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Sand Pebbles, The (1966)

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Score: 8/10

Genre: Drama and War Running Time: 3 hrs. 2 min.

Release Date: December 20th, 1966 MPAA Rating: Not Rated

Director: Robert Wise Actors: Steve McQueen, Richard Attenborough, Candice Bergen, Richard Crenna, Mako, Marayat Andriane, Larry Gates, Simon Oakland, Joe Turkel, Gavin MacLeod

R

avaged from within by corrupt warlords and equivalently oppressed by the great world powers that had beaten her a century ago, China is now a country of factions trying to unite to become a nation – through revolution. In Shanghai in 1926, flagship sailor Jake Holman (Steve McQueen) goes ashore to receive his assignment of switching to controversial American gunboat San Pablo. Some feel that China needs to be controlled, while others believe the abundance of foreigners scrabbling for dominance abuses the system in which they collect taxes, are immune to laws, and even govern the postal system. Holman doesn’t care much for politics or military intervention, but he’s adept at following orders as a member of the Navy.

While in Shanghai, Holman meets missionary Mr. Jameson (Larry Gates) and the ineradicably smiling Vermont teacher Shirley Eckert (Candice Bergen), both exchanging opinions on the current economic climate and propriety. When Jake makes his way to the San Pablo, nicknamed the Sand Pebble by its crew, he becomes the senior engineer. He quickly grows to dislike the contempt from local workers, the infighting, the inequalities of oriental slave labor, the absence of a real mission, and lax discipline. He also disagrees with Captain Collins’ (Richard Crenna) methods of commanding and overseeing, which lead to the accidental death of Chien, the head coolie – a fatality for which Holman is blamed.

Tasked with replacing Chien, Jake begins training Po-han (Mako). But when the new throttle man appears too comfortable and friendly with the Americans, bullying soldier Stawski (Simon Oakland) tries to start a fight. Jake interferes, leading to an organized boxing match at the Shangluo port. Later, Frenchy (Richard Attenborough) helps hostess Maily (Marayat Andriane), an uncommonly English-fluent native harboring a dark secret, to escape from indentured servitude. As tensions mount in the region through falsified reports that unify multiple communist warlords against the American presence, the situation is deemed a civil clash in which the San Pablo must remain neutral – or else Russia will have a reason to combatively come to China’s rescue.

McQueen falls into his role with ease, retaining his agreeable, lighter personality from “The Great Escape,” though a hint of the severer, reckless Bullitt (which he would play two years later) pokes through. Rebelliousness, confidence, opposition to feeble leadership, coming to the defense of meeker souls, and proneness to fighting are all characteristics that craft a highly memorable character. He’s also a man torn between duty and a woman. Attenborough is likewise in fine form as a sympathetic but confused sailor, similarly blinded by the fairer sex. Unfortunately, Bergen is noticeably strained and wooden, giving an unconvincing portrayal of half of a romance, in which two Americans must expectedly journey across the globe in order to find each other and fall in love.

For a war film, “The Sand Pebbles” features very little actual warfare (until the final thirty minutes), though it tackles the supplementary, heavy themes of racial intolerance, international crises, governmental contentions that prevent societal progress, civil hostility, propaganda, mutiny, siege, torture, prostitution, rape, slavery, martyrdom, and murder. It includes perspectives from both sides, with numerous tragedies for each. As a precursor to the iconically cinematic disintegration of morality, psychological stresses of killing, and epitome of wartime chaos that the Vietnam War would present, the San Pablo comparably faces labored loyalty and camaraderie, mental traumas from the dispatching of enemies, and a strong sense of self preservation over obligation. This is further demonstrated by the incorporation of renounced nationality, the senselessness and catastrophes of bloodshed, and confusion over the sides chosen by foreign military involvement. With a three-hour runtime, an undeniably epic feel is imparted, complemented by an intermission and accompanying soundtrack pieces by Jerry Goldsmith. Though the conclusion is abrupt, the journey is riveting, with expert direction by Robert Wise and a proficient screenplay by Robert Anderson, based on the novel by Richard McKenna, who actually served aboard a Yangtze River gunboat.

– Mike Massie

 



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