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Sand Pebbles, The Print E-mail
Friday, 08 August 2008
Image“It’s too late in the world for flags,” someone comments on this disc, probably in one of the several good featurettes accompanying the movie.  That’s a distillation of one of the principal themes of “The Sand Pebbles,” and is as relevant today as it was in 1966 when the film was made, and in 1926, the time in which the movie takes place.  “The Sand Pebbles” was nominated for a handful of Oscars, including picture, best actor (Steve McQueen) and best supporting actor (Mako, in his feature debut).  It was directed by Robert Wise not long after he made “West Side Story” and “The Sound of Music”—but even though this is at least the equal of the best of that pair, “The Sand Pebbles” has somewhat vanished from film history.  When Robert Wise died not long ago, he was praised for editing “Citizen Kane,” for his years with the Val Lewton unit at RKO, for “The Day the Earth Stood Still” and, of course, for “West Side Story” and “The Sound of Music.”  But “The Sand Pebbles” was rarely cited.

Steve McQueen, of course, died years before wise, but his obituaries mentioned “The Great Escape,” “The Cincinnati Kid,” “Bullit,” even “The Blob,” but rarely “The Sand Pebbles,” even though this film cinched his movie stardom and features what may well be his best movie performance.  Perhaps “The Sand Pebbles” vanished because McQueen is the only movie star in the cast, because it’s not sensationalistic in any way, perhaps because it’s a beautiful example of a Hollywood movie—the kind that so many say aren’t made any more.  Well, they weren’t made all that often back in 1966, either.  “The Sand Pebbles” stood out because, in a sense, it DIDN’T stand out.  It was Hollywood professionalism at its smoothest, best organized and least demonstrative.  It’s an excellent movie and very much deserves rediscovery.  Perhaps this excellent Blu-Ray disc will prompt that—but I doubt it.  “The Sand Pebbles” will probably remain the sort of movie that viewers have to stumble across in order to appreciate. Richard McKenna was in the Navy for more than 20 years, serving on a gunboat on the Yangtze River about ten years after the events in his novel “The Sand Pebbles.”  McKenna primarily wrote science fiction (and was an occasional cover artist); “The Sand Pebbles” was his only novel and was a best seller.  In 1964, he died unexpectedly, before the movie of “The Sand Pebbles” was made.

In 1926, China was under the domination of the great Western powers, primarily the United States and Britain; it stirred with revolt and rebellion, which increased over the next 20 years, finally leading to the victory of the Communists, led by Mao Tse-Tung.  The Communists, but not Mao, are mentioned and occasionally seen, but they’re (deliberately) hard to tell from the nationalist rebels, organized under Chiang Kai-Shek (mentioned but not seen). 

As the movie opens, career Navy enlisted man Jake Holman (McQueen) journeys up the Yangtze River to rendezvous with the San Pablo, a small but well-armed U.S. gunboat patrolling the river under the command of cool customer Captain Collins (Richard Crenna).  En route, Jake encounters missionary Jameson (Larry Gates) and Shirley Eckert (Candice Bergen), a young American woman who teaches at Jameson’s mission.  Along with Jake, we learn more about the social and military elements present along the river as he dines with other passengers on the small ship sailing up the river.

When he reaches the San Pablo, he meets Frenchy Burgoyne (Richard Attenborough in a perfect American accent), another enlisted man on the San Pablo, also working on the engine crew which Jake is to lead.  Frenchy mentions that the Americans on the San Pablo are called “the sand pebbles,” and tries to warn him that there’s an intricate political/social structure aboard the small craft.

Over the years, Chinese coolies have begun working aboard the San Pablo, doing the work the crew ordinarily would handle.  The coolies themselves are organized and do their jobs well, but Jake is certain that they cannot learn to actually understand how the engines work; he’s skeptical and cold toward the coolies, even eager Po-han (Mako).  When he says he’d rather shave himself (for instance), the American crew bristles, suggesting he’d better let the coolie in charge of barbering shave him—“it’s his rice bowl,” he’s told.  Reluctantly, Jake gives in.

