The Peking Order

Zach Campbell

Nicholas Ray.  Did Hollywood produce any other figure in whom inhered the very ethos of the struggling Artist against the System?  Well, there was certainly Orson Welles.  But Ray?  The case of Ray invites polemics.  One could argue over whether there was a case of Artist versus System here.  His was the romantic, tragic plight of an artist caught amidst the brutalities of an industry that could only accommodate his “vision” a few times (e.g., In a Lonely Place, On Dangerous Ground, perhaps Rebel without a Cause).  But what of Party Girl and They Live by Night and Bitter Victory?  These are films around which one can rally.  The films of Nick Ray are seemingly a permanent revolution against the system in which they were nevertheless made.

Ray’s 1957 war film, Bitter Victory, caused Jean-Luc Godard to famously claim that “the cinema is Nicholas Ray.”  (Godard had previously expressed a similar sentiment in his review of Ray’s Hot Blood.)

What can we take from Godard’s claim?  The critic Carloss James Chamberlin has already quite brilliantly examined the truth-values of such claims about Ray the long-suffering auteur in his gargantuan piece on Bitter Victory.  Indeed, the films that frequently inspire cultist defenses of Ray’s are not only the acknowledged masterpieces (your garden variety anti-auteurist still likely genuflects to In a Lonely Place) but also the mishmashed films maudits (like Wind Across the Everglades).  Some of Ray’s most interesting directorial efforts are works that dwell on the far side of respectability; works with hot blood that conjoin multiple genres and styles and codes.  So that, in finding no unity to this product of the System’s genius, we are inclined to find that unity in Nick Ray, the film’s imperfect ‘author.’  Look at Johnny Guitar, a masterpiece, but not exactly easy to pin down.  This is a fruitful and accepted way of looking at the fellow’s body of work.  So: what else might it mean to say that the cinema is Nicholas Ray?

In his famous comment Godard had meant that various filmmakers had crystallized certain forms of other arts into this newer art, the cinema—before, theater (Griffith), poetry (Murnau), etc.  Ray presumably achieved something by getting to the core, the essence, of this art form.  Recently here on The Notebook, Ignatiy Vishnevetsky gave this idea an interesting—more skeptical, more qualified—spin when discussing Michael Mann.

The cinema is …  Is!  But the word that matters here is “cinema.”  A definition by implicit example, the word here establishes a hierarchy to which all things called cinema—in everyday life—are subjected.  “You think that mediocre award-winner is cinema?  Nicholas Ray is cinema!”

It would behoove us, though, to recast the polemical stand-off around Ray.  His films, more than that of fellow Hollywood names like Ford and Hawks (who amassed much power in their maturity), was borne of struggle.  He wrestled against a system and all, or most, of his films are impassioned compromises.  Yet … these compromises are cinema.  Ray did not bring cinema into the industry; he did not shield cinema from industry.  His example simply reproduces the contradictions inherent in so much of the cinema itself, and in all large-scale, expensive cultural production.  Genuine authorial expression or not, the cinema is constantly producing and maintaining combinations of indexicality and artifice.  The Cinema of Nicholas Ray is also only “as perfect as it can be,” that is, inevitably prone to what we perceive as compromise and contingency, missed chances.  They are perfectly normal circumstances of being, not obstacles to actualization.

Eventually we come to 55 Days at Peking, a film even Ray’s diehard supporters are unlikely to call a masterpiece.  The film is not included in New York City’s Ray retrospective currently underway at the Film Forum.  55 Days is not, ultimately, very good.  But just because a film is deeply flawed doesn’t mean it presents no occasions for us to reflect, or to settle for less majestic pleasures than those of the rebellious, expressive author.  55 Days has some good things in it; though it does feel, simply, inert, a bit of a Frankenstein monster, a work of much money and too many cooks in the kitchen (so to speak).  Screenwriter Philip Yordan called the project a “commercial manufacture job.”  Nicholas Ray didn’t even direct the entire film—Andrew Marton (who had worked second unit on Ben-Hur, among other big films) replaced him after the great one collapsed on the set.

