Monday, December 16, 2013

The Sand Pebbles (1966)

The Sand PebblesSteve McQueen was known for many things-action films, fast cars, motorcycles, a charismatic presence (on screen and off), and his true "tough guy" persona. But with this film, another description moves to the top of that list: Actor. Anyone who doubts what a great actor McQueen was need only watch this film, because his performance here as Jake Holman is simply as good as it gets. "The Sand Pebbles, " directed by Robert Wise, is the story of Holman, a sailor assigned to the U.S. Gunboat, "San Pablo," stationed on the Yangtze River in China in 1926 (the sailors aboard are known as "sand pebbles"). It's primary function is to patrol the river and thereby establish an American presence in China, a country currently experiencing a period of political unrest and impending upheaval. It's a new assignment for Holman, and it suits him just fine; his job is to keep the ship's engines up and running, and because of the size of the ship, he's the only engineer-it's just Jake and his engine. And that's the way he likes it. Holman is a loner by nature, and something of an iconoclast. At one point, when he is asked his opinion of American Foreign Policy and their presence in China, he simply says, "I don't mess with it. It's all look-see-pidgin, somethin' for the officers."

Eventually, however, Holman is nevertheless drawn into the conflict through a series of events that impact him beyond all personal resistance, the most significant being when American lives are threatened throughout China, and Holman and a landing party are sent ashore to protect and escort some missionaries back to the safety of the San Pablo. But at the mission, Holman discovers a way of life, the likes of which he's never known, and for the first time ever, he realizes a sense of belonging. And he likes it. For Holman, however, it may be too late; the political turmoil throughout the country has put the lives of everyone at the mission in peril, including a young missionary named Shirley Eckert (Candice Bergen), with whom Holman has made a connection he simply cannot dispel; for in Shirley, he discerns an innocence and a goodness that compels him, and in which he finds a welcome sense of fulfillment. So what began as a routine mission becomes a salient point in Holman's life, and he is faced with the most important decision he's ever had to make.

This is the one for which McQueen should have won an Oscar. As Holman, he demonstrates an emotional range and depth that runs the gamut from almost boyish naivete to a world weary veteran of life who has seen and heard it all. 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. And he should've taken home The Statue for it.

As Collins, the Captain of the San Pablo, Richard Crenna gives one of his finest performances, as well, and it cemented his transition from television actor to a career on the big screen. After this, there was no going back. His portrayal of the somber, introspective Captain is riveting, and in him you readily perceive Collins' sense of duty and honor, as well as his overwhelming sense of futility and failure. And the urgency with which he grasps his chance for redemption, even in the face of insurmountable odds, is entirely believable as it is consistent with the character he has created.

The superlative supporting cast includes Richard Attenborough (Frenchy), Emmanuelle Arsan (Maily), Mako (Po-han), Larry Gates (Jameson), Charles Robinson (Bordelles), Simon Oakland (Stawski), Ford Rainey (Harris), Joe Turkel (Bronson) and Gavin MacLeod (Crosley). A powerful drama, extremely well crafted and presented by Wise, "The Sand Pebbles" is a great and memorable film that will forever stand as the pinnacle of McQueen's successful career. Jake Holman is a character you will never forget, because there is something of him-that wistful longing to belong, perhaps-in all of us. A timeless classic among classics, this is one of the greatest motion pictures of all time, and is by definition, the magic of the movies.

This 1966 film is a big budget adaptation of the 1962 novel by Richard McKenna. Directed by Robert Wise, it gleaned nine academy award nominations. I remember reading the book a very long time ago, and remember it as an adventure story. But by watching this DVD, I see now that it is much more. And I also see how it relates to what is happening in the world today.

The setting is China in 1926. Violent conflicts were everywhere. Warlords were fighting each other, and the Nationalist leader Chang Kai-Shek was gaining power. In addition, the Communists were fighting against the Nationalists. Because the U.S. had interests there, they had a few Navy gunboats going up and down the river. They weren't supposed to do anything just be a show a force. But the Chinese, from all the different factions, wanted the Americans out. "Go Home Foreigners" was their battle cry. The Americans knew that at any moment an international incident could erupt. Sound familiar?

Steve McQueen, in the best performance of his career, is cast as a Navy machinist on the gunboat, which was nicknamed the "Sand Pebbles". When he joins the crew, he's surprised to discover that the "Coolies" do all the hard work everything from cooking to cutting hair to running the engine. He opposes this as he wants to run the engine himself, and after some conflict, and an accidental death, he befriends one of the Coolies, and teaches him how to run the boat. Later, there are violent consequences.

There is tension throughout between McQueen and the crew for many reasons. And we soon know who the good guys and the bad guys are. Richard Attenborough plays a good guy. He falls in love with a young Chinese woman in bondage to the local house of pleasure. Another good guy is the Captain of the ship, played by Richard Crenna. He believes in ideals and is determined to act with valor even though he has to make some hard choices. Steve McQueen is the ultimate good guy though. He acts on instinct and every move is from the heart.

Then there's the crew who treat the Coolies badly and fight against every improvement that McQueen wants to implement. They also are willing to almost cause a mutiny when an incident occurs in which the Chinese call for McQueen's blood. We also see the naivety of the missionaries, one of whom is Candice Bergen, who think that by declaring themselves "stateless persons" the Chinese will not see them as Americans. The film is a series of battles. Some of the battles are with guns. Others are moral ones. Together they create a huge mosaic of high adventure coupled with questions of intervention. There are no easy answers.

