Sand Pebbles, The (1966)

“Hello, engine; I’m Jake Holman.”

Sand Pebbles Poster

Synopsis:
A naval engineer (Steve McQueen) onboard an American gunboat in 1920s China finds himself at odds with his strait-laced captain (Richard Crenna).

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Review:
A year after winning an Oscar as best director for The Sound of Music (1965), Robert Wise helmed this epic historical military flick, based on a bestselling novel by Richard McKenna. Critics at the time of its release were understandably distracted by the screenplay’s obvious parallels with the United States’ involvement in the Vietnam War; these days, it’s easier to accept the story on its own merits. Steve McQueen gave one of his best, most introspective performances in the central role of Jake Holman — a soldier genuinely “in love” with engines, who situates his integrity as a man within his ability to care for them effectively. To that end, his insistence on rigorous maintenance while aboard the San Pablo becomes the catalyst driving two key narrative threads: his contentious relationship with his superior (Crenna, whose only interest lies in continuing to manifest a strong American “presence” in China), and the racial tensions that ensue when he tries to take over responsibilities traditionally handled by Chinese “coolies”.

Given its lengthy running time (nearly 3 hours) and epic ambitions, there’s a lot more going on in The Sand Pebbles than “just” Jake’s identity as a naval engineer. His inevitable romantic interest is played by Candice Bergen (just 19 years old!) as a do-gooding teacher — but the primary romantic subplot is filled by Jake’s shipmate Richard Attenborough and his Eurasian flame Maily (Emmanuelle Arsan), whose “forbidden” love affair has tragic consequences. Meanwhile, there are plenty of exciting action sequences sprinkled throughout, and Joseph MacDonald’s cinematography brings the Chinese landscape to vibrant life. But the film isn’t uniformly entertaining: the story immediately begins to drag whenever Attenborough and Arsan’s romance is given screentime, and despite an initial attempt at humanizing the Chinese (as evidenced in Mako‘s Oscar-nominated performance as a doomed “coolie” who briefly befriends McQueen), they ultimately turn into an amorphous mass of “Others”. Nonetheless, McQueen’s impressive performance is reason enough for film fanatics to check this film out at least once.

Note: Wise was apparently so proud of his work on this film that he hosted annual cast reunions for years after its release; click here for a website devoted exclusively to the film.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Steve McQueen as Jake Holman (McQueen’s performance earned him his only Academy Award nomination)
    Sand Pebbles McQueen
  • Beautiful on-location cinematography (by Joseph MacDonald)

Must See?
Yes, simply for Steve McQueen’s Oscar-nominated performance.

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One Response to “Sand Pebbles, The (1966)”

  1. An absolute must!

    Hadn’t seen this since its release (I would have been 11), so was rather curious to revisit it. What masterful filmmaking!

    Before rewatching, I spoke about it with one of the professors (and China experts) in my department: not only did he find the film accurate in terms of its view of China, its people and its politics, but it was also one of the reasons he became deeply interested in China in the first place.

    What strikes me most about the film is not only how well it has held up (and its, to say the least, impressive look) but how its 3 hours seem to fly. Robert Anderson’s screenplay is concise, detailed and clear and, with the aid of sharp editing, there doesn’t seem to be an unnecessary moment.

    Director Wise, who apparently won an Oscar the year before for ‘The Sound of Music’ because it was the audience – that is, Oscar voters’ – favorite, outdoes himself here with a story that has more meat on it. He elicits natural, understated performances across-the-board (and, yes, this could very well be McQueen’s finest hour) – to the degree that you almost feel you aren’t watching actors at all. (It’s probably not surprising that ‘TSP’ was left empty-handed come Oscar time: ‘A Man for All Seasons’ was the darling *that* year and made something of a clean sweep – tho I don’t find it at all as memorable in retrospect. But then, the Academy has a knack of making a big show of embracing its darlings.)

    What I like about McQueen’s “romance” with Bergen is that it’s hardly a romance at all. Part of the reason for that is that McQueen’s Jake sees himself as so self-sufficient that the last thing on his mind is probably romantic involvement. As a result, though you sense his respect for Bergen, his interest is tentative, reserved and believable.

    I don’t find Attenborough’s contrasting relationship with Arsan all that dull. On the contrary, I was particularly moved during their exchange of vows (privately witnessed by McQueen and Bergen alone) and had the sense that these were not just two very lonely and vulnerable people, but two who had found something rather genuine and real in each other.

    Perhaps, though, the film’s most powerful moment is one you expect the least – involving McQueen, who not only finally and boldly disobeys protocol but does so out of deep compassion. Because of where and how the moment is placed, I find it chilling just bringing it – and the whole sequence around it – to mind.

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