Directed by Nicholas Ray, European and American delegations in the Chinese capital try to hold out during the Boxer rebellion as the Empress declares war on the western powers.
In the summer of 1900 at Peking, the capital of China, in a compound a thousand foreigners from a dozen nations work and live. They include France, the United States, Japan, Spain, Britain, and Italy. Surrounded by a wall and a gate is the Forbidden City where the Dowager Empress lives and holds court.
General Jung-Lu (Leo Genn) tells a soldier that he will halt the execution, but the soldier says he has an order from Prince Tuan. Jung-Lu says he now has an order from him, and he slaps the soldier’s face with a stick. The soldier changes the order, and Jung-Lu moves on in his sedan chair.
Inside the Dowager Empress Tzu-Hsi (Flora Robson) holds court and learns the execution has been stopped by Jung-Lu who walks in and bows before her. He asks her to take his life instead of the colonel’s. She says they cannot spare him. He says he gave the order to fire on the Boxers because they were burning Christian missions and killing foreigners. She is sad that her nightingale died which he gave her. They debate the issue. Jung-Lu says the Boxers have arisen like the wind and the rain, and like those they will also disappear. She asks that the Boxers be guided by the will of God. She does not care about the death of the colonel, but his life has set her general against her prince and disturbed the morning. She orders him to die for this offense. Prince Tuan (Robert Helpmann) bows to her and goes out. She tells the general that if the Boxer’s fail, she will give the foreigners Prince Tuan’s head. Jung-Lu bows to her. The colonel is beheaded by a sword.
Major Matt Lewis (Charlton Heston) is riding a horse leading United States Marines who are marching behind him. He says they are entering Peking, and he says the Chinese are a highly cultured civilization. He tells them the Chinese words for yes and no. On a bridge before a gate he orders the column to halt. He sees a man being tortured on a water wheel. He walks over there and asks a prominent man to tell the Boxer chief he wants to buy that old man. The man says he is British. He offers a $20 gold piece, but he has to be alive. They ask for $40, and he says all right. Then he is told that he is dead. Lewis starts to leave, and the man says he must pay anyway because he spoiled the ceremony. Lewis says no, and the man asks for $20. A Chinese man on a nearby balcony aims a rifle and is shot dead by an American sergeant. Lewis says he will buy the dead boxer for $20. He tells the sergeant that was nice shooting, but he fines him $20 out of his pay.
Major Lewis leads the Marines through the gate and orders the men to go to the barracks. A Chinese girl runs around and is kept out of foreign legations.
Inside an elegant hotel Baron Sergei Ivanoff (Kurt Kasznar) tells the clerk Bergmann to inform the baroness that he is still waiting. As the Russian ambassador he orders her to get down here; but Bergmann says she is a guest, and he cannot order her. Baroness Natalie Ivanoff (Ava Gardner) comes down the stairs and speaks to a Chinese woman. Sergei complains she is ignoring him. She suggests a cool drink, and they sit down and are served champagne. She tells him to speak to her as her brother-in-law. He says her visa has been revoked, and she has no right to remain in China. She says he frightens her and must hate her. He denies that and says she is a fool and will end up naked in the streets. She says she will still have the necklace. He tells Bergmann she must be out of there today, and Bergmann says he will take care of it. Lewis says he wants a room with a bath, and a clerk asks if he has a reservation. Some foreign dignitaries speak to Lewis and ask what took them so long. He says the railroad does not exist anymore. Bergmann asks Lewis to wait, and he entrusts his suitcases to him. Bergmann gives him a stack of mail for six months, and Lewis throws the letters in a waste basket, saying if he opens a letter, he may have to read it, and if he reads it, he may have to answer it. Carlo comes over and greets Lewis and says he was delayed because he had to bury two men.
