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55 DAYS AT PEKING – Dimitri Tiomkin

November 24, 2011 Leave a comment Go to comments


Original Review by Craig Lysy

55 Days at Peking is an epic film which joined politics and a love story as it explored European imperialism at the dawn of the 20th century. Set in Peking (now Beijing) we see the capital city occupied and under the financial domination of eleven European countries and Japan. They exploit the populace, are immune from Chinese laws and compete for economic control. A populist peasant rebellion called the Boxers rises up with fury and covert support from the Dowager Empress to expel the foreigners and restore Chinese honor and sovereignty. Producer Samuel Bronston assembled a stellar cast that included Charlton Heston as U.S. Major Matt Lewis, Ava Gardner as Russian Baroness, Natalie Ivanoff with whom he falls in love and David Niven as Sir Arthur Robinson, head of the British delegation. Regretfully despite the grandeur of its sets, its splendor and pageantry, the film’s narrative was uninspired, its script weak, and it suffered massive production challenges; implacable hostility between Heston and Gardner (she quit the film and they were forced to kill off her character!), went through four directors and ended up being both a commercial and critical failure.

Bronston had a falling out with his usual composer Miklós Rózsa over forced edits of his “El Cid” score and so turned to Dimitri Tiomkin. He invited him to sit in on filming and to take in the grand sets of the Imperial complex. Tiomkin who was no stranger to exotic and epic films created a complex, rich, ethnic score that provided four engaging themes. The Rebellion Theme is the main theme, which animates the entire score, appearing in multiple guises. It is an aggressive, driving, militaristic melody infused subtly with oriental coloring. The second theme is the intimate Natasha’s Theme, which is emoted by lyrical solo violin, accented with bayan and expresses a Russian sensibility. The third theme is the Moon Fire Theme, which displays both innocence and yearning as it speaks to the unspoken love between Theresa and Matt. Lastly, we have the Love Theme that underscored the doomed relationship between the Natasha and Matt. This theme is the melody for the Oscar nominated song “So Little Time”. The score achieved critical success being nominated for two Oscars – best score and best song, but lost to Tom Jones.

The powerful “Overture” opens with the rhythmic drive and frenetic energy of the Rebellion Theme. At 0:46 we segue into a presto paced rendition of the Natasha’s Theme, which sustains the energetic pacing of the piece. At 1:21 we flow into the sumptuous string laden Love Theme before ending with dramatic gusto as we began with the Rebellion Theme. Bravo, what a fine way to start the score! The “Main Title” seems incongruous in that it speaks with the beautiful Moon Fire Theme to convey the story’s secondary and more intimate human narrative, not the overtly militaristic drama that drives the primary story line. This emotional and melodic cue features a stirring presentation of the theme carried by lush violins, tender woodwinds and twinkling piano. A brief interruption by the Rebellion Theme as the film’s title appears on screen interrupts the music’s lyrical flow, but we quickly regain the former ambiance and finish with tenderness and grace that perfectly embody Theresa’s emotional core.

“Order From a Prime Minister” is a binary cue that displays General Jung-Lu countermanding an order by the Empress to publicly execute one of his officers for killing Boxer rebels. Sharp strident string chords, horns and percussion support the scene’s tension. Muted trumpets lead a scene change into “In The Palace” where Jung-Lu enters the imperial court to accept his fate. Tiomkin imparts an exotic and ethnic oriental ambiance born by woodwinds and glockenspiel that surrender to an ominous rendering of the Rebellion Theme by low register strings. “Oriental” features an argument between Prince Tuan and General Jung-Lo over the fate of the officer, which the Empress orders executed for sowing disharmony in her court. The prior ethnic textures born by flute, glockenspiel and bells return and give way to harsh chords which prelude the officer’s beheading as shattering timpani resound with the Rebellion Theme. In “The Water Wheel Torture” we see Major Lewis and his marines confronting Boxers who are torturing a Christian missionary. Tiomkin’s plays John Philip Sousa’s snare drum propelled “Semper Fidelis” against harsh flutter-tongue horns, which emote the Rebellion Theme in a cyclic rhythm that mirrors the turning wheel. Frenetic strings join in to raise the tension. This is a well-conceived cue! “Welcome Marines” is also a wonderful cue! It features Major Lewis and his Marines marching into the European compound, again emoted by Sousa’s “Semper Fedelis” with “Yankee Doodle Dandy” thrown in to boot! Now as a yearning Theresa watches, we hear the Moon Fire Theme rise and play in counterpoint to the march. This is very fine writing and the contrast of themes beautifully conceived!

