Gold Found in 'Sand Pebbles'

By Philip K. Scheuer

• For continuous excitement, the ebbing year has not seen the like of "The Sand Pebbles," which producer - director Robert Wise sustains to a really amazing degree for more than three hours (broken only by an intermission). The 20th Century-Fox production in color will have its West Coast premier Wednesday evening at the Fox Wilshire, where it follows the preceding Wise triumph, "The Sound of Music."

It may well enjoy a comparable run.

A veteran moviemaker who was not afraid of sentiment, even sentimentality, in "The Sound of Music," he proves just as willing to meet melodrama head-on in "The Sand Pebbles." If, like so many of his characters — the officers and crew of the U.S. Navy gunboat San Pablo — Wise goes overboard once in a while, the audience has become so hooked in the meantime that the consciousness of an excess here and an excess there is never likely to be more than subliminal.

Hardly More Timely

For this is adventure on the grand scale, of a kind on which the British have too long enjoyed an exclusive monopoly. "The Sand Pebbles" earns a place up there beside "The Bridge on the River Kwai," "Lawrence of Arabia," "Doctor Zhivago," et al. And although it is fictional—being based on the one novel written by Richard McKenna—the events that are depicted here must have been a good deal like what happened when the United States and European nations committed themselves to patroling the troubled waters off the Chinese mainland in 1926.

Too, the parallel with 1966 and Vietnam could hardly be more timely.

Not that the picture is simply a paean to patriotism, though it is that too. All sorts of political viewpoints are represented and all end pretty much a draw, since the situation is as snafued as the one facing the world today.

China is in revolution, with such diverse factions involved as war lords and pirates, students campaigning to have the "treaty powers" ousted from the country and Chiang Kai-shek organizing his Nationalist government. Opposed to these are the Yanks, as symbolized in the little gunboat—charged contradictorially with defending American lives but not provoking an international incident—and the missionaries, zealous in their determination to bring the Gospel to the unheeding heathen.





Richard Crenna and Steve McQueen

Richard Crenna and Steve McQueen in "The Sand Pebbles"

For the poor captain of the Sand Pebbles (corruption of San Pablo), it's a matter of decisions, decisions, decisions.

Jake Holman. its machinist and our hero, is confronted by nearly as many decisions—and most of them, through circumstances beyond his control, are wrong ones.

All Jake wants to do is run the engines and he regards the engine room, even down to the bilge pipes, as his domain. He isn't prepared to let coolies do the work, even the dirty work. The captain overrides him and he meets with mounting hostility from white members of the crew and the coolies themselves. Then an accident kills one boss coolie and he picks another as his apprentice; to this eager fellow, Po-han, he becomes fiercely loyal and their mutual understanding leads to consequences that are both touching and violently dramatic.

Bloody Boxing 'Match'

The highlight before intermission, indeed, is the bloody round-by-round boxing "match" in a brothel between Jake's protege and a brutal, bellicose white sailor. Later Po-han is subjected to an even worse fate—death by torture.

In the long winter that follows, the gunboat, surrounded by watchful junks, is even further immobilized. The tide of the Yangtze River (or maybe it is the Tam Sui) has receded and the Sand Pebbles cannot risk getting up steam. Meanwhile Holman has unwittingly provoked an international incident involving the murder of a Chinese girl and the gunboat barely escapes downriver—this after a double crisis precipitated not only by attacking Chinese but by Jake's own mates, who demand, in a near-mutiny, that he be handed over to a yelling mob as the price of their safety.

But they are not out of hot water yet. The climactic battle takes place when Capt. Collins decides to run, at Sai Kung, a blockade of junks bound shore-to-shore with strands of heavy bamboo rope. Finally (and anticlimactically in that it is over-prolonged) a dash is made to a hillside temple in a last-ditch effort to evacuate the stubborn missionaries.


Here fate catches up with Holman. Besides the Chinese girl, one other, a missionary teacher, figures more than incidentally in the story. Two sequences that manage to be affecting even as they threaten to slip over into the corny are those In which Jake's mate Frenchy, refused official sanction by both church and government, interchanges marriage vows with the Chinese girl he loves; and the drawing-out of Jake on his diffident past by the mission teacher who has fallen in love with him.

In such a film, typing becomes as vital an item as performance and Wise has chosen wisely and well. Jake is a complex yet simple man, neither hero nor anti-hero, and Steve McQueen illumines the complexity and the simplicity, often with the most fleeting change of expression, in every scene. In short, he's great.

Richard Crenna plays Collins, trying to be a "reasonable" skipper but showing unexpected strength when the chips are down. The soft-spoken Frenchy (shouldn't it be Limey?) is entrusted to the professional polish of Richard Attenborough, although I thought the character's innocence just a little too round-eyed at moments. The ensign, Bordelles, is exceptionally well delineated by Charles Robinson. Noted among crew members are Simon Oakland, fine as the bellicose boxer; Ford Rainey, Joe Turkel, Gavin MacLeod and Joseph di Reda. Larry Gates fits as the stubborn missionary.

The ill-fated Chinese girl Is realized in all her pitifulness by a Siamese, Marayat Andriane. With not too much to do Candice Bergen is fresh and lovely as the American teacher, though I could not catch quite a lot she said. Too-elegant diction, perhaps.

Standouts among the numerous Orientals are Mako as the coolie Po-han, Tommy Lee as the coolie Chien and Richard Loo as a Nationalist major.

Doubling remarkably for Hunan Province in old China were Taiwan (Formosa) and Hong Kong... all in the De Luxe Color camera of Joseph MacDonald.

Production contributions to Wise's stirring movie include those made by Robert Anderson, screenplay; Charles Maguire, associate producer; Boris Leven, design, and Jerry Goldsmith, music.


Source: The Los Angeles Times - December 25, 1966


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