Diplomats, soldiers and representatives of a dozen nations fend off the siege of the International Compound in Peking during the 1900 Boxer Rebellion. The disparate interests unite for survival despite competing factions, overwhelming odds and tacit support of the Boxers by the Empress of China.
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A strong cast often has to work their way through long sequences of talky melodrama (as well as being incredibly historically inaccurate and dated in terms of cultural sensitivity). But it's a lavish production, an impressive visual spectacle with a number of rousing action scenes that keep the story moving. Not any kind of masterpiece, but one of the better-crafted of its kind. Great score by Dimitri Tiomkin.
The massive complexity of events is boiled down by the Hollywood machine into Heston's manliness, Gardner's saintliness, Niven's suaveness, and -who else!- Flora Robson playing the Empress Dowager. It's exoticness is reduced to menacing choral music, human wave attacks, and Robert Helpmann's sneakiness and becomes a Western in all but name, where the progress and righteousness of Western man is assured.
A film that is at best a vehicle for the beautiful Ava Gardner. She carries the film. Though the tale is historic, the idea of getting a British actress to play the dowager Empress of China as also Leo Genn (who does a fine turn) as her trusted aide is preposterous! That it was initially directed by Nicholas Ray is incredible.
2.5 stars. This is not a good movie but you don't change the channel if it should be on the tube. There are no surprises. You do get a chance to hear Flora Robson's rich, deep voice and watch Jack Hildyard's saturated compositions and look at Ava Gardner. She was not an actress but she was a beauty and a presence and she offered something arresting to the camera.