CD Review: 55 Days at Peking

With the recent release of a complete FALL OF THE ROMAN EMPIRE rerecording on Prometheus Records and La-La Land’s expanded soundtrack of 55 DAYS AT PEKING, it’s a good time to be a fan of Dimitri Tiomkin. Instead of the fall of a civilization, PEKING showcases the Boxer Rebellion in which Chinese peasants took up arms to oppose foreign imperialism. Charlton Heston and David Niven star as the heads of the American and British military might in the city, with Ava Gardner as a disgraced Russian baroness. Producer Samuel Bronston (KING OF KINGS, EL CID) once again provides the visual spectacle, while Tiomkin supplies the musical splendor.

Pentatonic melodic and harmonic fragments provide the expected Asian flavor in Tiomkin’s Oscar-nominated score, while military themes such as “Yankee Doodle,” “Rule Brittania” and “La Marseillaise” fight for dominance in an Ivesian cacophony of musical muscle. But there is no doubt whose musical voice wins the battle—Tiomkin’s.

Four major themes pull together the score. The first, “The Rebellion Theme,” is a robust four-square melody that bears a strong resemblance to Tiomkin’s own main theme for THE ALAMO. Tiomkin dissects and develops the theme as he sees fit throughout the score, parceling out bits and pieces to accompany the Boxers’ chaotic attacks.

[audio:55days1.mp3] Click Track: Attack on the French Legation

Ava Gardner’s Natasha is responsible for two themes. Her primary theme is a lush Russian-flavored ballad utilizing guitar and bayan (a Russian accordion). The main love theme, “So Little Time,” is oddly enough (though appropriately) little used in the film, since the characters of Lewis (Heston) and Natasha never quite have enough time to further their relationship. With lyrics by Paul Francis Webster, the song was sung by Andy Williams over the exit music and garnered an Oscar nomination for Best Song.

By far the most haunting theme is assigned to a minor secondary character, the young Amerasian girl Teresa (Lynne Sue Moon). The yearning melody (played primarily on the harmonica) captures the girl’s doe-eyed pleas to not be left among the rubble of the rebellion.

[audio:55days2.mp3] Click Track: Moon Fire

The previous LP and Varese Sarabande CD reissue only contained 40 minutes worth of music. This 2-CD set includes nearly the complete score, plus cues that were not included in the film and pop arrangements of the score’s primary themes that were recorded for easy listening on 45 rpm’s. The nearly 50-year-old tracks have been beautifully remastered with nothing more offensive than hiss to mar the beauty of the recording, while thankfully the reverb and hollow acoustics of the original masters have not been tampered with. Frank K. DeWald once again provides his typically entertaining look at the historical and musical aspects of the film. The CD can be ordered directly from La-La Land.

While not as emotionally or musically satisfying and cohesive as ROMAN EMPIRE, there is plenty to enjoy in Tiomkin’s score for 55 DAYS AT PEKING. All four of the primary themes showcase Tiomkin’s inimitable gift of melody, while the action cues, with their thick, intricate orchestrations, give the orchestra a typically brutal workout. Love him or hate, PEKING is a tasty musical dish served up by a composer who was anything but a musical quack.

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