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.
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 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.