Lewis and Captain Andy Marshall (Jerome Thor) go to the bar for a drink. Andy does not want to get a room there because he wants to be close to his daughter who is in a French mission with Chinese orphans. They discuss whether it would be better to take her home to Illinois or leave her here. Lewis sees Natalie as Bergmann asks for her key so that he can give the room to the American officer. Lewis tells Andy he has to live his own life. Lewis goes over to Natalie and tells her he does not have much time. She asks if he found that approach successful. She says he is drinking, but his tight uniform will hold him together. He says clever women make him nervous, but she asks him not to go. He asks what he can offer her. She says he could give her the room she just gave him. He says his life is not worth much, but hotel rooms in Peking are valuable. She asks if he always offers his life to strangers, and he replies that for a soldier strangers make the best friends. He likes the way she is. A British orderly salutes Lewis and says the minister wants to see him. The American minister Maxwell is in a hospital, but he has been authorized by Washington to act for him. Lewis says he will be there after he gets cleaned up. Servants are carrying several chests, and Bergmann gives Lewis his key. He looks at Natalie and tells Bergmann to put her things back in the room. He says she will figure it out and walks off. She tells him not to laugh yet because it is a very small room. He says he has been in tight places before. She says she has too. The Chinese girl Teresa (Lynne Sue Moon) finds her father Andy who is glad to see her and hugs her.
Lewis rides in a rickshaw to the British delegation and goes in.
Sir Arthur Robertson (David Niven) is sitting at his desk and hears a knock. Lady Sarah Robertson (Elizabeth Sellars) comes in and asks if he is busy. She asks if they are going to England this year. He says he does not know. He would like to leave. He says if he is tough on China, that will make China a battlefield for the great powers to fight over it. He thinks it is wiser to accept the temporary humiliation by the Boxers in the hope of putting out the fire. Then his majesty’s government may be displeased, and they will get their inadequate pension. She recalls what Napoleon said, and he quotes it. “Let China sleep, for when she wakes, the world will tremble.” Philip comes in and tells him that Major Lewis is there. He reminds her of their soirée tonight and asks for the first waltz. She goes out, and he sits down at his desk.
Arthur has Philip let in Lewis. Arthur walks around and congratulates him on the initiative he showed with Father de Beam (Harry Andrews). Lewis says he was a little late. Arthur says it is unfortunate that a Chinese citizen was killed. Arthur says he is not in the wild west, and he should not shoot down Chinese like he does red Indians. Lewis agrees. He warns him that such behavior could cause a conflict and conflagration of immense consequence. Lewis says he understands. Arthur says that because his own minister is suffering from a diplomatic illness, it is his responsibility to tell Lewis that his presence in Peking is no longer required. Lewis asks by whom, but Arthur says he is just relaying a message from his own legation. Lewis says he must know that all hell is going to break loose here. Arthur says it will not be because they provoked it. They should walk softly. Lewis says they can’t stop it. He just marched 70 miles from Tianjin, and there are Boxers everywhere. They are killing every white man and Christian they can find, and the imperial army is not doing anything to stop them. Arthur says the Boxers have been with them for years, and he may be unnecessarily alarmed. Lewis disagrees. Arthur says he is a diplomat and has to look at the larger picture. Lewis says his job is to patrol. He warns him that if the Boxers get to Peking, he will wish they had more soldiers and fewer women and children. Arthur says they both had their say, and he sits down. Lewis says he will go quietly. Arthur says they are celebrating their Queen’s birthday tonight, and he is invited. Lewis thanks him and goes out.
That evening British soldiers guard their gate as a Chinese sedan chair is carried inside. Prince Tuan gets out and is welcomed by a British official. Inside he tells Arthur that he brings greetings from the Empress, and he presents a sculpture of a lion. The first dance is announced as a military two-step, and couples dance. Lewis comes in with Natalie. Two women with Sergei admire the fabulous necklace that Natalie is wearing. She tells Lewis she has been waiting for this for a long time, and she does not want to dance yet. They walk over to Sergei who says he understands that Lewis is going to Tianjin tomorrow. Lewis says that is right. Sergei says a Russian woman with a visa is anxious to leave Peking and may want to go there with him. He warns him that if he disregards this, the Russian delegation will remember this conversation.
