By Mike Dub
Nicholas Ray was a director who did not survive the in-between era of Hollywood in the early 1960s. It was a period when many of the old masters, whether they knew it or not, were riding off into the sunset, yet the explosion of young talent that followed had not yet fully arrived. A brilliant director who was responsible for some of the best films of the 1940s and ‘50s (Rebel Without a Cause, Bigger Than Life, They Live by Night, Johnny Guitar), by the early ‘60s Ray was both a fading great and a victim of the shifting Hollywood landscape. During the late ‘40s and throughout the ‘50s, Ray specialized in intimate portrayals of wounded, tortured souls struggling to navigate the oppressive, unforgiving landscape of America. His characters are outsiders, desperately searching for human connection in a society ruled by conformity, and his best films are savage, distinctly American critiques of bigotry, repression, violence, hypocrisy, and small-mindedness.
Given his style and recurring themes, it is tempting to imagine that Ray would have thrived in the New Hollywood of the ‘60s and ‘70s, if only he could have suffered the indignity of old Hollywood for a few more years. But by 1963, the year of his final Hollywood production 55 Days at Peking, Ray (who was already the type of tempestuous, hardheaded director few producers enjoyed dealing with) was suffering severely with addiction and other health problems. He collapsed during the production of 55 Days (reportedly after an excessively heated argument with producer Samuel Bronston), and the film was subsequently finished by session men Andrew Marton and Guy Green. After that, Hollywood had had enough of Ray (his last project, still unfinished at the time of Ray’s 1979 death, is an experimental documentary made in collaboration with the students in Ray’s film course at SUNY Binghamton called We Can’t Go Home Again).
Like many directors’ final pictures, 55 Days at Peking does not do its filmmaker justice. A languorous and tepid war epic, 55 Days recounts a military stand of Western forces during the Boxer Rebellion of 1900. Undermanned and underequipped, allied forces led by the U.S. and England hole up in the International Compound, and stave off the mighty Boxer force for nearly two months. It’s ripe material for the kind of caustic immediacy that Ray typically relishes, but the film is severely hampered by lackluster performances, unwieldy subplots, and a sentimental impersonality that is steadfastly absent in Ray’s best work.
The cast is led by Charlton Heston as U.S. Marine Major Matt Lewis, a rough, dutiful vet who has led his troops to Peking as peacekeeping advisors. He was likely designed as one of those quiet but deep commanders, like John Wayne in a late-era Ford film. But aside from a brilliant opening scene in which Lewis tries to save a priest’s life by buying him from the Boxers who are torturing him, Heston just doesn’t have the chops of Ray’s usual high quality cast of soul-searchers. Throughout his career, Ray elicited brilliant lead performances from neurotic, tortured deviants like James Dean, Farley Granger, James Mason, Robert Ryan and Joan Crawford. But Charlton Heston never had a bad day in his life (except maybe that time Michael Moore showed up at his house), and it shows, as he struggles unsuccessfully to communicate human emotions without growling.
Possibly because it was partially directed by others, or perhaps because it was cut without his input, the film carries only hints of Ray’s cynical brand of humanism. One of the best scenes in the film includes a terrific moment when English Diplomat Sir Arthur Robertson (David Niven, always at his most British), whose decisions are largely responsible for the dire situation, finds out that his sick child is going to recover from a bullet wound. “He’s going to live!” his wife cries. As bombs explode all around them, and devastation encircles them, Robertson himself can only ask, as though it’s incomprehensible, “He’s going to live?”
Those intermittent moments of acrid irony are there, and they are great. However, there are not enough of them to keep things moving. At times, the film is bolstered by Ray’s cool, nihilistic critique, but the film frequently gets sidetracked. One particularly arduous example is a very long scene where an orphaned American-Chinese girl coerces Major Lewis into taking her back with him to what is absurdly suggested to be the civility and opportunity of 1900 America. However terrific the film is capable of being at times, it is not enough to wade through that kind of simplistic schlock.
It would be easy enough to credit Nicholas Ray for all the good stuff and blame everything else on a meddling producer, but of course, it’s a fool’s errand to try to parse out credit on a production as troubled as this one. Ray was a great artist, but he certainly wasn’t perfect, and he was so far gone into drugs and booze by this point in his life, it’s impossible to know what he was capable of. That his final film is a mediocre, impersonal genre picture is unfortunate, but not unique. After all, few filmmakers do their best work at the end of their career. Whether Ray was by this point a censored genius imprisoned by the whims of Hollywood style, or a raving madman at war with the world, at least he went down fighting. He left Hollywood the way one of his characters would have: kicking and screaming on a stretcher.