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Steve McQueen was known for many things-- action films, fast cars,
motorcycles, a charismatic presence (on screen and off), and his true `tough
guy' persona. But with this film, another description moves to the top of
that list: Actor. Anyone who doubts what a great actor McQueen was need
only watch this film, because his performance here as Jake Holman is simply
as good as it gets. `The Sand Pebbles, ` directed by Robert Wise, is the
story of Holman, a sailor assigned to the U.S. Gunboat, `San Pablo,'
stationed on the Yangtze River in China in 1926 (the sailors aboard are
known as `sand pebbles'). It's primary function is to patrol the river and
thereby establish an American presence in China, a country currently
experiencing a period of political unrest and impending upheaval. It's a
new assignment for Holman, and it suits him just fine; his job is to keep
the ship's engines up and running, and because of the size of the ship, he's
the only engineer-- it's just Jake and his engine. And that's the way he
likes it. Holman is a loner by nature, and something of an iconoclast. At
one point, when he is asked his opinion of American Foreign Policy and their
presence in China, he simply says, `I don't mess with it. It's all
look-see-pidgin, somethin' for the officers.'
Eventually, however, Holman is nevertheless drawn into the conflict through a series of events that impact him beyond all personal resistance, the most significant being when American lives are threatened throughout China, and Holman and a landing party are sent ashore to protect and escort some missionaries back to the safety of the San Pablo. But at the mission, Holman discovers a way of life, the likes of which he's never known, and for the first time ever, he realizes a sense of belonging. And he likes it. For Holman, however, it may be too late; the political turmoil throughout the country has put the lives of everyone at the mission in peril, including a young missionary named Shirley Eckert (Candice Bergen), with whom Holman has made a connection he simply cannot dispel; for in Shirley, he discerns an innocence and a goodness that compels him, and in which he finds a welcome sense of fulfillment. So what began as a routine mission becomes a salient point in Holman's life, and he is faced with the most important decision he's ever had to make.
This is the one for which McQueen should have won an Oscar. As Holman, he demonstrates an emotional range and depth that runs the gamut from almost boyish naivete to a world weary veteran of life who has seen and heard it all. Utterly convincing, he can say more with a slight incline of his head, a slow blink or shifting of his eyes than most actors could say with reams of dialogue at their disposal. He communicates with so much more than words, and there's meaning in everything he says and does-- he never wastes a line or a single moment. What he does with this role is magnificent; it's the definitive McQueen performance. His Holman is the personification of the loner, and in creating him he delivers something few actors could ever equal: He's tough, convincing and charming-- all at the same time. And he should've taken home The Statue for it.
As Collins, the Captain of the San Pablo, Richard Crenna gives one of his finest performances, as well, and it cemented his transition from television actor to a career on the big screen. After this, there was no going back. His portrayal of the somber, introspective Captain is riveting, and in him you readily perceive Collins' sense of duty and honor, as well as his overwhelming sense of futility and failure. And the urgency with which he grasps his chance for redemption, even in the face of insurmountable odds, is entirely believable as it is consistent with the character he has created.
The superlative supporting cast includes Richard Attenborough (Frenchy), Emmanuelle Arsan (Maily), Mako (Po-han), Larry Gates (Jameson), Charles Robinson (Bordelles), Simon Oakland (Stawski), Ford Rainey (Harris), Joe Turkel (Bronson) and Gavin MacLeod (Crosley). A powerful drama, extremely well crafted and presented by Wise, `The Sand Pebbles' is a great and memorable film that will forever stand as the pinnacle of McQueen's successful career. Jake Holman is a character you will never forget, because there is something of him-- that wistful longing to belong, perhaps-- in all of us. A timeless classic among classics, this is one of the greatest motion pictures of all time, and is by definition, the magic of the movies. I rate this one 10/10.
I am watching the DVD of "The Sand Pebbles" for the first time. I
originally saw this film as a child, during its theatrical run. Even though
I have watched the P&S VHS tape many times, the DVD takes me back to that
unforgettable first viewing so many years ago. This film is the definitive
example of how pan and scan (laughably called "fullscreen") is nothing less
than a desecration of the work of those who make movies. Thank goodness
there is finally a faithful transfer of this unforgettable story.
