Unsentimental Gentleman

Click for larger image IT IS SAID out in Hollywood that, given a list of ten top directors, any studio would choose for its next multi-million dollar spectacular the mild, soft-spoken, unassuming Robert Wise. Actors love him because he helps them to Academy Award performances. Studios love him because he generally manages to bring in a picture on time, on budget, and in a form that earns praise from the critics and dollars at the box office. Not only that, Wise is varied. He seems able to do almost anything, from the uncompromising realism of I Want to Live to the operatic West Side Story, from the superbly manipulated shudders of The Haunting to the sunny splendors of The Sound of Music. But whatever the genre, Wise manages to give it the style most suited to the material, in contrast to most directors, who would rather stamp their pictures with the style most suited to themselves.

This virtuosity is impressively displayed in his newest film, The Sand Pebbles, based on the novel by Richard McKenna. Set in China in the late Twenties, it is a vast, wide-ranging adventure tale, panoramic yet also intimate as the upsurge of Chinese nationalism is viewed through the eyes of a handful of American sailors on a U.S. gunboat assigned to cruise the Yangtze during this troubled time.

At the center of the film is Jake Holman, a "loner," an independent spirit who has transferred to the tiny San Pablo from a larger ship because he wants to run his engine room without interference. Once aboard, however, he discovers that in effect the Chinese are operating the vessel, the crew having gradually insinuated itself into every phase of the ship's activities except battle drill. The officers and his fellow enlisted men resent Holman's attempts to do his proper duty as a threat to their exceedingly comfortable way of life.

But on shore, events in China are posing a far more formidable threat to their way of life. The country, divided for centuries, is being forcibly unified by the new Nationalist Army; and the leaders of the new China, joined by the students, are fanatical in their efforts to drive the "foreign devils" from their country. As an understanding missionary explains the situation to Holman, "What would you do if Chinese gunboats were sailing up the Mississippi?"

The missionary, who runs a school far up the Yangtze, wants no help from the crew of the San Pablo. A man of peace, he feels that nationalism can only lead to wars. When the gunboat arrives under orders to evacuate him and his staff, he declares himself a "stateless person" and refuses to leave. Ironically, in order to reach the mission, the ship has had to run a blockade manned by the students he trained at the school, and its official protectors. With his protection gone, the missionary is killed by Nationalist soldiers and, soon after, so is Holman and most of the San Pablo's crew. Obviously, this is not only strange, but rather strong stuff for a multi-million dollar spectacular, and a far cry indeed from the marshmallowy Sound of Music. But just as, within the limitations of that film, director Wise was speaking for human dignity and freedom of the spirit, in the wider dimensions afforded by The Sand Pebbles he is able to put forward some provocative ideas about the nature of nationalism, American intervention, and the need for a more basic understanding among people--ideas that are as relevant to our role in Vietnam today as they were to our position in China forty years ago.

Robert Anderson's brilliantly succinct script blunts none of this, neither our untenable position in China in 1926 nor its implications for Vietnam in 1966. But the remarkable thing is that he achieves this with a minimum of harangue. The missionary is what he is, and he defends his position only when forced to do so by the San Pablo's well-meaning but jingoistic captain. Holman is simply searching for a decent way of life; and the tragedy of the film is that when he finally finds it, it is denied him by the intolerance of which he was unwittingly apart.

But action--often bloody, always colorful --is the essence of this film; and Wise has been nobly abetted by a script that keeps hurtling forward for more than three hours with scarcely a let-up in pace, by authentic-looking backgrounds in Taiwan and Hong Kong that are more than adequate stand-ins for the Chinese mainland, and by a large and excellent cast that seems wholly responsive to what the film is trying to say. Of the latter, Richard Crenna is outstanding as the starchy captain. Candice Bergen attractive as a missionary teacher, Richard Attenborough effective as a sailor who falls in love with a Chinese girl in a house of shame--and all of them dominated by Steve McQueen, who is nothing short of wonderful in the pivotal role of Holman.


Source: Saturday Review - December 24, 1966

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