But he still presents his objections to Captain Collins, who advises Jake that he needs to change, not the structure of command and responsibility on the San Pablo.  Jake clashes a bit with the chief engine room coolie, but that man is badly injured in an incident caused by the coolies’ lack of knowledge about the true workings of the machinery.  Almost against his better wishes, Jake becomes interested in eager Po-han, and soon learns that while the Chinese worker probably can’t learn the proper terminology, he’s smart, eager to please and quick to understand every challenge Jake throws at him.

Jake and Frenchy become friends, hanging out together at the local whorehouse; Jake occasionally goes upstairs with one of the girls, but Frenchy is shy about all this.  However, he does become interested in newcomer Maily (Marayat Andriane); she’s supposed to talk to the guests of the whorehouse bar, but she does not want to go upstairs—she’s still a virgin.  She speaks fluent English, and when Jake and Frenchy defend her, she’s drawn to the shy sailor, and he to her.

Jake continues teaching Po-han, and visits with Shirley when the San Pablo visits China Light, the mission where she teaches.  Throughout the movie, a slight romance grows between Jake and Shirley, but he’s long been a loner, and it’s hard for him to change.  He’s happiest when he’s alone with the steam engine that powers the San Pablo.  There’s a superb scene near the beginning in which, without a word until the end, Jake acquaints himself with his latest engine.

McQueen was always at his best playing strong, isolated men of few words; he understood such characters, and was well known for paring down the lines given his character in the script, sure that he could do as much if not more without saying a word.  He was usually right but, as Robert Wise says, he wasn’t doctrinaire about this.

“The Sand Pebbles” develops its characters and their situations slowly.  At first, it’s hard to understand why a movie—especially one on this large scale—was made about an American gunboat on the Yangtze River in 1926.  But slowly the issues manifest themselves; it’s hardly an accident of history that McKenna’s novel appeared during the Vietnam War.  The overall issues were, of course, different in 1926, but the underlying ideas—the difficulty of Americans and Asians to understand and accept each other’s differences—were the same.  And are much the same today, with Muslims replacing Asians.  There was an unmistakable American arrogance then, and it still exists today.

Without depicting Collins as a villain on any level—he’s a decent man, so troubled by the issues he has to confront that in a silent scene, he considers suicide—but he cannot let go of the idea that, as an American, he’s really in charge here.  At the end of the film, he makes a courageous, forthright decision—but probably the worst he could have made.  Neither director Wise, writer McKenna nor scenarist Robert Anderson assign blame to anyone, but they clearly sympathize more with a key decision Jake makes—or tries to make—than they are with Collins’ strong but misguided stand.

Wise had wanted to make “The Sand Pebbles” for some time; he even made an entire movie—“The Sound of Music”—while waiting for the Sand Pebble ducks to get in a line.  Initially, he wanted Paul Newman as the star, but Newman was reluctant; meanwhile, on her own, Neile McQueen, then Steve’s wife, had read “The Sand Pebbles” and recommended it to Steve, who immediately saw Jake Holman as a man very much like himself.

Wise also wanted Richard Crenna as the costar, surprising the actor himself as well as 20th Century-Fox.  Crenna was known primarily for the rural-comedy TV series “The Real McCoys,” and the role of Collins seemed beyond him.  But the series was cancelled, and Wise pounced on the surprised and grateful Crenna.  It’s the best, most complex movie role he ever had, and he’s more than up to the challenge.  It’s probably his best performance as an actor; he’s strong but not dominant, completely embodying this decent man whom history has left stranded out of his depth.

The British Richard Attenborough, about to make the transition to director himself, was also an unusual choice, since his character was so thoroughly an American.  But Attenborough met the challenge; there’s nothing showy about his performance, no sense of an actor strutting his stuff by adopting an unfamiliar accent.  He simply IS decent, shy Frenchy Burgoyne.

In the commentary track and the featurettes, Candice Bergen admits she was somewhat blindsided by the movie, which was shot on location on Taiwan, in an area rarely visited by so many Americans at once.  She’d only made one movie (“The Group”) before she was thrust into a large role in a major film.  She was only 19, but already a talented photographer; she spent much of her downtime taking pictures all around the set and location.  Her performance is a shade amateurish, improved considerably by camera angles and careful editing.  But she’s an outstanding contributor to the extras on this disc.

