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USA 1966
Directed by
Robert Wise
182 minutes
Rated M

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
2.5 stars

The Sand Pebbles

The Sand Pebbles is stylistically of a piece with the big budget historical epics such as 55 Days At Peking (1963 )released by Hollywood in the late ‘50s and early-to-mid ‘60s which were designed to win back audiences from the small screen. Dated by its stereotyping of its Chinese characters as submissive, fiendish and so on, at least Robert Wise’s film does not, as many of its peers did, try to palm off Western actors as Orientals. (It does however put Thai-born actress Marayat Andriane in the central role of Chinese sex worker, Maily)

Steve McQueen plays Jake Holman, a naval engineer assigned to a gunboat, the USS San Pablo aka The Sand Pebbles, in 1926. The boat is patrolling the Yangtze River in order to protect American interests in China at a time when the country was beginning to descend into civil war, the Nationalist followers of Chiang Kai-shek on one side, the communists who want to rid the country of foreigners on the other, and the warlords doing what warlords do which I assume is being mercenaries.

The first half of the film takes its time establishing Jake’s credentials as a loner with a love of machinery who is disinclined to fit in with either the on-board blue-collar camaraderie or the caste system which the American crew have absorbed so that the coolies do all the work leaving the fun-lovin'e salts to spend their time boozing and whoring on shore. The only person Holman feels any affinity for is Frenchy (Richard Attenborough) who falls for the above-mentioned Maily who has been sold into prostitution.

Throw into the mix Richard Crenna as the somewhat unhinged gunboat captain who is given to high-toned rhetoric about defending America from the Communist menace and an anti-imperialist missionary (Larry Gates) and his school-teaching colleague (Candice Bergen) and you’ve got the ingredients for what I take it was in the Richard McKenna novel which was its source, a panoramic sweep of political and social upheaval. In Wise’s hands, however, its elements, at least those that made it into Robert Anderson’s screenplay do not galvanise into a compelling whole.

Perhaps this was because of the mood of the times with Vietnam war going on in the background, the film having an each-way bet with the Holman (whole man) character. On the one hand he rejects institutional authority, military imperialism and racist machismo, on the other he wastes “slopeheads” with all the panache of an action hero (one wonders why, as he is an engineer, Holman is assigned to every military expedition).

McQueen in his only Oscar nominated role is serviceable but most of the acting is less than impressive. British stalwart Attenborough, whose dialogue appears to have been dubbed, is particularly awkward while Marayat Andriane is tepidly meek as his love interest. Bergen looks attractive but that’s about it, the romance between she and Holman being no more than tokenistic.

FYI: The film was nominated for eight Academy Awards, losing all of them to another historical drama, A Man for All Seasons. Marayat Andriane went on to a long career as Emmanuelle Arsan, the supposed writer of the infamous Emmanuelle porn novels.




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