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The Sand Pebbles Review

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by Chris McEneany Jun 17, 2008

    The Sand Pebbles Review
    Set in revolution-ravaged China in 1926, Robert Wise's epic 1966 movie The Sand Pebbles is a grand and disturbing adventure that mixes rising political tension, fantastic period drama, romance and, of course, gun-blazing action with stylish aplomb. Coming off the back of The Sound Of Music, The Sand Pebbles, based on a novel by Richard McKenna, was another vast and sprawling visual extravaganza from Wise that brought together a terrific international cast, headed up by the ultra-iconic Steve McQueen and more than ably supported by the likes of Richard Attenborough (sporting an actually very credible American accent), Richard Crenna, a very young Candice Bergen and the awesome Asian character actor Mako in his first major Hollywood role. Based on board a rusty US gunboat, the San Pablo, and in the shanties and ports that surround it up and down the banks of the Yangtze River, Wise's intense melodrama follows the fate of the crew once Steve McQueen's roguish engineer, Jake Holman, is transferred to it and the subsequent escalation of pressure and resentment from the local warlords, all vying for tenuous power in the region, puts all their lives in danger. Throw in precarious and fateful romances with women caught up in worlds that they don't understand - an ideological missionary played by Bergen and a beautiful but tragic prostitute played by Emmanualle Arsan - and Robert Wise delivers a heady brew of deception, intrigue and soul-searching on a scale that he had never attempted before.

    “Holman, I'll have you shot as a mutineer!”

    “Well shoot something!

    Happily playing as part of an ensemble again - like he did in The Great Escape and The Magnificent Seven before this - Steve McQueen is cool enough to shine as the brightest star out of the cast but still produces a tremendously reined-in performance that allows the full roster of colourful characters around him ample room to breathe. He rules the roost, but unlike many stars of his calibre, he also knows when to step aside and let those surrounding him have their moments of glory. Jake Holman is a terrific enigma and was obviously a role that McQueen thought would push him further than he had gone before. Weary and cynical of the Navy, China and its fractious politics and of his own fellow men, Holman's character reveals many layers of complexity and a hidden revelation or two as events he would rather be left out of thrust him into a dangerous limelight. McQueen's machismo is never in question though and his trademarked anti-authoritarianism is well in evidence with Holman's perpetual determination to walk his own path and not just dance to the tune that Collins has been morosely playing. Holman's knowledge of the boat's engines becomes a huge bargaining chip and also a catalyst for the doom-laden events that will come. He understands them as many others would like to understand a woman - he soothes and cajoles the steam-pumps and the pipes and the gauges, realising the hazardous complacency of the local “coolies” in the vital matters of maintenance, a situation that will culminate not only in mortal injury but a perversely enforced purgatory for him. But the day to day running of the boat and the personality clashes that are creating storms of their own aboard it swiftly pale when murders occur and war looms on the horizon.

    The San Pablo and her crew of Sand Pebbles, as the crew like to call themselves, soon realise the full and savage predicament of being stuck in the middle of hostile waters.

    Having recently slated Richard Crenna's acting abilities - hey, I love the guy in the Rambo films (see epic BD review) but he's hardly a De Niro, is he? - it is actually quite refreshing to go back to one of his earlier roles and find that he can perform more than adequately. As Captain Collins, he is given plenty of opportunity to snarl and scowl as Holman starts rocking the boat. Check out the wonderful sneer of utter disdain that he utilises for most of his exchanges with McQueen - it's an absolute classic. His adherence to discipline - the morning parades on deck and the rather bogus speeches of patriotism that he delivers before the American flag - and his insistence on letting the Chinese “coolies” run the ship for fear of aggravating local powers if he doesn't, even if this means letting standards slide, are bureaucratic annoyances that culminate in a couple of spectacular about-faces that he must make once his honour is called into question. This is a grand Old School performance from Crenna, whose Captain's irritatingly square-chinned approach to the vicious antics of the warlords that surround the San Pablo and the bizarre jeopardy that he and his crew are thrust into is thrown to the wind once he decides that enough is enough. When he takes up sword and automatic and leaps into battle, Rambo would certainly be proud of him. Richard Attenborough's squat little sailor, Frenchy, who immediately befriends Holman, is also a tremendously well-developed character brought vividly to life by the old pro. His almost pathetic, yet entirely commendable mission to save Arsan's classical fallen woman is a major element of the story - not a clumsy sideline as many claim - and Attenborough invests heart and soul into Frenchy's demented quest.