55 Days at Peking opens with the credit, ‘SAMUEL BRONSTON presents.’  Bronston (originally Bronstein) was the nephew of Lev Davidovich Bronstein—i.e., Trotsky—i.e., a charming coincidence if you took seriously my earlier line about Ray’s films as “permanent revolution.”  (I’m not saying I didn’t mean it seriously.)  Bronston produced mainly giant international epics—broad, adventurous, a bit exoticist.

The cast is all over the place: Charlton Heston (infamous NRA president and, in the 1960s, a supporter of the black civil rights movement), David Niven (a frequent philanderer and dear friend of William F. Buckley), Ava Gardner, John Ireland, dancer Robert Helpmann, and Nick Ray himself in a bit part. A youngish Juzo Itami has a small role as Colonel Shiba.

But there are occasionally quite sharp street scenes and city vistas; composed in depth and clarity.  Bernard Eisenschitz records several collaborators talking about how Ray wanted to compose in ways that were interesting in both foreground and background.  When Marton was brought in as a replacement, his strength seemed to be in clear action sequences—a large project like this one was a good step up to the helm for him.  Unity does not characterize 55 Days at Peking; but good craftsmanship marks many of its elements.

In cinema one thing is constantly standing in for another.  A person stands in for another—such as an actor of European descent playing a Chinese person.  Marton stands in for Ray on the set of the production.  This was a circumstantial compromise, and a replacement preferred by Bronston (who, originally amiable with his director Ray, came to be dissatisfied with him during the course of this movie).  In cinema one place is constantly standing in for another too—a runaway production may be a location shoot but not a “faithful” one. Cleopatra (Joseph L. Mankiewicz, 1963) was shot largely in Italy.  John Ford's 7 Women (1966; budget just under $3 mil) was shot in MGM studios and near Chatworth, California (set in China).  The Samuel Bronston productions 55 Days at Peking, King of Kings (Nick Ray, 1961), and El Cid (Anthony Mann, 1961) were all shot in Spain but only the last of them was set there.

55 Days is a Western woven with imperialist Belle Epoque comedy of manners, set in China.  Look below—the first shot could be pulled from virtually any 1950s/60s Western, but as the “stagecoach” recedes the field of vision expands, the generic trappings of the Western obscured once more by the internationalist buffet of genuinely inauthentic dishes.

The still below, from a late scene in the movie, crystallizes some of the elements combined in 55 Days at Peking.  The underwriting of Western civilization by the brute force of the military (as helmed by the steely wisdom of Charlton Heston’s Major Matt Lewis).  Smoke on the backdrop of a landscape that is ‘China’ (those battlements may remind us of the Great Wall) but is every bit as much, simply, the North American frontier.  (And being shot in Spain, of course, it is the same Mexican/American West of the spaghetti westerns.)  The dynamics of love and violence, order and chaos—Ray had made his own Western about such things in a more unconventional key in Johnny Guitar.  But 55 Days at Peking reminds us that the raw materials were never exactly Ray’s to begin with; that the genius of the system is partly in possessing all the toys, all the tools, all the vehicles.  And the genius of studio auteurs is in manipulating these resources rather than expressively “creating” them.  The vision below is 55 Days, it is Bronston, it is Ray, it is Marton, it is Niven and Heston, it is Victoria, Edward, Teddy Roosevelt, the Lone Ranger, and it is all the things about China that the West frivolously imagined at one point in time.  There’s something irreconcilible even in victory.  It is a vortex of threads, determinations and overdeterminations.  It’s a strong image.

If we are studying Ray, we must understand that his textual authority is only a part of him as a film author.  The other parts are his relationships, his limits, the places where he went but did not pass into and inhabit as his own.  If an artist is powerful he will feed into those around him, just as everything around him feeds back.

This scene illustrated below (source: Eisenschitz’s book) was directed by Andrew Marton, not Nicholas Ray.


Homes for Strangers: The Cinema of Nicholas Ray is an on-going series of articles covering the 2009 retrospective on Nicholas Ray, running from July 17th to August 6th—with a special bonus on August 16th & 17th at the Anthology Film Archives—at New York's Film Forum.

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