The following three cues all feature wonderful expressions of Natasha’s Theme. “Hotel Blanc” reveals Russian minister Sergei Ivanov revoking Natasha’s visa and ordering her out of the country. Her theme is given extended treatment and carried by exquisite solo violin and bayan with a surprising nonchalance that belies the tension with her brother-in-law. In “Lewis and Natasha’s First Encounter” the doomed lovers meet for the first time and her theme, again carried by solo violin and bayan with woodwind accents, is given extended expression as Matt engages her in conversation and flirts. “Natasha’s Waltz” continues the ambiance of the party and opens with the sensibility of a classic Viennese waltz. At 0:56 as Natasha and Matt leave the compound and continue their flirtation, we segue into Natasha’s Theme now also emoted sumptuously with virtuoso violin alla valzer. Very nicely done!

“Prince Tuan” is another rich cue with the setting of the British compound where Ambassador Sir Arthur Anderson greets Prince Tuan. Traditional regal fanfare and snare drums emote the usual British formality. At 0:39 Tiomkin introduces an exotic and syncopated oriental march that features a wide array of woodwinds, chimes and ethnic percussion. It offers a sharp contrast between the cultures and speaks to the undercurrent of hostility. In “The Boxers Entertain” Prince Tuan provides entertainment in the form of swordplay by Boxers, one of which seeks to provoke a fight with Colonel Lewis. This cue features the Rebellion Theme emoted as an animated and syncopated dance replete with oriental coloring and accents. The musical flow darkens and takes on increasing menace as the Boxer repeatedly tries to provoke Matt. “Murder of the German Minister” is a binary cue that opens with Matt and Natasha saying their good-byes as she prepares to depart Peking, but the moment is shattered when Matt observes through a window Prince Tuan ordering Boxers to assassinate the German ambassador. We open with a carefree sensibility carried by sparkling violins and woodwinds, which echo fragments of her theme. At 0:56 woodwinds portend danger as the Rebellion Theme sounds ominously in the lower register. Trumpet blasts signal the assassination and all hell breaks loose as the Rebellion Theme resounds. The former intimate ambiance concludes the cue as Matt advises Natasha that she cannot depart.

“Preparing for Battle” reveals the European and Japanese ministers resolving to ignore the Empress’ order to leave Peking and to instead fortify and hold their ground. Strings with pizzicato accents, and muted horns underscore the scene and slowly gain force and prominence as soldiers begin the work of fortifying the compound. The tone is decidedly upbeat and at times almost dancelike as piano joins the mix. “Natasha Visits A Chinaman” reveals her leaving the compound to confirm her planned escape thanks to General Jung-Lu. Her theme is emoted passionately lending both urgency and uncertainty to her planned escape. Flute led woodwinds join as the Chairman explains to her the escape plan. The melodic line is then augmented with the Rebellion Theme, which plays ominously in the lower register. In “Lewis and Natasha Disagree” Matt tries unsuccessfully to dissuade Natasha from leaving. We hear in this passage her theme emoted with both tenderness and vulnerability, suggesting that their love is doomed by events for which they have no control.

