Steve McQueen in The Sand Pebbles - David Morrell

The Perfect Vision issue #20

FOR THE SPRING, 1993 volume of The Perfect Vision (Issue 17), I wrote an essay about Steve McQueen, attempting to analyze the important films of his career from the seldom discussed perspective of his craft as an actor. Because of his anti-intellectual image, it has frequently been assumed that McQueen merely walked onto a soundstage and did what came naturally. On the contrary, he was a trained actor whose approach to his craft was extremely calculated. More than most movie stars, he understood that he had to direct his performance toward the camera, and his techniques designed to make the camera show him to advantage are extraordinary. To me, he is the quintessential film actor.

When I wrote the essay, I had to pass over one of McQueen's major films because it had not yet become available on laserdisc: The Sand Pebbles (1966). That epic about a US Navy gunboat, the San Pablo, caught in the violent political turmoil of the Bolshevik revolution in mainland China in 1926 has now been released on disc, however. Some viewers are, no doubt, familiar with the movie because of the pan-and-scan version available on videotape and shown often on television. But when I watched The Sand Pebbles in this near reference quality version and in its original 2.35:1 anamorphic Panavision aspect ratio, I was struck by how severely (more than with most films) the pan-and-scan format has ruined this film. I said "near reference quality" a moment ago only because cinematographer Joseph MacDonald photographs The Sand Pebbles in such rich wide detail that our present television standard isn't adequate to display crisply in widescreen the stunning scenic images that director Robert Wise wanted. The long shots of river vistas in Taiwan (substituting for mainland China) don't have sharp definition, for example, but as soon as the scene shifts to closer images, the resolution is superb.

The Sand Pebbles has a scale so large that it would be prohibitively expensive if a producer tried to make the film today (the budget exceeded $6 million, a considerable amount for the mid-Sixties). Because of its scope, the picture requires some current viewers to make adjustments in their attitudes in order to enjoy it. After all, contemporary big-budget films tend to be expensive because of extended action sequences that require sophisticated computer effects and screen-filling explosions. But the assumption behind The Sand Pebbles is that viewers don't require only action scenes to keep them attentive (although the film does have ample action). Rather, this film is based on the notion that exotic spectacle can also be captivating (the gorgeous production design was by Boris Leven). Huge crowd scenes and immense harbors, the colorful super dimension of China, were no doubt stunning when viewed on an appropriately enormous screen in a spacious, well-maintained, palace-like theater. But even my 46-inch, rear-projection Sony can't re-create the illusion of that scope. The vistas still manage to be impressive, but television viewers need to enlarge their imaginations in order to appreciate them.

The film's length (a little over three hours) is another factor that might affect the way modern viewers react to The Sand Pebbles. I continue to be alarmed by a remark made by an acquaintance of mine who refused to look at this disc: "I don't have time to watch any movie over two hours." This film requires patience. It has a pre-MTV pace, a measured, deliberate development that will unnerve a channel-surfer's mentality. The script by Richard Anderson, based on a semi-autobiographical novel by Richard McKenna, often feels as if it were written for the stage instead of the screen. Extended dialogue sequences explore the significance of the Chinese Bolshevik revolution in the 1920s. Additional lengthy dialogue sequences take the time to develop characters and their relationships with each other. Ideas are exchanged, ironies pointed out, issues addressed (miscegenation, for example, and America's presence in Asia--parts of the story seem a counter-part to what was happening in Vietnam at the time of the film's release). This intellectual factor makes The Sand Pebbles one of the last literate epics (there weren't many) to become available on laserdisc.

I mentioned that there is a stage-like quality to The Sand Pebbles. That quality is not at all restrictive but, on the contrary, expansive because of Robert Wise's cinematic skills. Prior to this film, two of his main movie projects had been West Side Story (1961) and The Sound of Music (1965), both of them now-legendary stage musicals that he translated brilliantly onto the screen. The Sand Pebbles seems to have been influenced by those experiences. Note the sequences in the Chinese bar that the American sailors frequent. The tall, narrow, slightly exaggerated set has a stage feel to it, but the camera isn't hampered by that feeling and indeed elegantly opens up the narrow set. Within it, the complex motions of many groups of actors are comparable to modern dance patterns in a stage musical. The boxing sequence and the subsequent brawl also have a dancer-like quality, as do the riot scenes (take another look at the street fighting scenes in the film of West Side Story). The climactic shootout in the spacious courtyard of the estate at China Light is choreographed in keeping with modern dance techniques within a stage-like space.