It rarely happens that a movie gets the kind of DVD supplements it deserves, but “The Sand Pebbles” does.  There’s a lengthy featurette on the making of the film, featuring Richard Zanuck (the producer), Richard Attenborough, Robert Wise, Candice Bergen, Neile McQueen, Robert Relyea (a close friend of Steve McQueen) and others.  McQueen, Wise and Mako are widely praised, and clearly deserve this.  An odd side note: even this early, Attenborough planned on making a movie about Mahatma Gandhi, and asked 19-year old Bergen to play photographer Margaret Bourke-White in his film.  When he finally did make “Gandhi” nearly 20 years later, Bergen did end up playing that role.

There’s also a documentary on Robert Wise; some of this material was shot at the same time as the making-of documentary, but other people turn up in it, too, including, surprisingly, Robert Mitchum (the star of Wise’s “Two for the Seesaw”), Norman Jewison, Ernest Lehman and Rita Moreno (from “West Side Story”).  Wise has usually been casually dismissed—a competent director, but not a stylist, not the sort to infuse each movie he did with the same recognizable themes.  But he usually made good, well-crafted movies; he was well-liked by his casts and crews, and mourned by Hollywood when he died.  A personal note: I met Wise several times, and found him to be completely honest and straightforward, never insisting on his own importance; all in all, one of the most interesting and likeable celebrities I have ever met.

The commentary track features Wise, Bergen, Mako and, memorably, Crenna.  In the featurettes, several people remark on what a great guy Crenna was to have on the set—friendly, funny, approachable.  He’d been an actor since childhood (he was Walter Denton on the “Our Miss Brooks” show), and completely relaxed on a movie set, even a production as large-scale as “The Sand Pebbles.”  He’s delightful on the commentary track, funny, informative, unpretentious and honest.

The most curious extra on the disc is a collection of scenes that were included in the road show cut of “The Sand Pebbles,” but which were removed for the general release version—which itself is just one minute shy of three hours.  Why didn’t Fox include the road show version as the primary feature on this disc?  Granted, the scenes mostly are extensions of scenes still in the film, filling out some incidents and a few details of characterization—but usually a big-deal DVD like this features the most complete version of the movie, not a shortened one.  Still, it’s good that these scenes are included here.

One of the most perplexing aspects of “The Sand Pebbles” is the question of why such a basically intimate story was made on such a vast scale.  It’s treated as a legitimate epic, with an overture, an intermission and a very long running time.  But the story itself takes place on the small boat and in a few buildings on shore; it focuses really on only three characters.  So why was it made like the second coming of “Gone with the Wind”?  This question isn’t asked, much less answered, anywhere on this disc.  The movie is very good, and truly beautiful, but was it necessary to shoot it so expensively on such a remote location?  It had the longest shooting schedule of Wise’s career—and now is largely forgotten, unlike some of his other, less epic, movies.

It is indeed a gorgeous movie, given gorgeous treatment in high definition.  Boris Leven’s production design is carefully balanced (rather than symmetrical); it’s handsome, intricate and expressive.  The cinematography by Joseph MacDonald is especially good, with huge vistas of the small ship chugging up the vast Yangtze River; there are also sweeping views of the rice paddies below China Light.  The interiors, sometimes complex, sometimes impressively spare (as in the courtyard at China Light), are beautifully shot, beautifully decorated.  When an uprising elsewhere forces the San Pablo to stay put offshore from the small town that’s usually its base, the ship deteriorates; the gleaming white sides become murky and streaked with rust.  Garbage piles up; the men themselves seem to become messier, less than they were.  This change in the ship, amusingly, required frequent repainting of portions of the boat—a “hand prop” built expressly for the film.

Jerry Goldsmith’s score is characteristically rich and expressive, and is given its own place on the disc—the score, isolated, is given its own commentary track by music experts. 

There are a couple of featurettes made at the time of production, but they’re standard studio stuff from the period, of little interest in themselves.  It would have been interesting had the extras included some of the photos Candice Bergen shot on location, but perhaps rights issues got in the way.

“The Sand Pebbles” is a low-key, understated epic with a great star performance by Steve McQueen, excellent supporting performances by everyone in camera range, and a theme that remains timely today.  The movie deserves much more recognition that it has received to date.

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