After a dance Lewis introduces Natalie to the Robertsons. Natalie says it has been a long time, but they ignore her. Arthur introduces Lewis and the Baroness to Prince Tuan who says that not all Boxers are bandits; most are vagabonds who entertain in marketplaces. He asks Arthur’s permission to have some entertain them here tonight, and he consents. Prince Tuan walks to the center of the room, and the Europeans move aside. Four Boxers come forward. Two take swords from a third who watches as they dance swinging their swords at the other Boxer who avoids being hit and eventually knocks the swords out of their hands. He walks over to Prince Tuan and is given a sword by the third Boxer. He offers the sword to Lewis, and Tuan explains that he wants him to take the sword and try to strike him. Arthur suggests he do so as part of the performance. Lewis asks if he kills a Boxer, would he create a diplomatic incident. Tuan says there is no danger. Lewis pokes the sword at the stomach of the third Boxer who is standing by and does not move. Lewis makes him back up to a table, and Arthur say she made his point. Lewis says not quite and kicks the feet out from under the large man who falls to the floor. Lewis sticks the sword in the floor. Tuan recognizes that their troops won this one. Arthur explains that Lewis does not understand that they are to play this game according to Chinese rules. Lewis apologizes but says he does not think the Prince came here to play games. Lewis says good night and leaves with Natalie. Prince Tuan says he must return to his duties at the palace. Sergei and other European diplomats go over to Arthur and complain about this Boxer invasion of the British embassy, though Arthur says he is not alarmed. Arthur says he is going to have a glass of champagne, and he gives one to his wife too.
Outside Lewis and Natalie are walking, and he suggests they go back to the hotel and turn in even though he is not tired. She takes him into a temple and gets him to dance with her. He asks what will happen to her in Tianjin. She says she will be in his hands. She would like to go to San Francisco.
Lewis is watching soldiers packing Natalie’s trunks, and he asks her what the necklace is worth. She says a lot of money. He looks out the window with binoculars and sees a European gentleman in a rickshaw attacked by several Boxers with swords. He tells Natalie that they won’t be leaving today because they just killed the German minister. She says she has to leave.
Lewis watches as Arthur hands over his sword before he goes in to talk to the Empress. She says the Boxers who killed the German minister will be punished, but the anger of the Chinese people cannot be quieted so easily. She says the Germans have seized Jiaozhou, the Russians have Port Arthur, and the French have concessions in Yunnan, Guangxi, and Guangdong. Thirteen of China’s eighteen provinces are under foreign control. Foreign warships occupy their harbors; foreign armies occupy their forts; foreign merchants administer their banks; and foreign gods disturb the spirits of their ancestors. Arthur argues that the violence of the Boxers will not redress the grievances of China. She says China is like a cow that the foreigners have been milking, but now they are butchering her for her meat. Arthur says that China is growing stronger as she learns new arts of peace from the west. He says China’s greatest virtue is her patience. If she will exercise that now, she will achieve everything. She asks what happens if she does not. Arthur says if the counsels of impatience and violence prevail, then the blood of millions will be shed, and the conflict will be prolonged. She asks him to go to the window. He does so and sees ten swordsmen behead ten men. He walks back to the court, and she asks him to inform his government that Chinese justice is swift and thorough. Those were the men who murdered Baron von Meck this morning. Arthur asks if the guilt lies with the one who wields the sword or the one who gives the command. She asks if he knows who gave the command. He asks her permission to present an eye witness. Prince Tuan says by all means.
