The Sand Pebbles
Excellent Robert Wise pic based on the novel of gunboat diplomacy in China, circa 1926. Steve McQueen outstanding as marquee lure. Overlength negates impact of topflight production, acting and direction. Good roadshow prospects, improving in later playoff.
20th Century-Fox release of an Argyle-Solar production. Produced and directed by Robert Wise. Features Steve McQueen, Richard Attenborough, Richard Crenna, Candice Bergen, Marayat Andriane, Mako, Larry Gates. Screenplay, Robert Anderson, based on novel bv Richard McKenna; camera (De Luxe Color), Joseph MacDonald; film editor, William Reynolds; special effects, Jerry Endler; sound, Bernard Freericks, Murray Spivack; associate producer-second unit director, Charles Maguire; music by Jerry Goldsmith, conducted by Lionel Newman. Reviewed in Hollywood, Dec. 20, '66. Running Time, 194 MINS.
Holman ................................... Steve McQueen
Out of the 1926 political and military turmoil in China, a pot that still boils, producer-director Robert Wise has created a sensitive, personal drama, set against a background of old style U.S, Navy gunboat diplomacy. "The, Sand Pebbles," based on the novel by the late Richard McKenna, is a handsome production, boasting some excellent acting characterizations. Steve McQueen delivers an outstanding performance. Over-long by at least 25 minutes, pic shapes up as a good 20th-Fox road-show entry, with stronger b.o. prospects in later general release.
Although Wise is perhaps best known to filmgoers for "West Side Story" and "The Sound of Music," both filmusicals based on legit properties, he is no stranger to dramatic formats, as a perusal of his credits will make manifest. In "Pebbles," Wise has blended a series of conflicts, large and small, into a period drama that is, variously, exciting, tragic, stirring and romantic. Robert Andersen's generally excellent adaptation retains the flavor of McKenna's novel.
McQueen, who gets after-title billing, looks and acts the part he plays so well — that of a machinist's mate with nine years of Navy service ... to have been a seagoing sailor is to understand the engineers, or snipes, as they are known. Cocky, independent, apparently surly, they live by their own rules in their overheated spaces, but when their captain wants speed or power, they always deliver.
Richard Crenna likewise is authentic as the gunboat captain, a young lieutenant, probably in his first command billet, who speaks the platitudes of leadership with a slight catch in his throat, due to lack of practical experience. Such men were, and are, at any time liable to become involved in international incidents at some far-flung outpost, in the China of 40 years ago, when Communists and Nationalists were battling each other for power, as well as multinational foreign interests.
The title derives from a language perversion of San Pablo, formal name of the gunboat on Yangtze River patrol. Crenna's executive officer is greenhorn Charles Robinson, who matures under the pressure of events in an overall fine performance. Among the crew is Richard Attenborough, whose British accent is suppressed completely for a very believable role as a sailor who falls in love with newcomer Marayat Andriane in a tragic bi-racial romance. Her performance is sensitive.
Also in a good film debut is the Japanese actor Mako. playing the coolie whom McQueen trains, only to suffer brutal slashing before the entire ship's company in one of many local riots. Candice Bergen is appropriately sweet and charming as the school teacher for whom McQueen plans to desert. She and missionary Larry Gates are among the U.S. citizens whom Crenna must protect, even from themselves. Simon Oakland stands out as a brutal heavy in the crew, and vet Richard Loo has an important scene as a Nationalist Army officer.
The major drawback to the film as a whole is a surfeit of exposition, mainly in the second half. McQueen and Miss Bergen, for example, share a quiet interlude which, in two segments adding up to about 10 minutes, starts to flag the pace without substantial addition to plot. Also, as the ship is under siege while trapped by low river waters, some tightening could be done in the 15 minutes which lead up to an exciting near-mutiny.
The final 15 minutes, when Crenna and McQueen die while rescuing Miss Bergen, also tend to become lethargic. Every scene is in itself excellent, but unfortunately the overall dramatic flow of the pic suffers in the end. In addition, scriptwise, Crenna's temporary nervous collapse seems artificial, and McQueen's reaffirmed plan to desert
Wise's otherwise expert direction is matched by meticulous production, from the outstanding exteriors, tinted towards the hues of a setting sun and the muddy waters, to the low-key interiors. Boris Leven's production design is superior. Joe MacDonald's first-rate Panavision-Deluxe color camera work is responsive to every mood, be it the touching intimacy of romance or the rousing action of hand-to-hand battle and street riot. Richard Johnson's second unit lensing for associate producer-second unit director Charles Maguire complements in top fashion.
Jerry Goldsmith's score, conducted by Lionel Newman, lends vigor and force as required, also subtlety. William Reynolds edited to 194 minutes total running time, sans intermission, including 98 minutes for the first part. Times include the two- and one-minute overtures for each portion. Sound editing and recording are first-rate, as are all other technical credits.
Main title bears a gag credit— "Diversions by Irving Schwartz"— put there by Wise in honor of a mysterious person, claimed to be unknown, whose letters proved a morale booster during trying location work in Taiwan and Hong Kong, where much of the film was shot. Production bogged down there due to weather and civil disturbances.
Film's copyright is shared by Wise, McQueen's Solar Prods, and 20th-Fox.
Source: Variety Magazine - December 21, 1966
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