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The Sand Pebbles

Steve McQueen and Richard Attenborough tunneled out of a World War II prison camp together in The Great Escape, scoring a major hit in the process, so pairing them again in The Sand Pebbles made excellent sense three years later. The setting of the 1966 production is China in the wake of World War I, when the United States Asiatic Fleet roamed through the region enforcing the Open Door Policy, designed to keep China free of foreign control (and safeguard American interests) at a time when the only goal shared by squabbling nationalists, communists, and warlords was the immediate removal of all outside presences from their country.

The drama plays out largely aboard the San Pablo, an American gunboat - nicknamed "the Sand Pebbles" by its sailors - patrolling the Yangtze River in 1926. The crewmembers, also called "sand pebbles," include Lieutenant Collins (Richard Crenna), the rigid and uncompromising captain; Frenchy Burgoyne (Attenborough), a good-natured machinist's mate with secret ties to Maily (Marayat Andriane), a Chinese woman who lives within swimming distance of the ship; Stawski (Simon Oakland), an ill-tempered seaman who stirs up trouble; and Jake Holman (McQueen), a newly arrived machinist's mate assigned to oversee the engine room. Also present are numerous "coolies," Chinese laborers who do the hard work and heavy lifting that keep the vessel and its operations running smoothly. The most important on-shore characters are Jameson (Larry Gates), a pacifistic missionary, and Shirley Eckert (Candice Bergen), a schoolteacher who works for him.

Conflict breaks out on two levels as soon as The Sand Pebbles gets underway. On the large historical stage, the Chinese nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek launches an aggressive campaign against the country's warlords; deeming this an internal Chinese matter, naval authorities order Collins to do nothing beyond protecting American civilians, but hostilities intensify between the Americans and Chinese, bringing dire consequences. Within the confines of the ship, Holman's strong streak of independence rubs Collins and some fellow crewmembers the wrong way, as does his friendship with Po-Han (Mako), the chief coolie in his engine room. The story's personal and historical aspects come together after Maily's death at nationalist hands, leading to a barricade of the ship, a horrifying death for Po-han, and a doomed effort to rescue the missionaries, who delusionally think they don't need rescuing at all. The conclusion is as stark and unsparing as any Hollywood finale of its day, and Jake's last words (often quoted by reviewers) can be taken as a blow against the futility of war: "I was home. What happened? What the hell happened?!"

In some respects, Robert Wise seems an unlikely director for The Sand Pebbles, which has little in common with his previous picture, The Sound of Music (1965), or other recent productions like the musical melodrama West Side Story (1961), the romantic comedy Two for the Seesaw (1962), and the supernatural thriller The Haunting (1963). Wise was an amazingly versatile filmmaker, however, with a track record stretching from horror and science fiction to biopics, war movies, and noir.

While he never developed the kind of personal style associated with cinema's great auteurs, Wise learned a great deal from his experiences as a film editor in the 1930s and 1940s, and his connections with Orson Welles's early features - he edited Citizen Kane in 1941 and chopped The Magnificent Ambersons a year later - gave him a taste for expressive montage and deep-focus camerawork that served him well for decades to come. Working with the superb cinematographer Joseph MacDonald and the equally gifted production designer Boris Leven, he spent four years (shooting took seven months) and more than six million 1960s dollars - including $650,000 for McQueen and $250,000 for a San Pablo set, built in Hong Kong to keep expenses down - turning The Sand Pebbles into three hours of genuinely epic entertainment. MacDonald shot it in Panavision, which was replacing CinemaScope as Twentieth Century-Fox's widescreen process of choice, and its visual qualities enhance both the individual dramas on the ship and the geopolitical dramas raging nearby.

"There is a total of forty-seven speaking parts in The Sand Pebbles," the Fox press book boasted, "and on some days...extra calls ran upwards of one thousand." That's a lot of faces on the screen, and the acting is as solid as the movie's other key elements. As the top-billed star, McQueen is at the peak of his considerable powers, bringing Jake's charm, integrity, courage, and stubbornness into admirable balance. Every star needs first-rate teammates, though, and Attenborough shines in his crucial supporting role, partnering McQueen's compelling performance while building Frenchy into a richly three-dimensional character with personality to spare. Coming between his marvelous work in Robert Aldrich's lean Sahara drama The Flight of the Phoenix (1965) and Richard Fleischer's overinflated musical fantasy Dr. Dolittle (1967), his portrayal of the trustiest sand pebble testifies to the vast resourcefulness he displayed as an actor (much more than as a director) throughout his long career. Kudos also go to Crenna as the crusty captain, Oakland as the loutish Stawski, Mako as the unfortunate Po-han, and Bergen as Shirley; she isn't the best of actresses in her early films (this was just her second outing) but she proves nicely up to the job here.

The Sand Pebbles ended up doubling its original budget but reaped huge rewards, garnering more than $30 million in revenues. Attenborough earned the Golden Globe as best supporting actor, and although the film left the Academy Awards with no trophies in hand, it was nominated for eight, including best picture, actor (McQueen), supporting actor (Mako), color cinematography, art direction, music (Jerry Goldsmith), editing (William Reynolds), and sound. An array of critics liked and respected it as well. Variety deemed it a "sensitive, personal drama" and applauded the acting by Attenborough and others. The review in the Los Angeles Times praised Attenborough's "professional polish," and while New York Times critic Bosley Crowther didn't much like Attenborough's performance, he praised the film as an implicit Vietnam War parable aiming "a forceful and depressing blast at getting into trouble over our heads." The picture seems as relevant as ever in today's troubled world.

Director: Robert Wise
Producer: Robert Wise
Screenplay: Richard McKenna; based on the novel by Robert Anderson
Cinematographer: Joseph MacDonald
Film Editing: William Reynolds
Production Design: Boris Leven
Music: Jerry Goldsmith
With: Steve McQueen (Jake Holman), Richard Attenborough (Frenchy Burgoyne), Richard Crenna (Lieutenant Collins), Candice Bergen (Shirley Eckert), Mako (Po-han), Marayat Andriane (Maily), Larry Gates (Jameson), Simon Oakland (Stawski), Charles Robinson (Ensign Bordelles), Ford Rainey (Harris), Joe Turkel (Bronson), Gavin MacLeod (Crosley), Joseph di Reda (Shanahan), Richard Loo (Major Chin), Barney Phillips (Franks)
Color-182m.

by David Sterritt

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