Arthur presents Major Lewis. Prince Tuan says he must have secret knowledge of the Boxer leadership. Lewis says it is not a great secret. He saw the man who gave the order for the attack. She asks if he would know him, and Lewis says it was Prince Tuan. She asks Arthur if he believes this, and he says he does. She asks if he came there to have her take action against Prince Tuan. Arthur says he came there with the truth that is known to the German government and all the other powers. She says they reject his truth and his protest. She says Prince Tuan is her most trusted advisor. This morning she appointed him to head the Foreign Office. Arthur says Great Britain wants only friendly relations with China. She says that because of the protracted drought and the hunger and unrest among her people and the merciless demands of the foreign powers, the situation in Peking cannot expected to become tranquil. Therefore she informs him that all diplomatic personnel should leave Peking within 24 hours. He asks if she is severing diplomatic relations with all the powers. Prince Tuan says not at all. He says the Empress is offering informal advice for his safety and protection. Lewis says he is in favor of that, and he tells Arthur that if she can’t control the Boxers, they had better get out before they are wiped out. She orders Prince Tuan to see that these gentlemen are escorted safely to their delegations. Arthur and Lewis bow, and Lewis says they might do better on their own. They walk out.
Arthur and Lewis come out of the gate that is closed behind them. Arthur suggests they walk very slowly. As the do, the crowd of Chinese people surrounds them and yells without touching them. At the British legation an officer tells British guards to follow him, and they run to guard the two men as they walk.
Sergei tells Arthur to count the votes. The American ambassador is wheeled in, and Arthur says they are waiting for his vote whether they are to stay or leave Peking. He says that the United States has no territorial concession in China, never asked for one and does not want one. He says he has to abstain. Arthur says the other nine have all voted to go, but Britain has voted to stay and will stay alone if necessary. The Spanish ambassador Guzman says that would make them look ridiculous. The French ambassador says England may have some motive to remain. Sergei asks if Arthur has some private information. Arthur tells them that Admiral Sydney is on his way to Peking with several thousand men, and he will be here in nine days. He says he does not want to display fear of the Boxers and give a victory to Prince Tuan. The German envoy says if the British stay, the Germans will stay. Guzman says they are responsible for the safety of thousands civilians, and he asks if he wants to be the one man who stands in the way of their safe evacuation. Arthur says he appreciates the risks; but he believes if they all stand united, the Chinese will not dare attack the representatives of the eleven great powers. If they do stand firm, they may preserve peace in China and in the entire world. Guzman says he may be right. The Austrian ambassador says he will go along with the others. Sergei claps his hands and congratulates Arthur on another bloodless victory for the British. They agree that it is unanimous, and Arthur suggests they call in the military.
Eight military leaders come in, and Col. Shiba (Juzo Itami) gives the majority report. He says they have agreed that with less than 400 men to guard the perimeter of over two miles, the military situation is untenable. They recommend immediate evacuation. Arthur says that for political reasons the ministers have decided to remain, and so they will have to defend the area the best they can until Admiral Sydney’s relieving force arrives. Lewis asks what will happen if the relief force does not make it. He says they have to come seventy miles through hostile territory. Arthur says they will consider that situation if it arises.
The eight military leaders are around a table and decide which forces will defend the different areas. Soldiers work at building defenses. Arthur finds a knife with a red ribbon on it, and the other ambassadors find similar knives.
Natalie knocks on a door and is let in. She gives a message to the old one. He says her friend General Jung-Lu thinks she should leave Peking. It was not possible before because they would have been accused of meddling; but now it makes no difference because there will be a Boxer attack. He says the fighting will begin at 5. She will meet a man in a green jacket by the French legation. She agrees to be there.
Lewis sends Sergeant Harry (John Ireland) up on the ramp. Lewis takes Natalie out of a coach and asks where she is going. She says she is leaving. Harry says they have 200 rounds each, and Lewis tells them to use only 20 each day. She gets back in the carriage and says she will take her chances. She says he wants to play soldier, and he says that is his job. She tells him to have a nice war as her carriage moves on.
Natalie gets out of the carriage and waits by the wall of a building as shots are being fired. She sees the man in green.
The Boxers attack the barricades and overwhelm some of them. The European soldiers retreat to other barricades and shoot from the walls. The Chinese man in the green jacket is shot and falls near Natalie. A soldier asks her if he is her friend, and she walks away. She asks a soldier to open a door, and he is shot in the leg. She goes to get some help.
