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James Zimmerman’s Acclaimed Nonfiction Book ‘The Peking Express’ Set for Movie Adaptation (Exclusive)

One of the world’s great true-life train heist stories is set to return to the big screen in China. Filmmaker DaMing Chen and veteran producer Chris Lee have partnered to develop a feature adaptation of James Zimmerman’s acclaimed nonfiction book, The Peking Express: The Bandits Who Stole a Train, Stunned the West, and Broke the Republic of China.

The new film, like the book, will recount the improbable saga of a 1923 incident once known as the “Lincheng Outrage,” which was sparked when Chinese bandits raided a luxury express train bound for Beijing and took over 300 international hostages — captivating the world and stirring up a six-week geopolitical showdown. A subject of popular fascination a century ago, the event inspired no less than Josef von Sternberg’s 1932 romance/adventure classic Shanghai Express, starring Marlene Dietrich and Anna May Wong, as well as two later Paramount Pictures remakes.

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Zimmerman’s book is the result of extensive research in Chinese and international archives. It was published to wide acclaim last year, with The New York Times naming it an “Editors’ Choice” and the Financial Times writing, “So extraordinary are the events recounted in The Peking Express that it reads like fantasy…yielding a captivating story of robbery, murder, hostages and intrigue.”

Zimmerman describes his story thus: “Shanghai, 1923. A sleek blue luxury train departs from China’s cosmopolitan port city and heads into the country’s lawless heartland. Waiting to attack are one thousand heavily armed bandits, disgruntled ex-soldiers led by a charismatic 25-year-old rebel who is dead-set on freeing his province from the yoke of a brutal warlord. His audacious plan is not just to rob the train but to capture its rich and famous passengers, using them as bargaining chips to force a weak Chinese government to grant him autonomous control over his native soil. His raid on the Peking Express will have a cascade of startling consequences: riveting the world press, toppling a Chinese president, advancing Japanese ambitions to infiltrate the country, inspiring a Hollywood blockbuster with Marlene Dietrich, and fueling the revolutionary ambitions of a young Communist named Mao Zedong. Known at the time as the Lincheng Incident, this forgotten episode roped in a global cast of dictators, diplomats, business moguls and good Samaritans who all struggled — sometimes against each other’s interests — to win the hostages’ release during six excruciating weeks in May and June 1923. The jaw-dropping story of what those hostages endured is told from the point-of-view of one of the great foreign correspondents of the period, John B. Powell, a rugged, Hemingway-esque adventurer who happened to be aboard the train when it was attacked. He would not only document the event but play a heroic role in its ending.”

Zimmerman has lived in China for nearly 30 years and works as an attorney by day. He’s also known to be a consummate insider of Beijing’s long-term expat community, having served four terms as chairman of the American Chamber of Commerce in China.

A private event unveiling the plans for the film adaptation The Peking Express took place in Beijing on Friday, drawing a crowd of about 100 from the city’s business, creative and diplomatic communities. Most prominent among those present was the U.S. ambassador to China, Nicholas Burns, who offered some opening remarks praising the film project as an opportunity for the kind of people-to-people collaboration that the U.S. and China so direly need at the present moment.

“This is obviously not an easy time in the relationship between the United States of America and the People’s Republic of China,” Burns said. “It’s a really competitive time; it’s a time filled with misunderstandings and rivalry. So what we’ve got to do is keep the two countries together, we’ve got to keep the peoples together.”

He explained that he was attending the event because he wanted to support Zimmerman, Chen and their various collaborators on the cross-border film project for “actually giving us an example of Americans and Chinese working together.”

He added: “That can be powerful, and a film can be very powerful in the modern world. That’s what we need. You know, the governments will find a way to move forward and will be responsible in our competition, but I think the people of both countries actually can lead us forward for decades, where our two societies can continue not just to coexist but actually do some good things together.”

The Peking Express film is expected to be a co-production involving both Chinese and global film interests, according to the filmmakers. The international nature of the project would appear well suited to lead producer Chris Lee, the one-time head of production at Columbia-Tristar whose diverse credits include studio titles like Valkyrie and Superman Returns, as well as Chinese features (Huayi Brothers’ One Foot Off The Ground) and Asian festival favorites (Josh Kim’s How To Win At Checkers (Every Time)). Lee describes the project as a “great opportunity for cross-border cooperation with an international cast in a story having historical significance for both China and the rest of the world.”

The filmmakers say they expect to shoot the film in many of the same locations where the events of the heist and its aftermath took place a century ago — “in the mystical mountainous area of southern Shandong Province of China.” While researching his book, Zimmerman trekked through the Chinese countryside where the train was derailed and the hundreds of hostages were marched to the bandits’ hideaway.

“The local Shandong authorities have shown great interest in the story and have welcomed the opportunity for filming on location at the various sites, with much of the key architecture still in existence after 100 years,” says Chen, the project’s director.

An actor turned writer/director, Chen made his breakthrough in the early 2000s with finely wrought Chinese commercial projects like Manhole (2006) and One Foot Off the Ground (2008). He wrote last year’s Andy Lau-starring Chinese hit Operation Moscow, which earned about $95 million, and his next film as director is Unspoken, a drama thriller premiering next month at the Brussels International Fantastic Film Festival.

“The talent [for The Peking Express] will inevitably come from a multinational set, given the passengers dragged off the derailed train by the bandits were prominent citizens of China, the U.S., Britain, France, Italy, Mexico, Germany and Denmark,” Chen explains. “And those cast as the bandits will be a mixed bag — if not an eclectic and clever band — of heroes, scoundrels and eccentrics.”

Adds Lee: “Jim’s book is a breathtaking page-turner that is all the more amazing because it’s a true story that resonates today.”

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