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Charlton Heston’s jaw and David Niven’s moustache against the Boxer Rebellion. PITY THE CHINESE. – 55 Days at Peking

April 28, 2012

I normally have higher condition standards for the comics I buy. Chasing some imaginary future resale value that will never materialize, I suppose. But there are times when something passes under your fingers and you can’t resist, no matter what regimen you’re trying to stick to. And Charlton Heston teaming with David Niven to hold out in hostile territory against a remorseless enemy? Are you kidding me? A no brainer, even if the front and back covers look like they’ve been through several stages of the Jiffy Express treatment.

55 Days at Peking is right in that sweet groove of young fantasy translated into adult cinema. Boys always dream about holding out against impossible numbers, a valiant last stand that — of course — isn’t really a last stand at all, because resolution and courage triumph over anything. It can be aliens, foreigners, monsters, whatever. Build your fort and then defend it to the (theoretical) death, that’s all that maters. And when you’re grown up you can transfer your fantasy to a larger cinematic environ. Zulu might be the classic of this genre, with a young Michael Caine defending an African fort against wave after wave of eponymous attackers, but 55 Days holds up. The star wattage involved — Heston, Niven and Ava Gardner — is hard to match. (We could all probably do without the European actors in chintzy Chinese makeup, though. Seriously, they’d make more convincing Asians if they had pulled the skin at their temples for the whole runtime.)

If you’re unfamiliar, 55 Days a fictionalized account of the actual Battle of Peking in 1900. With the Boxer Rebellion raging beyond the walls of the assorted ambassadorial compounds, our main characters are left to fend for themselves as a corrupt Imperial government tries to ride the anti-foreigner wave and eject (or kill) the assorted legations. You know, shove their spheres of influence right up their assorted keisters. It takes all the guile and pluck that the colonial powers can muster for them to hold out until deliverance arrives.

The comic doesn’t precisely ape the beats of the film (example: there’s a lot more comeuppance for the bad guys in the comic), but it’s faithful. Here are Heston’s and Niven’s characters (an American Marine officer and the British ambassador, respectively) trying to reason with the Dowager Empress Tzu-Hsi and her corrupt minion (artwork by Mike Sekowsky):

One feature here that tempers the uncomfortable “white men against the evil non-whites” nonsense that infects so many films like this (and comics like Hopalong Cassidy and Davy Crockett) is that a large part of the drama revolves around a motley crew of foreigners trying to get along, with Yanks, Russkies, Limeys, Frogs, the Boche and Japs all jockeying for position and authority during the siege:

Cooperation between rivals in the face of daunting, lethal odds is a theme of both the film and the comic, one that’s driven into our skulls a final time in the latter’s last panel:

Two World Wars and countless lesser bloodbaths later, I think it’s safe to that NOTHING was started with this valiant fictional stand.

Sekowsky, who’s most renowned for his Silver Age DC art, does a nice job with this book. The action scenes (with flames, rocket attacks and siege towers galore) are captured quite well, and while the likenesses of the actors aren’t precise, there are moments here and there where you catch a glimpse of familiar faces (even if Niven’s Sir Arthur Robinson often looks a bit like Hector Hammond). I love Heston’s stuff — no one could convey acute consternation quite like Chuck Heston, and one of my greatest cinematic thrills was watching a restored print of Ben-Hur at the sublime Uptown Theater in D.C. — and it’s a treat to see him rendered in comic form. Like with all his roles, no matter the context, you half expect him to belt out a YOU BLEW IT UP or IT’S PEOPLE at any moment, and Sekowsky’s art drags those expectations to the book. Kudos to him for that.

An enjoyable read. Even if your copy looks like it was put through the wringer.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. phil permalink
    April 30, 2012 5:38 pm

    I like the art I see, Sekowsky’s work was better suited to the realist war/western look than superheroes.
    I remember this movie when I was a kid and thought it was a hoot the Chinese characters were so obviously Euros in makeup. I also remember the brief Kung fu exhibition and thought the way Chuck got out of the challenge was such a cop out.

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