Father de Beam (Harry Andrews) shows Lewis a small cannon they call “Betsy” that he rigged up from various parts. Lewis wonders if it is safer in front or in back. A soldier arrives and tells Lewis that Captain Marshall wants him because the Chinese are on top of the wall. Lewis says they know where Betsy goes.
At night on top of the wall Lewis and others are behind a barricade. They see the Chinese climbing tall ladders leaning on the wall. Lewis says if they rushed us now, they would not have a chance. He says they have to get the Chinese off the wall because tomorrow they will be able to shoot down at the legations.
At dawn the city is quiet. Later they see the Chinese on the wall coming down into the foreign compound. They use the cannon against them, but they keep coming. A machine gun is used to shoot at the Chinese. Lewis helps others move wooden wagons loaded with wood up the ramp. Then they set them on fire and roll them off the wall on the Chinese below.
In the hospital area Arthur finds Lewis and says he heard from Captain Hanley that he retook the wall, but he died too. Harry asks the minister why they are fighting. Lewis dismisses Harry and tells Arthur he is a good soldier when he knows what he is fighting for. Arthur says it is easy when you are fighting for physical things, but it is more difficult to explain fighting for a principle. Lewis says China is too far from home. Arthur agrees and walks out. A man shouts that he does not want them to take his leg, and Natalie tries to comfort him. Lewis sees her and leaves. She asks Dr. Steinfeldt (Paul Lukas) if he can save his leg. She asks if she can stay with him. He says her dress is a breeding ground for germs. He tells her to get rid of it and put on a uniform. She thanks him.
Harry reminds Lewis about the Captain’s little girl, and he persuades him to go tell her.
In the orphanage Lewis says he can’t remember what she looks like. Father de Beam helps him find her but asks Lewis to stay and tell her because he was her father’s friend. Lewis asks if she remembers him, and she does. Father de Beam leaves them alone. Lewis tells her there was fighting. She asks if her father is dead. He says he was a soldier, and it could have happened at any time. He says she will be taken care of. She asks if she will be going home to America. She says he told her that he would take her. Lewis sits down again and says he does not think she would like it because everything is different there. He says they can talk about it some more after things quiet down. He promises, and she says all right. Lewis asks the father if she understands, and he says the only language a child understands is love. Lewis says she is not his.
In the court Prince Tuan reports to the Empress that the British Admiral’s forces are trapped between Langfang and Anping. The Boxers have destroyed the railroad in front of him and to his rear. She tells the general that the Boxers are not as useless as he thought. Tuan and General Jung-Lu come up to her and bow. Jung-Lu says it does not take courage or skill to rip up some rails. He says the Boxers are fleeing from the foreign devils, and he expects them to march here in a week. Prince Tuan agrees that the Boxers are not equipped to stop such a well-armed force, but he says General Jung-Lu’s imperial troops could do that. Jung-Lu says they have no part in this foolish uprising. Tuan says they will do what the Empress commands. She asks who can make muddy water clear. Jung-Lu says first they said the Boxers would destroy all the foreigners in Peking in two days. Next they assured them that no foreign army would approach the city. If they commit the imperial troops against Admiral Sydney’s forces, they will be declaring war on all the powers. He says their armies could never win such a war. Tuan says the Boxers have created the opportunity for a great Chinese victory. If they can destroy the foreign forces, it will show the world that China is no longer helpless. She says they both are patriotic, but they offer opposite strategies. She asks what the prudence and patience of Jung-Lu would accomplish. She says China’s condition could not become any worse than it is even if they started a war and lost it. She asks what more can the powers take from them. She orders General Jung-Lu to command the troops and turn back the foreign armies.
