The Sand Pebbles (1966 USA)

(There are many silly hat moments in The Sand Pebbles)

In 1911 China overthrew the Manchu dynasty, which in its weakened state, over the last century had sold off parcels of real estate outright controlled by European powers and later by Japan as well. The United States controlled no territory outright as other powers did, but the Americans did insist on extraterritoriality involving their citizens doing business there. What that meant was that US citizens were not subject to Chinese laws, civil or criminal. Matters involving them went to American courts. Other powers had those same treaties. That was resented. Westerners were resented. Japanese were resented most of all because they were fellow Asians doing it to the Chinese but this tale is only concerned with Americans.

In 1926, US Navy engineer Jake Holman (Steve McQueen) transfers from an ocean-based warship to the river gunboat San Pablo. The San Pablo patrols the Yangtze River in China under the orders of Captain Collins (Richard Crenna). Collins likes to keep his engine room crew busy, while the officers and deck sailors spend most of their time carrying out combat drills. However, Holman performs his engine room duties with such conscientiousness and gusto that he gradually alienates himself from most of the other crew members. This is the one for which McQueen should have won an Oscar. He demonstrates an emotional range and depth that runs the gamut from almost boyish naivete to the world weary, seen-it-all veteran.

Utterly convincing, he can say more with a slight incline of his head, a slow blink or shifting of his eyes than most actors could say with reams of dialogue at their disposal. He communicates with so much more than words, and there’s meaning in everything he says and does– he never wastes a line or a single moment. What he does with this role is magnificent; it’s the definitive McQueen performance. His Holman is the personification of the loner, and in creating him he delivers something few actors could ever equal: He’s tough, convincing and charming– all at the same time. During their journeys up and down the river, Holman falls in love with a teacher at a mission outpost, the beautiful Shirley Eckert (Candice Bergen).

He also forms a strong friendship with fellow sailor Frenchy Burgoyne (Richard Attenborough), who has saved a Chinese prostitute from a life of vice and degradation by marrying her. The political situation in the country deteriorates and the crew of the San Pablo find themselves caught up in a difficult situation. Things reach crisis point when a Chinese crew member is captured and tortured because of his allegiance to the Americans. Worse still, the previously mentioned mission outpost is attacked by Chinese soldiers. This leads to the San Pablo having to smash through a blockade of Chinese junks – thereby declaring an intent of war – in order to rescue the missionaries and their colleagues. This act of foolhardy heroism proves to be fatal for many of the San Pablo’s beleaguered sailors.

Script writer Robert Anderson had a tough job distilling Richard McKenna’s sprawling novel of U.S. Navy gunboat ‘San Pablo’ (hence her sailors called themselves ‘Sand Pebbles’) at the start of the revolution that would tear China asunder and ultimately transform it into the post-WWII behemoth we know today. He and director Robert Wise knew to keep the plot’s underpinnings solidly on the central irony of McKenna’s story: that it is Jake’s very alienation from his fellows that leads him inevitably to sacrifice and redemption. The ending is shocking and powerful; a reminder of better, more mature days in American film. Wise directed on locations in Hong Kong and Taiwan with his customary mastery of both intense personal confrontation and epic sweep. In excellent support are Richard Attenborough, Richard Crenna and Mako. The film also features one of Jerry Goldsmith’s most memorable scores.

(Time to kick some Chinese butt…)

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