British as afternoon tea." Flora Robson from South Shields, Durham, looks and sounds very English while making various pronouncements from her throne. The whole Chinese imperial court appears distractingly strange when General Jing-Lu (Englishman Leo Genn) and Prince Tuan (Australian Robert Helpmann) are in there to negotiate something. The results on screen look like skirts performed by students at some London acting school.

Of course this casting technique was standard procedure for the American and British movie industries well into the 1960s. In the same era one could see, among many other examples, Natalie Wood playing a Puerto Rican girl in New York or Laurence Oliver playing a rebel in 1880s Sudan.

Even if I had known about any of his is 1963 I would have considered it a mere quibble. The battle scenes were what the audience came to see and the filmmakers gave them their money's worth. With no CGI available, the sets were full-size recreations of old Peking built in Spain and 6,000 extras were hired to fill them. However credibility got strained more than a few times. "Based on a true story" does not mean "accurately depicts a true story."

Major Lewis and his band of American, British, German, French, Italian, Russian and Japanese brothers, although vastly outnumbered and outgunned, do a remarkable job of coordinating what little they have. (The language barriers never seem to be an issue.) The scene where they clear one of the city walls of Boxers (probably influenced by Battle of the Alamo movies) is an apt example. The Boxers are brave and they command the high ground but they're disastrously inept, taking huge numbers of unnecessary casualties while failing to make any adjustments in their tactics. Lewis and his comrades not just brave but clever too; they're just all-around more talented at fighting a battle.

I've seen in many movies since then that this trope of the competent heroes versus the flawed bad guys is a very durable filmmaking strategy. It works well in various genres, including historical films where the real story gets modified as needed. American audiences for the many World War II films released in the last seventy-five years might find it something of a let-down to admit, say, that the United States was victorious in the 1940s because of its vastly larger industrial facilities. In addition the Germans had been mauled by the Soviet armies and the Japanese were bogged down in a land war in China.

Churchill may have had a point when he said, "The war was won with American money, British courage and Russian blood" but he never had to make a movie about it. Someone with more skin in that game would be screenwriter Claude Estees in The Day of the Locust. He dismisses a possible plot point for a script by saying, "It's good, but it won't film. You've got to remember your audience. What about the barber in Peoria? He's been cutting hair all day and he's tired." He wasn't talking about a battle scene but the 1963 filmmakers at Samuel Bronston Productions would have fully agreed.

******

There was one scene that I remembered vividly and I think accurately from my childhood. It was expertly staged and filmed, but the loose ends were obvious on later viewings. Like much else in that film I'm sure it never actually happened, but it sure was fun to watch.

Near the end of the siege Major Lewis and his fellows on the wall notice that the Boxers are constructing tracks down a road leading to a city gate. "It can't be for a cannon," one of them says. "They wouldn't need to get this close." It definitely won't be for a streetcar line, but why Lewis and the rest don't simply shoot these guys and be done with it is not explained. Perhaps they're curious about what will happen next.

One night they get the answer. A huge siege engine, a multi-story wooden tower, appears out of the darkness and is rolled down the tracks. Lewis still has a chance to shoot the men pulling it from the front but again he doesn't seem to consider it.

When it is in range, panels are dropped on the tower and rockets shoot out that threaten to set that part of the city on fire. Lewis looks as concerned as he ever will in this siege but he doesn't panic. He doesn't quite know what to do but a priest, Father de Bearn (Henry Andrews) is up there next to him and he does improvise something. de Bearn has a knack for combat as well as religion. He places an order for a big urn, coal oil, black powder and "all the champagne bottles you can find." Everything is readily available and promptly in his hands.

Maybe the cast of Mythbusters should experiment and see if his homemade mortar is even remotely plausible. Perhaps that doesn't matter; Charlton Heston is aiming it so one can be sure of a favorable outcome. He only has to fire two of the Molotov cocktails; the second makes a perfect hit and all the ammunition in the tower immediately blows up.

One would think that Lewis and de Bearn would be jubilant about their own amazingly good luck. Instead, they spend a moment expressing pity for all the poor bastards they just killed. Maybe they're thinking, if these Boxers knew what they were up against, they'd just give up and go home.

*****

If I had the choice, I would have gone to the movies every week. My family couldn't afford that, so I eventually saw nine more movies over the next seven years until I had the means to go on my own. Most them were in Bronx theaters, including several at the Park Plaza again.

The theater was closed sometime in the early 1970s and the building was converted to other uses. Out of curiosity I went in there once when there was a supermarket in that space and again when it was a chain drug store. A drop ceiling hid any vestiges of the auditorium. The only thing I recognized was the sloping floor that once led down from the entrance doors to the main lobby.

Around 2008 I happened to pass by and the underutilized building was being demolished; a school now stands on the site. Of the 124 theaters that ever existed in the borough only two, multiplexes from the 1960s and the 1980s, still show movies.

****

The Empress Cixi appears again in Bernardo Bertolucci's The Last Emperor (1987). This time Lisa Lu, who was born in Beijing as Yen Chun Lu and who emigrated to the United States in the 1950s, got the acting job.

So some authenticity prevails in Bertolucci's film for at least that casting decision, although he fudged various other things both large and small. At one point the empress is shown keeping a small pet dog up the sleeve of her gown. Did that actually happen? I wish I knew but I don't.

******

Cold War politics obvious influenced many parts of the movie, but for the moment that is more than I want to get into.

Lisa Lu is into her nineties but she still has an active career; most recently she appeared in
Crazy Rich Asians.

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