Arthur’s little son Tommy is playing at war with a toy rifle, and he is shot. His sister runs and calls her mother. Arthur comes and carries the boy inside. His wife says if he dies, he will never have been home. She wonders if a child dies without ever having been home, whether the soul will wander in a Chinese limbo. Arthur says the doctor said he is in a coma. She is afraid he will not come out of it. She asks why they are there and what ambition they are serving. She asks how many people must suffer, and she says it is too great a price to pay. He asks her to understand, and he embraces her.
A patient in a bed asks Natalie if she has ever been to England. She advises him to go to sleep and dream of his home. Sergei is talking to Dr. Steinfeldt and sees Natalie. Dr. Steinfeldt says the count will be treated like any other man, and he walks away. Sergei tells Natalie he heard she is there day and night like an angel of mercy. He says a patient won’t be treated by anyone else, and the doctor is also under her spell. She knows she has a way with men. He asks about the American major. She asks Sergei what he wants, and he puts his hand on hers. He says he would like to be present when he finds out what she is. She says he will be present because he will tell him. She says he is waiting for the right moment, and she walks away.
Arthur comes out and is directed to where a white flag is waving. He waves his white handkerchief, and a man comes forward on a horse and says he has a message from Admiral Sydney. He gives it to Arthur who says it is in code.
In the embassy an officer is reading the decoded letter to Arthur and many diplomats. He says he proceeded by rail with a force of 2,200 men to Anping. There he was opposed by Chinese imperial troops and sustained heavy losses, making it impossible to continue toward Peking. He was forced to retreat along the Pei Ho River toward Tianjin. It was signed by Sydney. The diplomats are upset and want to know the future, and Arthur walks out of the room.
Sarah pours tea, and Arthur asks why they are there and who he is and what has he accomplished. Is he successful or fit only for a backwater like China? Is he an honest man who tried to avert war or an ambitious man who tried to advance his career? Is he a fool who took an impossible gamble or did he take a reasonable chance? He asks who he is to risk everything he loves or to play God with precious lives. He believes only an honest man would ask such questions.
Lewis comes into a room and sees Sergei with Natalie. Sergei says he was just going. She tells him to stay and talk to Lewis. Sergei says they were talking about his dead brother who was her husband. Lewis pours a drink and says he is not interested. Sergei says he was the youngest colonel in the Russian army with a brilliant career ahead of him. He asks Lewis if he knows how his brother died. She says he killed himself because she was unfaithful to him. Lewis suggests they forget it. She says he was a Chinese general. Sergei leaves. She asks if Lewis can imagine himself with a Chinese girl, but she says that is not the same. He says a man gets what he deserves. He asks what he can offer beyond a soldier’s pay. He says that buys a soldier’s woman, and he kisses her and then kisses her again.
Prince Tuan says he has an urgent message from the Empress, and he is escorted into the embassy. There he tells the diplomats that because of the unprovoked aggression by the British and the western nations under Admiral Sydney, the imperial government of China demands the unconditional surrender of these nations’ forces in Peking and the surrender of all their weapons. He says they will wait for their reply. He bows and leaves with the escort. Sergei asks Arthur what he proposes now. Col. Shiba reports that they have suffered nearly a hundred casualties which is a quarter of their forces, and more than half their ammunition is gone. The food situation is bad, and medical supplies do not exist. He estimates it will take at least four weeks to assemble a force on the coast to fight its way to Peking. Arthur acknowledges their weakness, but he says he has also considered the weakness of the Chinese. Prince Tuan persuaded the Empress to commit the imperial troops, hoping for a quick and easy victory. He also allowed the letter from Sydney through the lines, hoping they would give up. He believes that this ultimatum means that he has promised the Empress their immediate surrender. He suggests that if they attack when they least expect it, they might destroy Tuan’s influence over the Empress and force her to face reality. Sergei mocks this idea, but Lewis thinks Arthur has a good idea about the Empress. Arthur clarifies that he does not want the Empress killed because that would be a disaster. Lewis gets angry and stands up. Arthur says they could be fighting here for twenty years. Lewis asks if he has a better idea. Arthur says it would only enlarge the war. Lewis says Arthur can fight the wars, but he asks him to let him fight the battles. He stalks out with Col. Shiba.