“Attack on the French Legation” is a robust multi-thematic action cue, a tour de force and a score highlight. We see a Boxer attack on the French legation as Natasha struggles in vain amidst the battle to reach her Chinese guide who is killed. Bravura horn blasts, timpani and vigorous strings announce the Rebellion Theme, which animates the attack as we hear interplay of Natasha’s Theme as she struggles. As the Rebellion Theme drives forth with furious kinetic power we hear contrapuntal play of “Le Marseillaise” – a nice cultural touch. The cue concludes with Natasha’s Theme as she kneels over the dead body of her guide. The action continues on with “On Top Of The Wall” which displays a fight to dislodge the Boxers from a compound wall they seized. The cue features a less militaristic Rebellion Theme rendered with oriental textures and colors. Flutter-tongue horns sound as Lewis and his men move to dislodge the Boxers. “Here They Come” is another score action highlight. We hear the Rebellion Theme, now augmented with an impressive array of new instruments including piano, xylophone and chimes, propel the fierce battle as charging Boxers appear to overwhelm the European lines. The aggressive melodic line is expressed with repeated short phrasing, which imparts a staccato feeling. The death of Theresa’s father brings the cue to a truncated and abrupt end. In “Moon Fire”, also a score highlight, we are treated to an extended rendering of the Moon Theme. We see Matt bring Theresa news of her father’s death, and his hesitation when she asks if she can return to America with him. We hear her theme carried tenderly by doloroso strings and folksy harmonica as she bears the terrible news and contemplates an uncertain fate. This cue is really beautifully done.

“Lewis and Natasha” is a binary cue, which displays Natasha’s confession that her husband committed suicide due to her affair with General Jung-Lu. While Matt is initially unsettled, he regains his composer and kisses her. The cue features her theme initially carried tenderly by woodwinds before returning to strings and bayan. As Matt kisses her, strings surge with passion but end abruptly as we change scenes. We see the arrival of Prince Tuan who demands the immediate surrender of the compound now that European reinforcements have been turned back. A subdued but menacing variant of the Rebellion Theme plays as Prince Tuan issues his ultimatum. “Theresa In Danger” features a fine interplay of themes as we see Major Lewis planning a surprise counterattack when the compound is again attacked, this time with the Boxers supported by Imperial artillery and troops. We begin with the Rebellion Theme, which flows underneath the dialogue. At 0:25 all hell breaks loose as trumpets usher in the Rebellion Theme and signal the attack. Soon we begin a tête-à-tête of the Moon Fire Theme as Theresa struggles to save a child from a collapsing temple and the Rebellion Theme, which propels the assault. This is a wonderful interplay!

“Religious Ceremony/Covert Operation” is really a fine cue and score highlight that features the pomp and ceremonial of the imperial court as the Empress and Prince Tuan preside over a victory celebration. The music is stately, processional and highly rhythmic with percussive cymbal accents augmenting every other beat. Oriental textures and colors abound and add to the cue’s richness. Playing against this visually on screen are Major Lewis and his covert team sneaking through the sewers to blow up the imperial arms depot. We continue with “Spoiling the Empress’ Party: Explosion Of The Arsenal” where Matt’s team overcomes a series of obstacles before finally blowing up the arms depot, thereby causing Prince Tuan to lose face. Energetic strings with support from woodwinds, muted horns and bell tolls drive the music forward as tension builds. Soon the melody shifts to the cadence of a march as the music gains both urgency and potency. Bell tolls and escalating bursts of fanfare culminate with the massive explosion.

In “Old Soldiers Never Volunteer” Matt volunteers for a covert mission to escape the compound and try to reach the allied army 70 miles away. Mournful celli and a bell toll sound as Matt tells Natasha of his intentions. Her dismay is emoted by her theme now carried by guitar, clarinet and strings. Soon his celli line returns and ushers in a harmonica that plays as a lamentation of their relationship. Heart-rending strings end the cue as Matt departs. With “Lewis Saves The Boy” an explosion wounds Matt’s team and he struggles to pull his comrade to safety in an adjoining river as Boxers search for remains. Energetic strings propel the mission and are joined by woodwinds as Matt tries to escape. The Rebellion Theme sounds and marks the approach of the Boxers. Strings become lush and struggle to ascend in their register with piano accompaniment as Matt struggles to save his friend. This is quite an emotional and well-conceived cue.