I love movies, some much more than others. Even in the films that I love the most, the ones I consider "the best", I can always find flaws or weaknesses. I can not find a single thing to criticize in "The Sand Pebbles". The cinematography, as many others have noted, is exceptional. The detail of the sets, the ship, the costumes, the panoramic vistas, all are very convincing. As Crenna points out in the DVD commentary, there is no visual trickery, everything on the screen is real and three-dimensional. I have not read the source novel, and I am woefully ignorant of the political realities in China in this period, although I understand that the book was based on real incidents. The fact is, the story told here is compelling, and it does not matter to me how true to history it is, the world depicted in "The Sand Pebbles" is real and believable. Robert Anderson's script provides sufficient grounding in the political events to keep the audience engaged, without becoming all awkward exposition or political treatise. Of course, the characters express certain strong views, and therein the conflict arises.
Robert Wise is a first-rank director ("West Side Story", "The Haunting", "The Sound of Music"), and his work here is superlative. This film is a blend of epic-scale scenes and intimate, poignant moments of emotional realism. The camera placement, the use of extras and props, the blocking of the actors, the use of natural light, the tracking shots of the boat, all are in service of the story. Wise lets that story breathe and the characters emerge, and the result is a three-hour movie. How ironic that the main criticism leveled at "The Sand Pebbles" is that it is "slow" and "boring". Excuse me, but this is called "character development", and it sets compelling moviemaking apart from the mediocre variety. The pacing is what draws you in to this world, where the actors can give their characters life and create empathy in the audience. I can only feel sadness for the modern, ADD-afflicted viewer who is trained to respond to manipulative tricks, and can not appreciate a realistic depiction of human behavior.
Much has been said in these comments about the acting, and I agree with those who feel McQueen and Crenna stand out. The character of the captain could have been a rigid cliche, but Crenna gives us a person, a man to whom duty and service is everything, yet who is keenly aware of the needs and temperament of his crew, and who yearns to leave his mark in history. As for McQueen...his physical presence dominates the film. His understated style is perfect for Holman, a man who only wants to be left alone to do his work, and yet who will fight against injustices done to others. His facial expressions, especially in his eyes, allow us to share his thoughts and feelings throughout the movie.
The most memorable element in "The Sand Pebbles" for me is the musical score by Jerry Goldsmith. Alternately stirring and heartrending, it complements each scene absolutely brilliantly, and is the most evocative score of any motion picture I have ever seen. Unfortunately, the 1966 Oscar went to "Born Free", a mediocre picture whose title song was a hugely popular hit.
I feel privileged that I was able to see "The Sand Pebbles" in a theatre, where it is meant to be seen. This DVD version finally does justice to what I regard as an unparalleled achievement in filmmaking. There are other films that I have a stronger attachment to for various reasons, but none of them hit a home run in every department the way that "The Sand Pebbles" does.
"Water belong dead stim -all same dead stim"
"The Sand Pebbles" was a throughly enjoyable movie. The setting was exotic and the story engaging. Though it starred Steve McQueen, who did an excellent job, its strength was the ensemble acting with a very talented cast including Richard Crenna, Richard Attenborough, Mako and Candice Bergen. The story was nicely involved and, though it portrayed the sailor's prejudices, did not feel condescending toward the Chinese as many war-type movies do. The men were caught up in the turbulent times and many of the conflicts portrayed seem to come more from troubled psyches. It is not Ramboish macho crap. I found the portrayals of the people and times entertaining. I had read the book so maybe I read more into the movie than others seeing it cold. It was a very good movie and well worth a watch.
`The Sand Pebbles' has been one of my favourite films since I first saw it
on television in 1976.
The widescreen version does justice not just to the sweeping panoramas of
the quite breathtaking Chinese scenery, but also to the sweeping events
themes of the story.
It is in every way a `big' film, dealing with political and military
intervention (clear parallels with Vietnam at the time of release),
nationalism, racism, and the horrors of war.