Outside Lewis asks Shiba what he thinks, but Shiba says he agrees with Arthur.
During fighting Sarah comes to Arthur and says Tommy woke up and is going to live. Women and children run during the chaos of the battle.
Inside a shelter for civilians Lewis tells Arthur that he thought they could avoid a war, but they got a war. They thought they should wait for Admiral Sydney, but he is not coming. Now Arthur wants them to attack, but Lewis asks how they could attack with 115 rusty guns. Arthur says he just learned that Tuan is planning an enormous victory celebration for the Empress tonight in the imperial courtyard. Lewis is carving and eating an apple and asks if they are invited. He gives some apple to Arthur who says they should do something besides surrendering. Lewis says they could blow up the palace. Arthur says the Chinese have a well-stocked arsenal near there. Lewis says it is a mile and a half through their lines. Arthur says they could go underneath them through the sewer. He is not sure how they will get back, and Lewis wonders what he means by “we.” Arthur say it does not take a military genius to crawl through a sewer.
That night the Chinese are celebrating in the courtyard before the Empress.
Lewis with Arthur is leading men wearing red towels on their heads in the sewer. They come through a gate and wait for a guard and grab him and knock him out. They use a rope to pull down a barbed-wire fence. Shiba attacks a guard and knocks him out with karate. They enter the arsenal and use irons to pry open the wooden boxes. Arthur does what Lewis does with the dynamite. Lewis connects a wire to the dynamite and runs it out of the arsenal. They hide while some people pass by with wagons. Lewis lights the fuse and goes back to where the others are hiding. He says those people have them cut off. If it goes off now, they will be blown up. He goes to cut the fuse, but it has burned under the door. He tries to open the door, and Arthur goes to help him. They pry the door open, go in, and break the fuse line. Lewis says it is too short. If they light it now, they will never get clear. He uses gun powder to join the ends together. They come out and light it again. They all run away, and the arsenal explodes many times.
The Empress asks Prince Tuan if he has come to report the complete destruction of the legations for the tenth time. Tuan says he is asking permission to impeach General Jung-Lu as a traitor and a friend to the barbarians. He turned back the foreign admiral; but he has guns the Boxers need, and he has refused to send them to them against the orders of the Empress. She tells him to be quiet. She says the worst calamity is to underestimate an enemy. The barbarians are growing stronger each day, and even the Forbidden City is not safe. She says asks Jung-Lu to tell the barbarians that there is nothing greater than peace and no calamity worse than war.
Horns are blown, and Chinese men on horses with white flags ride up to the wall. From the high wall Lewis has a man throw down the line. The Chinese attach something to it, and they pull it up. Arthur opens one up and says they want a truce. Arthur reads that they are greatly disturbed by the arrival of allied troops at Tianjin. Unless they withdraw immediately, the Chinese will consider it an act of war and will commit the troops of the imperial army. Lewis says they must think they are all dead by now, and he notes it is only 70 miles away. Arthur asks if they could get word to them. Lewis says old soldiers never volunteer.
Lewis finds Natalie and tells her he is going away right now. Dr. Steinfeldt tells her he is waiting for her. Lewis says he is going to get help. She asks if he is coming back. He says he will if he can. She goes to help the doctor. She asks the doctor if he believes that people can change. She goes out to get some adhesive and sees Lewis is still there. He says goodbye and walks away.
Lewis and Harry are not in uniforms and pass under a bridge. Lewis sees Teresa and asks Harry to wait. He goes to Teresa and says they never got a chance to talk. He says he has to go somewhere, but he is coming back, and they can talk then. He runs off.
Natalie tells Dr. Steinfeldt that the ether and morphine are all gone. He says they will have to operate without it. If he is lucky, he will faint and not feel it. He finds the last bottle of iodine is empty. He says they are in the land of opium, and there are no opiates.