“The Truce is Over” is a short but potent cue that really packs a wallop! As Natasha brings supplies to the compound in a cart, the Boxers attack and she is mortally wounded. Her theme begins but is cut-off as she is shot and the Rebellion Theme resounds with ferocity. Imperial canon fire against the main gate sets off a conflagration set to repeating harp arpeggios. This is just a stupendous cue! In “Death of Natasha” a solo lamentoso harmonica plays the So Little Time melody as Natasha’s life ebbs. The melodic line then is taken up by a capella voices who sing the song. With “A New Kind Of Weapon” the Chinese bring in a siege tower laden with incendiary rockets. The Rebellion Theme underscores the scene, this time rendered as a tortured rhythmic procession replete with harsh tuba, horns, bell tolls and male voices. This is very well attenuated to the film’s imagery! “Bad News” is a complex cue that features the destruction of the siege tower, a victory, which seems only to delay the inevitable. Doloroso strings open the cue but then give way to an urgent Moon Fire Theme as Theresa franticly searches for Matt. As she finds him, a soldier tells Matt of Natasha’s death. A tortured and descending string line emotes her theme, which gives way to harp glissandi that usher in the So Little Time Theme on woodwinds. This is nicely done.

“Attack on the Compound” begins the final assault and Tiomkin provides us with a tour de force! We are treated to a bravado and ferocious rendering of the Rebellion Theme highlighting of all things a xylophone! This cue I believe marks the theme’s best and most rich expression. Bravo! “Help Arrives” is one hell of a cue! Militaristic snare drums propel a classic march that signals the arrival of allied troops, which save the day. We are then treated to a rich collage, which features a marvelous parade of national anthems as one by one the relief troops great their compatriots. Just outstanding! In “The Empress Alone” a distraught Empress contemplates the end of her dynasty and Chinese sovereignty as she walks a last time from her throne. Tiomkin provides surreal minimalist treatment with a sad and ethereal tenor carried by vibraphone and chimes, which seem to echo through time. “End Title” is a fine cue that features three of the primary themes. As Matt prepares to leave he hoists a longing and thankful Theresa on his horse. We open with the yearning Moon Fire Theme, which then segues into Natasha’s Theme and then concludes with a sumptuous So Little Time Theme. We conclude our experience with “Exit Music: The Peking Theme” the Oscar nominated song So Little Time sung by Andy Williams. It is a vintage song with a classic Golden Age sensibility. The cue “Intermission: The Peking Theme (So Little Time)” provides an instrumental rendering of the song.

I must thank MV Gerhard and Matt Verboys of La-La Land Records and Sony Music for their latest effort. The release of an expanded 2-CD set, which includes well over an hour of additional music beyond its original LP release, is very much appreciated. Re-mastering of the source tapes posed significant challenges and while the clarity of sound reveals some imperfections, the overall quality of the final product is sufficiently good for you to consider. Folks, Tiomkin had a massive canvass from which to create and he responded with an epic score that features a multiplicity of themes, often in beautiful and exciting interplay, robust action writing and a rich ethnic infusion of oriental textures and colors. I recommend this score for both Silver Age enthusiasts as well as mainstream collectors seeking epic scores for their collections. I advise you that this is a limited edition of 2,500 units.

