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Savant Review:

The Sand Pebbles

The Sand Pebbles
Fox Home Video
1966 / Color / 2:35 anamorphic widescreen / 179(193) m.
Starring Steve McQueen,
Cinematography Joseph MacDonald
Production Designer Boris Leven
Film Editor William Reynolds
Original Music Jerry Goldsmith
Writing credits Robert Anderson from the novel by Richard McKenna
Produced and Directed by Robert Wise

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Thanks to 'Jon,' for a correction.

Buster Keaton once said that you couldn't make a satisfactory Civil War film if the heroes were the Northerners.  Robert Wise, flush from the commercial triumph of The Sound of Music, made this strongly-felt roadshow film a veiled contemplation of the issues of Vietnam.  Choosing an older historical situation, the middle 1920s when unwelcome foreign flags still patrolled the rivers of China as a token echo of the legation politics of 1900's Boxer Rebellion, Wise takes the familar route of presenting 'the inscrutable East' as an undeciperable riddle.


Given a choice of jail or the military, juvenile delinquent Jake Holman (Steve McQueen) turns an aptitude for engineering into a career manning the steam engines of America's far-flung Navy.  Patrolling a Chinese backwater where civil war is taking its toll on foreigners and missionaries, the gunboat San Pablo has no clear mission and has fallen into a state of lethargic indulgence, with local 'coolies' doing all the work for its peacetime warriors.  While Jake begins a chaste flirtation with idealistic missionary Shirley Eckert (Candice Bergen), his buddy Frenchy Burgoyne (Richard Attenborough) falls hopelessly in love with a Chinese girl, Maily (Marayat Andriane) marked for a life of prostitution.  Local agitators use their affair to spark a political incident, and the San Pablo is beseiged in a locked-horns diplomatic standoff.  Its humiliated commander Collins (Richard Crenna) becomes so disturbed by the ordeal, he seizes on the opportunity to fling his gunboat into a reckless military action.  Jake, a loner despised by his crewmates, finds himself fighting a war he doesn't believe in.

It was certainly a bold move for Robert Wise to take on a story about colonial conflict, right after the 1965 expansion of the war in Vietnam.  But the topic doesn't lend itself to simplification, as did his earlier I Want to Live!, a passionate but (now) possibly incorrect reading of a capital punishment case.

The 1926 situation of unwelcome English and American gunboats 'patrolling' Chinese waterways is one of those stories where the American soldiers on the scene were probably the least likely candidates to have a meaningful perspective on the situation.  No matter what steps Wise and his writer take to present the Chinese in a fair light, the result is still paternalistic and patronizing.  Even though the script takes pains to state that both Communists and Nationalists are involved in the complicated politics of the time, 1966 American audiences naturally identified the 'treacherous' Chinese beligerents in the story with Ho Chi Minh and Mao.  No amount of sincerity is going to endear men with guns to a foreign population, and Wise is eventually stuck without a coherent statement to make: the only lesson we learn is that having anything to do with anything Asian is a bad idea.

Everything is shown from the American point of view.  The story is steeped in humiliating situations (Navy uniforms pelted with filth, savage cruelty) that action-loving Americans readily accept as trigger mechanisms: let loose the big guns and sort out the bodies later.  The very tender love story between McQueen and a radiantly fresh-faced Candice Bergen, with its attendant hopes for a peaceful resolution, come to less than nothing:  this is a war film, by damn, and when two hours of frustration climaxes with a rip-roaring, sabers-out war, it's the Marines versus the Chinamen and nothing else matters.

The roadshow format may be a major culprit.  Some reserved-seat roadshow attractions had been so successful, that all kinds of subjects were being stretched to three hours with an intermission.  Not every film concept is Lawrence of Arabia, or has a dozen dynamite musical numbers, so audiences were treated to long, limp films like Custer of the West and The Hallelujah Trail that fell back on their scenery to alleviate boredom.  In The Sand Pebbles, Wise's no-nonsense pace flags in a story that too often is stuck in overly predictable plot sidetracks.  Some early character development, particularly Holman's training of Po-han (Mako) to work in the engine room, has real spirit, but everything about Richard Attenborough's pathetic romance is a downer.  The eventual fate of Po-han points up a problem that should have been obvious:  audiences identify with personal stories and not ideological ones - all the effort spent to be 'fair' to the Chinese side of things goes for naught when they take the villain role in every confrontation with our sincere but irrelevant heroes.  They use the San Pablo for false propaganda, harass Frenchy and his secret Chinese bride, and torture Po-han.  So the picture turns into a gung-ho battle epic by default.  More honest is the almost completely imperialist "blast the sampans" movie, The Decks Ran Red, an English film from the middle '50s.  The imitation For Whom the Bell Tolls ending, with a heroic Steve McQueen alone in the dark, is an empty epitaph for a film that doesn't even begin to deal with its own subject matter.

