Friday, July 1, 2011

The Sand Pebbles (1966) - Robert Wise

A seaman looks across the gangplank at a U.S. gunboat, the San Pablo. Commissioned during the Spanish-American war, it has seen better days. The Navy vessel patrols the Yangtze River in China. It is 1926. A machinist mate first class, the man is a transfer, having been seen as a hard case and maverick by his previous skipper. He wants just one thing--to be left alone. When he enters the engine room after boarding he looks around, smiles, and places a hand on the machinery. "Hello, Engine;" he says. "I'm Jake Holman." Holman is played by Steve McQueen, who gives the most sensitive performance of his career, showing considerably more range than he's usually credited for. He is a quiet man, hard to get to know, and someone you immediately sense carries old hurts inside. He is more comfortable with machinery than people.

Jake Holman reports to the San Pablo.

The crew members call themselves sand pebbles. For the most part they are a sorry bunch, often relying on paid help from Chinese coolies to do their work. And the work is pure drudgery, hot and unrewarding. They spend their days in boredom, and their nights drinking and whoring in the saloons, all the while looking with disdain on the local populace. They are like a lot of men who live in close quarters with little to do and with scant prospects for the future; they are just doing their time and growing ever more slack in their duties, long past the time they felt any pride in wearing a uniform. Holman is destined to stir things up, and amidst the volatile political climate of the country, which is rapidly shaking off its feudal heritage and imperialistic chains, he and the crew will find themselves swept up by something they have little control over. Communist forces start to gain power and threaten to oust all foreigners from the country, and the ship is sent to collect a group of missionaries at the China Light Mission from anti-foreign mobs. Naive and blind to the historic revolution brewing, the missionaries believe god and reason will protect them.

There is a lot in this film to admire: McQueen's acting; the stunning cinematography of Joseph MacDonald, which captures both the exquisite beauty of China and the squalor of its cities; Jerry Goldsmith's lush score; and several fine action sequences. Director Wise was fresh off two enormous successes: West Side Story and The Sound of Music. This was a big departure from those. That he managed to distill a complex story as well as he did is quite an achievement. The source novel by Richard McKenna, his only novel, appeared in 1962. At nearly 600 pages it goes into greater detail about the turmoil affecting the country as nationalism grows. Still, the film is a good half-hour too long. One wonders if Wise was trying to produce an "epic" along the lines of David Lean with Lawrence of Arabia and Doctor Zhivago.

Wise retained the most important parts of the novel, including the budding love affair between Jake and Shirley Eckert (pretty Candice Bergen, just twenty years old at the time). Shirley is a young missionary who manages to touch Jake's heart, cracking his tough exterior. There are a couple of nice scenes between the two as they get to know one another, floating on a serene inlet in a row boat, and Jake trying to toss a stone onto a statue of an elephant. Good luck is said to follow those who succeed. He does, but happiness will prove to be elusive. Both actors convey innocence. McQueen is particularly unassuming here and likable, far different than his typical macho persona.

Holman is an immensely likable character, one that most male viewers could relate to. At the core, he is a traditional American--a loner you can trust to do his job, unobtrusive up to a point; but when incited will give you his all, even if it means sacrificing his own safety for a bigger cause. That he will do this without fully understanding why, makes him that much more attractive and admirable. Wise and McQueen capture these traits beautifully in the last scene, with Holman wounded and under attack. "What happened? he asks himself.

Another love affair drags the movie down, that between Jake's friend Frenchie (Richard Attenbourgh) and Maily, a girl forced into prostitution. Although sensitively done, Wise would have been better off to jettison it.

The action sequences include a thrilling attack on a Chinese river blockade by the San Pablo, its crew finally showing some pride, and the chase and murder of Jake's other friend, Po-han (Mako). Po-han is a lovable character, who Jake takes under his wing as his assistant. Po-han struggles with the English language but wants to learn. His lessons are quite funny. His death, at the hands of Chinese rebels, is the most shocking scene in the film, savage and bloody. Jake watches from the deck of the San Pablo as the insurgents capture his friend and string him up on a pole, where the leader commences to slice his chest and stomach with a large knife. The captain, unwilling to incite an international  incident over a coolie, refuses to interfere. McQueen plays the scene perfectly, furious and full of anguish.
The river blockade battle.

There is another tense scene, a violent boxing match involving Po-han and a racist crew mate of Jake's that looks all too real. The sailor is played by Simon Oakland, who towers over the smaller man and out-weights him by a hundred pounds. Wise stages it expertly. The cigarette smoke hangs in the air, the audience drinks and noisily exhorts their betting favorite on, and the fighters exhaust themselves in blood and sweat.

McQueen earned his only Oscar nomination for the film (losing to Paul Scofield in A Man for All Seasons), and the film eight nominations in all. It won none, perhaps indicating that the day of big road-show movies had passed. Both the film and the director were nominated, Wise for the third time. He'd already won two.

Richard Crenna plays the gunboat's captain, a man trying hard to maintain his dignity and the ship's discipline. His confidence is low and at one point he contemplates suicide. He is excellent. His character is the real dramatic center of the film as far as history goes--he represents the tradition of the U.S. Navy, far from home and trying to maintain a foothold in a rapidly changing nation, one that violently resents the Navy's presence. Internal forces are about to explode as the march of history brings American imperialism in China to an end.

Richard Crenna as Captain Collins.
Other Films by Robert Wise:
  • Born to Kill 1947
  • Run Silent Run Deep 1958
  • West Side Story 1961
  • The Haunting 1963
  • The Sound of Music 1965
Other Films by Steve McQueen:   

  • The Great Escape 1963
  • Love and the Proper Stranger 1963
  • The Cincinnati Kid 1965
  • Bullitt 1968
  • Papillon 1973

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