At night Lewis and two others are riding on a cart on a rail. They see an obstruction, and some jump off. It explodes, and Rogers is killed. Charlie says he is hurt bad. They hide, and Chinese arrive to see what happened. Lewis goes in the water with Charlie and swims in the dark.
Natalie goes to the old man, and she asks him if life and death are important. She says men are dying and need drugs. He says he does not deal in opiates. She says there are Chinese who do. He says the Chinese outside the walls are the only ones who can help her now. She gives him the necklace and says she wants the drugs today and a wagon of fruit for the children.
At dawn Lewis is carrying Charlie and comes to a town. They go inside to hide and rest. Chinese men come in to get things but do not see them.
The old man with Natalie is driving a wagon full of fruit. Soldiers open the gate and let them in. The Chinese start shooting, and she is wounded. They close the gate before the Chinese arrive. Harry says the truce is over, and they shoot back. The Chinese use cannons. One building is in flames. Lewis is swimming with Charlie and says they made it. He tells a man to take him to a hospital. Lewis tells Arthur that he didn’t get there.
Lewis lies down on his bed exhausted. Teresa walks over to the bed. Harry comes in and tells her to scat. Harry tells him that the railroad tracks are almost up to the wall. Lewis asks for a shirt and is given one. Harry tells him the Baroness was shot and is in the hospital. Harry says they have to hurry.
Dr. Steinfeldt is holding Natalie’s hands, and she tells him not to take it so hard. He says he must locate the focus of the infection. She says he won’t find it with a knife. He asks if she wants to live. She says she has lived. He tells her not to think of anything but living to give herself a chance. She says no thank you. He says if she dies, the light will be gone from this place; but she says he is the light here. He says he cares for her very much. She says a woman always likes to hear that, and most men don’t have the courage to say it. He sees that she has died and covers her.
Harry tells Lewis if they were planning to bring up a big gun, they would not need to be this close. Lewis tells him to get Father de Beam. The Chinese with torches are advancing. The Chinese are pulling a high wooden tower with ropes, and Lewis asks the father is he has ever seen anything like that before. The Chinese fire rockets from the tower that come over the wall. They realize they can’t stop that with rifles. The father sends a man to bring two bronze urns, coal oil, black powder, and empty champagne bottles. They bring those things. Father de Beam makes a cannon that shoots a flame. He tells them to pray harder, and they try again. They launch something flaming that lands in the tower and causes the rockets to fire at random and burn the tower. Father de Beam says it must be terrible to be a soldier, and Lewis agrees. People are working pumps and using water to try to put out the fires. The patient on crutches come to Lewis and tells him the Baroness is dead.
The next day fires are still burning. Lewis looks from the wall. Arthur arrives and says he just heard, and he is sorry. Arthur says it is August 14, 1900, and they held out for 55 days. They hear people shouting and see crowds running toward them. The Chinese overcome barricades as many are killed. The Chinese turn and run in different directions. They realize they are running away. They see Indian soldiers on horses and the British marching toward them. The Germans see a German contingent arrive, and there are soldiers from other nations.
In her court the Empress is dressed as a peasant and is alone. She realizes the Manchu dynasty is finished.
By the Forbidden City the European troops are lined up, and military bands play.
Lewis tells Arthur that he started something that people will remember. Lewis says he goes where they send him and thinks he may have to make a home. Arthur says he will go back to England and retire. He wishes Lewis good luck, and they part.
Lewis gets on his horse and rides to the front of the troops. He orders the men to shoulder their rifles. Then he turns his horse back and picks up Teresa on to the back of his horse. He orders them to march forward.
This drama portrays fictional characters within the historical context of actual events. The Chinese had been suffering from western imperialism for a century, and their dynasties were failing to meet the needs of their growing population. The Boxers were terrorists, but the successful revolutionaries would come later. The western diplomats decided to remain together; but everyone might have been better off if they had left instead of fighting for a portion of a foreign land so man miles from home.