Rating: ****½

Buy the 55 Days at Peking soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Overture (2:57)
  • Main Title (3:04)
  • Peking, China, the Summer of the Year 1900… (0:46)
  • Order From a Prime Minister/In the Palace (1:47)
  • Oriental (1:21)
  • The Water Wheel Torture (1:38)
  • A Dead British Missionary (0:40)
  • Welcome Marines (1:56)
  • Hotel Blanc (2:26)
  • Lewis and Natasha’s First Encounter (2:21)
  • Prince Tuan (2:05)
  • Dance at the British Embassy (The Belfry Two-Step) (3:07)
  • The Boxers Entertain (2:44)
  • Natasha’s Waltz (2:22)
  • Murder of the German Minister (2:13)
  • Mass Execution (0:30)
  • An Empress’ Warning (1:11)
  • Rescued From An Angry Crowd (1:10)
  • Preparing for Battle (2:14)
  • Natasha Visits a Chinaman (1:39)
  • Lewis And Natasha Disagree (1:11)
  • Attack on the French Legation (3:18)
  • British Soldier Wounded (0:50)
  • On Top of the Wall (2:07)
  • All Quiet On The Eastern Front (0:35)
  • Here They Come (Peking First Battle) (2:46)
  • Hospital Scene (1:05)
  • Moon Fire (5:44)
  • Intermission: The Peking Theme (So Little Time) (written by Dimitri Tiomkin and Paul Francis Webster) (2:29)
  • Children’s Corner (1:40)
  • At the Hospital (1:06)
  • A Message From Admiral Sidney (1:21)
  • Lewis and Natasha (3:04)
  • Theresa in Danger (1:56)
  • Religious Ceremony/Covert Operation (4:15)
  • Spoiling the Empress’ Party: Explosion of the Arsenal (2:39)
  • Old Soldiers Never Volunteer (2:15)
  • Lewis Saves the Boy (1:49)
  • Necklace for Drugs (1:15)
  • The Truce is Over (1:08)
  • Theresa and Lewis (1:01)
  • Death of Natasha (2:52)
  • A New Kind of Weapon (2:28)
  • Peking Second Battle (0:45)
  • Bad News (2:18)
  • Attack on the Compound (1:51)
  • Help Arrives (2:52)
  • The Empress Alone (1:37)
  • Auld Lang Syne (Sir Arthur and Lewis Say Goodbye) (0:42)
  • End Title (1:37)
  • Exit Music: The Peking Theme (So Little Time) (written by Dimitri Tiomkin and Paul Francis Webster, performed by Andy Williams) (2:50)
  • So Little Time (Mono) EP version (2:15)
  • March (Mono) EP version (1:56)
  • Natasha (Mono) EP version (1:57)
  • Theresa (Mono) EP version (2:06)
  • So Little Time (Mono) Single version (2:16)
  • Moon Fire (Mono) Single version (2:02)

Running Time: 114 minutes 09 seconds

La La Land Records LLLCD-1184 (1963/2011)

Music composed and conducted by Dimitri Tiomkin. Performed by The Sinfonia of London. Orchestrations by Herbert Taylor. Recorded and mixed By Gordon K. McCallum, Ted Karnon, Ken Barker and Otto Snel. Edited by Richard Harris. Score produced by Dimitri Tiomkin. Album produced by Didier C. Deutsch, Mark C. Wilder, MV Gerhard and Matt Verboys.

  1. Beyond El Mar
    November 24, 2011 at 8:36 pm

    After reading your last 2 Tiomkin reviews it makes me wonder why Steven Spielberg compared Tiomkin and Williams in the liner notes for War Horse. Steven took an unnecessary jab at Tiomkin..stating that he and Williams are different because Williams doesn’t have “one” particular sound, unlike Tiomkin’s scores.

    By reading your reviews it seem like Tiomkin is a talented and varied composer, and was unfairly typecast as a “one genre” composer, when in fact that can’t be further from the truth!

  2. Craig Lysy
    November 25, 2011 at 7:01 am

    Indeed! If you you examine his canon, Tiomkin broadly scored multiple genres and adapted well. I hope in the future to offer other reviews of his scores because he really is an amazing composer, one of the Golden Age Titans.

    All the best.

  3. November 28, 2011 at 4:20 pm

    As you know Craig I also found this release to be a treasure. The writing of Tiomkin extends deep into classical music and should be explored by lovers of 20th century classical music.As i said in my review I would rank this as one of his finest efforts.

    • Craig Lysy
      November 29, 2011 at 6:51 pm

      Amen brother. Yours is a trusted voice. Thank you for taking time to comment.

      All the best!

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