Yet for all its heavy themes, it is most successful in the depiction of
very human characters. These characters are not just the means of
the `messages' of the film, or fodder for the gripping and well-staged
action scenes. They are individuals in their own right, involved in
something far greater than their own destinies. Some are unpleasant and
ignorant while others are honourable but lost in the sea of historic
Some, like Jake Holman (Steve McQueen), demand sympathy and respect as
struggle to come to terms with their personal challenges brought to the
by these historically significant and politically dangerous events.
Inevitably there are slow and confusing passages as the political implications are expounded, but these are more than compensated for by our emotional engagement as we become involved in the stories of the people caught up in the political fall-out. Robert Wise's direction is strong and emotionally charged, complemented perfectly by Jerry Goldsmith's wonderfully haunting and ominous music. Steve McQueen gives what was probably the performance of his career (receiving his only Academy Award nomination), and he is supported by a wonderful cast including Richard Attenborough, Richard Crenna, Candice Bergen (aged just 19), and especially Mako. But it is really McQueen's film. His very presence lifts scenes and he manages to convey authenticity and gain the sympathy of the viewer with consummate ease. Apparently misunderstood by some critics on its release, it is a powerful and intrinsically human anti-war film. It is not a happy film, but it is totally absorbing and thought provoking.
Steve McQueen felt an affinity for this role like few others in his
In this compelling war drama set in China in 1926, he plays American sailor Jake Holman, a man who's bonded to machinery more than people yet is imbued with a powerful sense of right and wrong. It's a part that plays perfectly to McQueen's strengths as an actor and his lifelong quest to hone performance into character, while jettisoning all but essential dialogue. All his emoting comes subtly: slight shifts of gaze; the way he cocks his head to listen; his complete stillness before action. In 1966 it also brought him his only Academy Award nomination, for Best Actor (but won that year by Paul Scofield for "A Man For All Seasons").
Scripter Robert Anderson had a tough job distilling Richard McKenna's sprawling novel of U.S. Navy gunboat 'San Pablo' (hence her sailors called themselves 'Sand Pebbles') at the start of the revolution that would tear China asunder and ultimately transform it into the post-WWII behemoth we know today. Luckily he and director Robert Wise knew to keep the plot's underpinnings solidly on the central irony of McKenna's story: that it is Jake's very alienation from his fellows that leads him inevitably to sacrifice and redemption. The ending is shocking and powerful; a reminder of better, more mature days in American film.
Wise directed on locations in Hong Kong and Taiwan with his customary mastery of both intense personal confrontation and epic sweep. In excellent support are Richard Attenborough, Richard Crenna and Mako. The film also features one of Jerry Goldsmith's most memorable scores.
I must again mention McKenna's novel. It is superb; sadly, the only full-length work he finished before his untimely death. It may be out of print but is well worth an online used book search.
This is truly my all time favorite film and not just because of the wonderful performances by McQueen, Crenna, Mako and the rest, but because I had an opportunity to experience the Asia culture first hand (during Viet Nam) and the depiction of the culture and the climate of the land is right on. I rank McQueen's performance right up there with my favorite Newman's performance in "Cool Hand Luke". Basically, the same type of a character, a loner challenging the boundries of their society's limits. It was a shame that the movie was released the same year as "A Man for All Seasons", because McQueen should have received and Oscar for this performance. I now own this video and I make a point of watching it once a year.
This is just one exceptional movie. One of my all time classics.
An examination of the little-known or understood tensions and political ramifications of being aboard an American gunboat, in the 1920's, in the China backwater.
The atmosphere and the story are superb.
Steve McQueen has never been better as Jake Holman, a hard-nosed American sailor, with his own code of right and wrong. His character absolutely dominates the movie. This is the type of character he was born to play.
Richard Crenna's ship Captain was perfect: smug, self-involved, deluded about his patriotism, but a decent man caught in a confusing, thankless, possibly deadly situation.
The rest of the cast in this is tremendous, especially Richard Attenborough, Candace Bergen, Simon Oakland, and Mako.
An absolutely superior film!
What a powerful story! It's hard to believe this epic movie - three
hours in length - was nominated for eight Academy Awards and came away
with nothing. It seems unjust. Well, not everything is "just" in this
dramatic story, either. Good people die, bad people live. Incredible
joy and sorrow are but a few minutes away. The story is well-told and
thus keeps your attention, is well-acted and is nicely- filmed.