This probably is Steve McQueen's best performance, the main reason The Sand Pebbles is still a memorable film.  He registers on screen as a natural actor who's fascinating to watch just behave.  In the '60s he was that immediately recognizable American good guy - not too bright, vaguely unhappy, but obsessed with his profession and eager to find himself, even if he hasn't the needed social skills.  His Jake Holman probably personified the honest young Vietnam draftee to most of America - sincerely trying to communicate with Po-han, his is the only successful 'linking' with the inscrutable Asian enemy in the whole picture.  Candice Bergen is almost perfect and does a superlative job making her missionary character the voice of humanitarian reason.  Richard Crenna plays the mentally constipated Captain of the San Pablo as a soldier incapable of dealing with politics and as such does a reasonable job, but the role is not that interesting.  He always gets an undeserved laugh when he draws his cutlass, an authentic detail that seemed a silly anachronism in 1966 - today the sword-brandishing would probably evoke cheers.  Lovesick sailor Richard Attenborough does his best but comes off as rather out-of-place, and his role has the taint of an Oscar bid.  His biggest scenes are a tangent to the story and unfortunately do the most to bog down the proceedings.  The rest of the cast also seems to know that they're in Something Significant, and try a little too hard, with Ford Rainey and Simon Oakland chewing the scenery.  Mako has the screen time to develop his character Po-han well, and comes off memorably.

The big setpiece is a meticulous battle filmed on a broad river that bristles with tension, bravado and bloody havoc.  This is the kind of thing big-budget movies do best, even when they can't manage an underlying story.  It's clear that the cutting of the river-blocking cable is a symbol for the massive tearing apart of any hope for reconciliation between East and West.   Effective it is, but like everything else in The Sand Pebbles, it burdens the film with a sense of hopelessness.  Even the film's title, besides its stated interpretation,  1  hints that co-existing with the Chinese is like trying to hold a brimming handful of sand.  The eventual message is not that our Chinese-American policy might merit revision so that we can all get along, but that any communication with 'the damned Asians' is so impossible, we might as well just blow the place to bits and get it over with.

Fox Home Video's special edition DVD of The Sand Pebbles is a glowing 16:9 transfer that brings out the beauty of Joe McDonald's photography (not 70mm - thank you Jon) and retains the shadow-on-shadow feel of the many night scenes. This is not the original roadshow print, which ran a full reel longer than what we saw in the neighborhood theaters, but it includes Jerry Goldsmith's opening, closing and brief intermission music.  There are two fleeting shots in the trailer of a 'pirate action' on a lake that hint at one of the missing scenes, and some awkward continuity in the middle section also seems a result of cuts - beseiged and harrassed at one point, the sailors are having a good time back on shore just a few seconds later.  It would be very nice to see the roadshow version one day in the future.  Besides the trailer, the disc carries some interesting audio extras in the form of radio spots and audio 'featurettes' on the Taiwan location and the boat itself.

There's also a full-length commentary track with Robert Wise, Candice Bergen, Mako, and an uncredited Richard Crenna.  It's scene-specific and well cut.  Wise and Crenna talk about the production in Taiwan and building the boat (overlapping a bit here and there), and Mako has funny things to say about most of the cast.  They all remember Steve McQueen with praise and cautious remarks about his loner personality.  Bergen is on the track the least, but is quite open about her youth and the fact that it was only her second picture.  Wise appears to become a bit confused at least once, when he talks about submitting the script on the same day as hearing that Bobby Kennedy had been shot, which happened two years after The Sand Pebbles was released.

With Steve McQueen's best performance, The Sand Pebbles is one of the better of the '60s roadshow epics.  Despite a few shortcomings, it's a matinee favorite and one of the few serious attempts during the Vietnam war to deal with the 'Asian situation' in a rational way.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Sand Pebbles rates:
Movie: Good action, fair drama
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: trailer, radio spots, audio featurettes, Commentary with Robert Wise, Candice Bergen, Mako & Richard Crenna
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: May 5, 2001


1. The San Pablo is euphemized into 'The Sand Pebble', and her sailor-Marines are 'Sand Pebbles.'

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