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.