My only complaint was the last 13 minutes when the film got a little too political and, of course, tilted to the Left as films tend to do. Otherwise, I throughly enjoyed the experience of watching this long movie, and sorry I didn't watch this years ago. Well, better late than never, is all I can say. This movie is worthy of any serious film collector's attention.
Robert Wise directed and he did a fabulous job. I just love some of the shots and camera angles in this widescreen production, which was done justice in a recently--released two- disc DVD. The cinematography was by Joseph MacDonald. I'm sorry he didn't win an Oscar.
The story has something for everyone: several action scenes, two romances, a little humor, some flag waving and flag disparaging, and a lot of drama and intrigue. I also found two interesting character studies: "Jake Holman," by lead actor Steve McQueen, and "Captain Collins-," with Richard Crenna. Both men delivered numerous surprises.
There also is a lot of hostility by the Chinese toward the "invaders," the Americans. China's revolution during the period this story takes place (md '20s) had two factions: the Nationalists, led by Chiang Kai-shek, and the Communists. The former was generally a peaceful organization, the latter, pretty violent. Neither one wanted outsiders running their country any longer.
The cast - well-known and not-so well--known, was solid from McQueen on down. I think it was odd to hear Richard Attenborugh with an American accent but he did a nice job with it. Crenna played the most interesting character, in my opinion, as captain hard to figure. As for the supporting actors, Simon Oakland ("Stawski") and Mako ("Po-han") stood out to me.
I'm not going get into the story, as enough reviewers have already done that. Photograhy-wise, it was nice to see most of this shot outdoors, not on some studio lot or sound-stage. I enjoyed all of the shots of the ship, the "San Pablo." Having just bought (7/5/10) the Blu-Ray edition of this film, I'm anxious to see it in this format now. It promises to be a treat.
Overall, a memorable story and highly-recommended.
... and that's saying quite a bit, given his impressive filmography.
There are just a couple of points I'd like to add to the preceding commentary:
To really appreciate this movie, you must see it in letterbox, preferably on DVD. Joseph MacDonald's cinematography is breath-taking; you could take almost any individual frame of "The Sand Pebbles" and hang it on your wall as a work of art.
The second is that Wise himself (if you believe his commentary) wasn't trying to draw explicit parallels to Vietnam, where things did not begin to drastically escalate until near the end of filming for this movie. It's just that history has a sad habit of repeating itself.
If you get the DVD, listen to the commentary at least once: It's worth the time spent. Poor Candice Bergen: She comes across as simultaneously grateful for the opportunity to have worked on this film, and embarrassed that -- as a 19-year-old with little acting experience -- she didn't make a better job of it.
She should have credited Wise with seeing her possibilities a little better than she could. Bergen's gawky shyness is a pretty good fit with her role as a virginal, idealistic missionary newly arrived in China. Her often tentative body language works beautifully as a counterpoint to McQueen's assured and seemingly effortless performance, giving their doomed love affair great believability and poignancy.
This is an example of 60s' epic film-making at its best.
STEVE McQUEEN makes a completely believable machinist's mate aboard a
U.S. Navy gunboat who finds himself enmeshed in the politics of unrest
that existed in 1926 China during the period of the Boxer Rebellion.
It's probably one of the finest roles of his career--honest, vexating,
and completely true to the emotions of his character whose only real
concern is taking care of his engines.
There are plenty of other good performances. RICHARD CRENNA is the Captain, uncertain of just how the U.S./Chinese friction should be solved, and CANDACE BERGEN is lovely as a missionary who has a tender romance with McQueen.
The exotic locales (it was filmed mostly in Taiwan), the lush background score by Jerry Goldsmith, and the confrontation between the U.S. Navy and the Chinese authorities which supplies the necessary suspense before an action-filled climax, all serve to make THE SAND PEBBLES a fascinating look at a period in history that is seldom explored. And, of course, it raises questions as to our role in imperialism and our interaction with the culture of foreign countries that make the film relevant today.
It's a long film, rather uneven in places, but directed with rare sensitivity by Robert Wise and richly detailed period atmosphere.
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