The DVD has several features by Robert Wise in which he discusses the making of the film. However, to my disappointment, they are all in audio only. We hear his voice superimposed over a static scene or the logo from the film. After all the high adventure of the film, I was bored by these and didn't watch them.

However, the film stands alone on its own. It's almost three hours long, but yet every moment is action packed with complex interweaving stories. There isn't one dull part and all of the acting is great. I loved it. I therefore give it an extremely high recommendation. Not to be missed.

Buy The Sand Pebbles (1966) Now

The Sand Pebbles is an absolutely terrific movie, which is centered on the pitfalls of involving the military in a culture it simply does not understand. The cinematography of the Asiatic land and seascapes is literally breath-taking, and the movie's script is compelling, multilayered, and tends to keep you guessing as to where this is going and what the consequences may be for the crew of a U.S. gunboat slowly becoming entangled in the internal domestic politics of early 20th century China without understanding the dangerous complexities of the situation.

The cast is stellar, starting with what may have been perhaps the finest and most accomplished acting by Steve McQueen in his long and illustrious career. Here McQueen does more with a series of facial shots than most actors could do with a gunboat full of dialogue. It also includes a very young and beautiful Candace Bergen, a remote and imperious "by the book" and dangerously gung-ho skipper played quite well by Richard Crenna, as well as wonderful performances by Mako, Richard Attenborough, and a number of notable others. All of them add to the progress of the drama, but it is McQueen's reawakening as a person during the progress of the movie that is the centerpiece of its story, as he slowly transforms from a selfish, emotionally remote, and cynical sailor into a person who increasingly recognizes that there things in life worth fighting and even dying for.

The movie is quite long at 180 minutes (3 hours), but through its length provides a very interesting, absorbing, and off-beat look at how our country sometimes becomes embroiled in international incidents without understanding what is going on, and how that military involvement, whether it is in a sleeping China or in Vietnam (which was the obvious parallel in the mid-sixties when this was made) affects everyone involved. Don't miss this chance to see Steve McQueen and a strong supporting cast in this terrific though perhaps subtle anti-war movie.

Read Best Reviews of The Sand Pebbles (1966) Here

The Sand Pebbles is the best Steve McQueen movie in my opinion. His portrayal of Seaman Jake Holman aboard a U.S. gunboat in China during the 1920's is awesome. Also the supporting cast of Richard Crenna as the Captain of the gunboat the San Pablo, Candice Bergen as a VERY beautiful missionary who falls for Holman, and Sir Richard Attenborough as Holman's Navy buddy Frenchie, and Mako as a coolie that Holman trains, give fine performances as well. There is plenty of action especially during the battle scene where the San Pablo must fight through a line of Chinese junks linked together. It is exciting. The romance storyline between McQueen and Bergen is touching. I highly recommend this film.

Want The Sand Pebbles (1966) Discount?

The Sand Pebbles is an extremely well made movie. The ensemble cast is exceptional but the standouts are Steve McQueen and RIchard Crenna.

McQueen is outstanding as Jake Holman, a First Class Machinest Mate, who is devoted to his machinery and has extremely limited ability to interact with his fellow crewmembers. Note the several hashmarks denoting length of service on his uniform but he isn't wearing a good conduct medal. He is perceived as an outsider by the crew of the San Pablo and a potential troublemaker by the captain of the ship. At this time in Naval history, a good man could and would stay in a single ship for years at a strectch. One who moved frequently was considered to be a problem Sailor which is noted by Holman's new commanding officer. With time, Holman is able to mix in a limited way with his shipmates. However, his best friend is a Chinese bilge coolie who shares his passion for engines. Holman acquires further enemies amongst the Chinese unofficial crew members as he trains Po Han as an engineer. Holman is indirectly involved in the death of the boss bilge coolie which further exacerbates his strained relations with both the American and Chinese members of the crew.

Richard Crenna is excellent as a commanding officer at the this distant end of America's Naval reach. His task is to keep his men motivated to the mission at hand which is to represent American power in Asia. At the same time knowing that the missionaries in the area dislike them and the businessmen tolerate them as a required evil. He also has the task of motivating his crew when they all realize that no one back in the US knows or cares that there are several hundred US Sailors on the Yangtze "showing the flag". It is every commanding officers biggest challenge to prepare their crews for war in a time of peace.

Coupled with being the smallest ship being the fartherst into China, is the local unrest as various warlords are establishing local control, various military forces are making in attempt to influence events and student unrest boils up. Is it any wonder that the crew is confused as to what thier missions are. But rather than worry, they head for the local saloons and leave the bigger decisions to the officers.

This film tells the story of not just a single man, it tells the story of generations of men who served in China. Some came and stayed when their Navy careers were over. Some came and never left and are buried there. Others came and left and have never forgotten their time there. They did their duty and that was all the America asked of them, or at least the diplomats. I'm sure that in the 20s, very few, if any, Americans ever realized that there were hundreds of US Sailors patrolling thousands of miles of rivers and coasts to preserve America's rights in China.

The Sand Pebbles is a comprehensive movie that shows the Asisatic Sailors at their best and worst. It should be a must see movie for anyone intersted in America and China and how our present relationship developed.

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