    Simon (Bullitt) Oakland, a veteran of seemingly every TV show in the sixties and seventies, puts in one of his best ever performances as the larger-than-life oafish thug, Stawski. Starting out as one of the most dependable-looking of the crew, he soon reveals his true sordid colours and a collision course is set between him and both Holman and Frenchy - albeit for different reasons. Big and clumsy - and looking like an overstuffed Gregory Peck - Oakland makes a tremendously dangerous mark on a movie that thrives on painting virtually all of his characters in varying shades of grey.

    The coolies are a convincing bunch, too, unlike many other contemporary films that would shoehorn foreign extras into such roles and simply use them as set decoration, Wise really uses them as a major emotional and thematic quality of the story. In other hands, the burgeoning relationship of trust between McQueen's mentor and the young Mako's willing protégé, Po-han, would have been trite and contrived. But, as it stands, there is a believable texture to their bonding, making later events all the more harrowing. Forgetting, for a moment, the fun but crucial boxing match sequence that pits the diminutive coolie against the imposing might and mouth of Stawski, both Mako and McQueen provide the most galvanising and humanistic images of the film - one pivotal scene between the two lingering painfully in the memory long after the end credits have rolled.

    By contrast, Candice Bergen may be pretty, but she doesn't entirely come over as a believable missionary caught up in the desperate situation of a violent coup. When informed quite matter-of-factly by Crenna's stoic naval officer that the Chinese army will strip her and rape her if she doesn't leave with him and his rescue party, she merely replies with a coyly daft Mona Lisa smile that just doesn't work under the circumstances whatever her motivations for remaining may be. Her romance with Holman has moments that are touching, however, but this is possibly more down to McQueen's typically sensitive array of expressions and soft, yet piercing eyes. The most affecting female in the cast - unless you count the matronly old San Pablo, of course - is Emmanualle Arsan's fantastically fatalistic-yet-ever-hopeful Maily, the poor woman who has unavoidably sold herself into prostitution. The shore-leave episodes set in and around the brothel where she works and the crew tend to gravitate towards are spellbinding in their evocation of the twisted desires of the desperate men of the San Pablo, the broken dreams of Maily and the earnest love affair that she winds up having the besotted and crusading Frenchy. The stricken bond between the two - Frenchy's desperate attempts to free her from such captivity and Maily's forlorn acceptance of her own dilemma - is wrought about without the conventional Hollywood sap, the idea that the pair may eventually find happiness together is treated with a realistic degree of scorn and the rose-tinted goggles that Frenchy peers through are never painted as anything more substantial by a superbly intelligent script.

