Hollywood vs. History: '55 Days at Peking'
Hollywood delivers an epic retelling of a central episode in China’s turn-of-the-20th-century Boxer Rebellion in the 1963 film 55 Days at Peking. Besides stars Charlton Heston, Ava Gardner, and David Niven, the movie’s depiction of the deadly siege of a conclave of foreign diplomatic offices in Peking (now known as Beijing) features a full-scale, 60-acre reproduction of the city in 1900. Chinese/Asian extras flew in from all over Europe to film on the set in Spain.
Still, the picture drew fire for its use of Western actors in Chinese roles, including Flora Robson as the despotic Empress Dowager Cixi. Where else did it miss the mark? What did it get right?
Military historian Geoff Babb examines the accuracy of the film’s portrayal of culture and events in the latest installment of the Hollywood vs. History series, on which the Library collaborates with Fort Leavenworth’s U.S. Army Command and General Staff College.
Babb, a retired U.S. Army Special Forces lieutenant colonel, is a professor in the Department of Military History at the Army Command and General Staff College. He holds a master’s in East Asian Languages and Cultures and a doctorate in history from the University of Kansas.
Babb served in the Army as a foreign area officer in China and in the Defense Intelligence Agency and on the Joint Staff in Washington, D.C., and has written on the American military’s role in China in Volumes 1 and 2 of Through the Joint, Interagency, and Multinational Lens: Perspectives on the Operational Environment.