The Sand Pebbles Reviews
Rather than being a stereotypical tale of Navy warfare, The Sand Pebbles is a period drama set in the context of the Yangtze River as its political backdrop. The story focuses on the everyday experiences of the characters with the actual occurrences ranging in scale. Many plot points are simply used to depict the nature of life on the Sand Pebble Gunboat with the conflict between characters and mistreatment of the locals on behalf of the US Navy Men used for a theme of cultural clash and western imperialism. With so many occurrences being simply for this purpose or the sake of character development, there isn't consistently a story that has anything major to strive towards; it's largely just a depiction of the lives of those in a fictionalized representation of the Yangtze Patrol. It's certainly interesting, but there isn't always a larger narrative ambition that the film strives for. It always has a political backdrop, but the larger scale of the story is not explored all that frequently over the course of the nearly three-hour running time of the film. With a reliance more on everyday occurrences as the key story focus rather than anything much that is rooted in firm dramatic territory, the experience has a tendency to drag on. The experience would have been far different upon the film's original release in 1966 due to different standard for narrative pacing and epic stories being a big cinematic trend of the time, but today it just seems like far more of a drag. In my view, The Sand Pebbles has the potential to border on epic territory but never fully realizes it. Still, the life depicted on the Sand Pebble is one of interest. The protagonists of the film are imperfect characters; representing a country which acts solely out of its own best interests with disregard for the lives of others. This is discussed in the dialogue while also depicted through the possessive nature of the Navy troops in how they treat Chinese workers and particularly women. This easily sets them apart from the likable characters of the film who are disillusioned with western imperialism and more willing to treat the Chinese like human beings. These characters are predominantly Jake Holman and Frenchy Burgoyne. Much of the heart in the film comes from Holman developing a close friendship with Po-han and the resulting occurrences, and from Frenchy beginning a relationship with Chinese prostitute Maily. It is these characters, as well as Lieutenant Collins, who humanize the film amid its wide narrative focus and really keep it as a compelling experience.
And while its epic ambitions may not be fully realized, the production values of The Sand Pebbles are grand in spectacle. The on-location scenery provides the perfect backdrop for the film while its detailed production design and costumes help to perfectly convey the time of the narrative context. The cinematography is also shot with a very precise technique as it manages to keep the key characters in perspective while embracing the world around them. The visual experience of The Sand Pebbles comes to a high point at about two and a half hours into the story when everything comes to a climax. This is where the visual gusto and sound editing join forces to pack a powerful finale to The Sand Pebbles.
And the performances in The Sand Pebbles are deserving of immense praise.
Steve McQueen delivers a powerful leading effort. The man is one with a longlasting legacy for being one of Hollywood's most notorious action heroes from the Golden Age, but The Sand Pebbles does not force him to hide behind any kind of weaponry or stunts. Rather he portrays Jake Holman, an everyman whose moral instincts conflict with the world around him. Steve McQueen's performance comes with a feeling of solemnity; that of a man who abides by an oath yet remains conflicted by everything happening in his world. His line delivery has the tenacity of a soldier yet the emotional undertones of a man with real struggles, and the subtlety in his effort creates a perfect balance. Steve McQueen manages to distance himself from his emotions most of the time but reaches out to them when the narrative calls upon him to get more involved in the material. And as the story goes on and we learn more of his need to keep himself distant from his human side, we see a sad portrait of humanity which doesn't succumb to a reliance on sentimentality or melodrama to succeed. Steve McQueen leads The Sand Pebbles with a very gracious performance.
Mako delivers a really powerful supporting performance. Po-han is a character who has to learn to work as a coolie for the Sand Pebble, and so we see him progressively develop an understanding of Western language and developing relationships with Navy Troops. His naive nature gives him a sense of vulnerability, but as he shares more screen time with Steve McQueen we see him grow stronger and express more confidence in the part. Mako manages to convey a sense of innocence and a determination to earn the approval of his surrounding characters, and in the process he manages to make the most sympathetic and enjoyable character in The Sand Pebbles. Mako's small amount of screen time in The Sand Pebbles contributes to some of the most memorable scenes.
Richard Attenborough manages to contribute a likable supporting effort of his own accord, bringing an effective subplot to the story. Richard Crenna makes a commanding presence, and Candice Bergen shares a touching chemistry with Steve McQueen. Larry Gates also assists in ensuring that the film comes to an effective dramatic close.
The Sand Pebbles is a slow and long feature which may not always manage to ascend to the epic ambitions that it clearly aspires to, but it nevertheless remains a compelling tale of humanity guided by some powerful performances from Steve McQueen and Mako.
1926. China is in the middle of a revolution. US, British and French gunboats patrol the rivers, but are meant to be neutral in the conflict, though this does not stop them from being attacked. Onto one such US gunboat, the USS San Pablo ("Sand Pebble" to its crew) steps Petty Officer Jake Holman, newly-appointed chief engineer.
Not your typical Steve McQueen movie. For the most part this is more a human drama than an action movie. McQueen here is more an anti-hero than a hero, and displays a rare sensitivity and vulnerability in his performance.
The performance garnered McQueen his one and only Oscar nomination. Remember that at the next trivia night!
The script, however, undermines his efforts. For the first two hours or so it meanders without any real point. Even worse, it is quite schmaltzy and trite.
After a point the pace lifts dramatically and you feel that at last the movie has found its direction. This is then all undone by the last few scenes where we have naive idealism (that seemed to come from nowhere), idealism shown up (so, which side is the writer on?), implausible gung-ho military tactics and a very unoriginal, predictable and conventional conclusion.
Overall, it's okay, though quite uneven, especially in the pacing and the message.
Jake Holman is an engineer stationed on a ship on an island off the coast of China. The island has natives that don't necessarily agree with the Americans being around but the Americans do not care about the error of their ways. Eventually, the situation is going to come to a head.
"The trade we all follow is to give and take death."
Robert Wise, the director of West Side Story, The Sound of Music, Star Trek: The Motion Picture, The Day the Earth Stood Still, The Andromeda Strain, The Haunting (1963), and The House on Telegraph Hill, delivers The Sand Pebbles. The storyline for this picture is very interesting though a bit slow during portions of the film (the run time was a bit long). The action scenes were awesome and the cast delivers very solid performances. The cast includes Steve McQueen, Mako, Richard Crenna, Candice Bergen, and Gavin MacLeod.
"I didn't come all this way to the fleet to have it good."
I grabbed this off Netflix because I am a Steve McQueen fan and had never seen this classic. I can't say this is perfect and definitely has some dry spots. I will say the ending of this film is definitely epic and concludes the film perfectly. I strongly recommend seeing this picture.
"We gotta keep changing because we aren't made of brass."