    In accordance with the passage of time and the ever-persuasive tone of apprehension that Wise sets out to deliver, the film is deliberately languid and measured with meticulous attention to allowing scenes and characters to live and breathe without contrivance or the need to molly-coddle the viewer. The Sand Pebbles is not a film to take lightly and then dispose of afterwards. Wise wants to invest time and thought into the experience. You only have to watch the protracted and strangely beautiful sequence when Holman first inspects the engine room - touching the pipes and gauges gingerly and moving around the machinery and getting to know it, almost flirting with it - to understand what I mean. But this shouldn't be at all surprising when you consider that it is Robert Wise at the helm. The painstakingly studied director of the most cerebral of the 50's sci-fi boom, The Day The Earth Stood Still, and man who created one of the most tense and frightening horror films despite it not showing anything at all, in The Haunting, and, of course, the man who crafted the hugely grand and remarkably self-indulgent Star Trek: The (slow) Motion Picture knew that atmosphere, mood and setting were paramount to his style of filmmaking. Thus, it is not uncommon for people coming fresh to The Sand Pebbles, suckered-in by that gun-toting poster image, perhaps, to feel slightly impatient with it and begin to wonder if any action is ever going to happen. In some ways, Wise's picture feels akin to Robert Sturges' equally tense, but somewhat action-light - considering its gung-ho theme and lengthy running time - adaptation of Alistair Maclean's Ice Station Zebra. Long patches of dialogue and hints about a lurking menace pepper the majority of the movie, small episodes of quarrelsome antics divert our attention from a bigger picture that is constantly on the move, constantly tightening around a cast we have come to know, and perhaps care for, albeit begrudgingly. Considering how much Wise loved this film and longed to get it underway, it is hard to believe that whilst he waited none-too-patiently for studio funding to come his way, he actually directed the award-winning, highly acclaimed cultural phenomenon that is The Sound of Music. If a filmmaker could come up with a perennial favourite such as that whilst idling his time in preparation for something else - then just think of the passion and integrity he could bring to a cherished project. Sadly, though, that cherished project - The Sand Pebbles - as acclaimed as it is, goes largely ignored or unknown by most people nowadays. Which is a terrible shame.

    “Hello, Engine ... I'm Jake Holman.”

    Someone else who loved the languid tone of the film was none other than Jerry Goldsmith, whose classic score supplies much of The Sand Pebbles' character. Wonderfully evocative and hauntingly expansive, Goldsmith-lovers will be in Heaven to discover that the full score is actually included as an isolated and extended track on this release. His first major epic score, Goldsmith went to town for this, conjuring up a series of memorable recurring motifs and a resounding main theme which all went towards an Oscar nomination for him. Listen to how skilfully he manipulates his individual themes, altering their mood depending upon the circumstances realised in the movie, and how he then interweaves them as he brings characters together and situations to a thunderous head.

    “Pray for an early spring... or permission to open fire.”

    But, perhaps in spite of this lulling build-up, the film is also quite shockingly violent as well. For 1966, there is a level of brutality that was ahead of its time. When the battle comes, it is with swords, knives and axes as well as naval carbines and Browning Automatic rifles, the resulting carnage a virtual free-for-all of bloodletting, all exquisitely edited by William Reynolds (who also received an Oscar nomination for his efforts), whose sumptuously unerring eye for locations and that glorious wide angle lens can also be quite unflinching once the inter-personal mayhem commences. If you've already seen the movie then you will know that one scene in particular stands out as particularly horrific - and is made all the more impactful by the fact that it comes seemingly out of nowhere. Wise also stages his skirmishes in two distinct styles. The first is wildly gung-ho and packed with action and incident, whilst the second is strangely abstract - a hugely pivotal battle in which the participants are amazingly reduced to little more than racing silhouettes and shadowy figures popping up out of the shadows. The suspense during both is palpable and the threat posed to our heroes both exhilarating and sweaty-palmed. Wise wasn't known as an action director, but his final acts for The Sand Pebbles prove that he was more than adept at such things.

    Many view this three-hour journey into duty-bound darkness and selfless sacrifice as tedious, muddled and too episodic for its own good. But, equally, there are those who regard Wise's detailed and emotional drama as a masterpiece. I count myself as one of the latter. Indeed the film can be slightly muddled at times. There are occasions when allegiances are swapped and calamitous situations arise from which there would appear to be no turning back - yet, with a swift scene-change, tensions have been diluted and former hostilities seemingly withdrawn. I'm thinking primarily of the ease with which the otherwise awesome “Holman - Come Down!” scenario goes off the boil once the men have backed down - and of the somewhat confusing state of play back on shore - one minute the US Navy could be hacked to bits by the jeering mob, the next they can move about quite freely and without escort. Of course, this all plays into the paradoxical nature of the conflict itself and the chop 'n' change attitudes of the various factions. Even the pesky missionaries who get themselves into trouble have a problem realising just who the good guys are. All of this goes into making The Sand Pebbles an immensely satisfying picture that is proudly indulgent, wilfully complex and thoroughly entertaining.

    A classic.