Wise's distinctive abilities aside, The Sand Pebbles very much depends on Steve McQueen's own considerable abilities. McQueen had worked with Wise once before, in a small debut in Somebody Up There Likes Me (1956). Ten years later, after The Magnificent Seven (1960), The Great Escape (1963), The Cincinnati Kid (1965), and Nevada Smith (1966), McQueen was an international star. Because of the motorcycle chase in The Great Escape, he had become associated with vehicles and machinery, an interest that carried over from his private life. So he seemed a natural to portray Jake Holman, the sailor in charge of maintaining the San Pablo's engine. One of the most famous scenes in McQueen's career occurs when he boards the gunboat for the first time and makes an extensive survey of its engine, finally stopping, touching it, and saying with reverence, "Hello, engine. I'm Jake Holman." A similar classic scene occurs when he teaches Po-han, "the bilge coolie" (played by Mako, who had a featured role as a Japanese gangster in last summer's Rising Sun), how to work the engine. Anytime McQueen is around that engine or handling a firehose, a shovel, a rifle, a gunsight, an ax (which he uses with brutal deadly effect in a battle scene), or any prop (even a coin pitched on top of a statue of an elephant), Steve McQueen dominates the screen. He had an uncanny ability to manipulate objects to great visual effect.

In this film, McQueen is also effective with Candice Bergen, who plays a missionary's assistant, are often poignant, a surprising achievement inasmuch as the two did not get along off-camera, McQueen's hard-drinking, rebellious conduct in contrast with Bergen's finishing school manners. (Bergen has sometimes been criticized for being too smarmy in her role, but to my mind, the role calls for it, and she acquits herself well.) Even more poignant are the scenes between McQueen and the bilge coolie who he befriends and is ultimately forced to shoot in order to prevent him from being tortured. The power of their friendship is especially remarkable because it is often established through pantomime that overcomes their language barrier.

Next to McQueen's, the most dramatic performance in The Sand Pebbles is supplied by the always impressive Richard Crenna. As Lieutenant Collins, the Melvilleian commander of the gunboat, he communicates a brooding presence, a rigid, self-tortured determination that his gunboat do nothing to sully America's reputation. "There has never been a mutiny aboard a United States ship of war," he insists, not needing to add that he will do everything in his power to prevent the mutiny that he fears is about to happen aboard the San Pablo. So strong is Crenna's performance that McQueen is unable to upstage him in their scenes together, and McQueen was a master at upstaging other actors.

The Sand Pebbles received numerous Academy Award nominations: art and set decoration, sound, editing, cinematography, music (yet another impressive score from Jerry Goldsmith), best supporting actor (Mako), best picture, and best actor (McQueen--his only nomination). But neither McQueen nor anyone else associated with the film received any Oscars. Some critics maintained that McQueen's acting in The Sand Pebbles was the best of his career, but, although his performance is certainly effective, that praise is too strong. The problem is that to communicate the street origins of his character, he decided to use a tight-lipped, tongue-against-teeth accent that doesn't seem comfortable for him. Wisely, he drops it throughout much of the movie. One measure of his talent is that he is believable in sequences that were unbelievable to him. For example, he had great misgivings about his final scene in which his character choses to stay behind and single-handedly fight off Chinese revolutionaries so that his fellow sailors can help Bergen escape from the missionary post at China Light. His character's generosity cost him his life. As he lies in the shadows, his chest bloody from a bullet wound, he yells, "I was home! What happened! What the hell happened!" He then dies from another gunshot. Despite the conviction of his performance, McQueen complained privately that it made no sense for his character to stay behind. To him, Jake Holman wasn't being crafty enough. There must have been less suicidal ways to rescue Candice Bergen.

McQueen had a point. The ending to this movie has got to be the most needlessly depressing of any epic. Perhaps Robert Wise was trying for a conclusion similar to that of For Whom the Bell Tolls (1943) in which Robert Jordan fights a suicidal rearguard action so that Maria will have time to escape. But in that case, the main character's fatalism is justified because he is severely injured and knows that he would never he able to get away anyhow. Also, the love between Jordan and Maria has been dramatized passionately. In contrast, the single tender kiss that McQueen and Bergen share in The Sand Pebbles is not at all sufficient to convince us that he has profound feelings for her. The ending seems imposed upon the material, perhaps for thematic reasons, to make Jake Holman (the name invites allegorical interpretation) a whole man, someone who finally and deeply cares about people as much as he does machinery.

The Sand Pebbles comes in a CLV format on two discs, all four sides of which are filled with program material. It has plentiful chapter stops, and as I indicated earlier, it has an accurate 2.35:1 aspect ratio as well as impressive image definition, with the exception of fuzziness in detailed long shots. On Side 3, the color sometimes appears muted. That effect may have been a directorial decision to emphasize the bleakness of the Chinese winter. The stereo won't test your system (it's pre-Dolby after all), but it is full and clean. The discs come in a gatefold jacket. There are two sets of informative liner notes. Jerry Goldsmith's overture and intermission music are included. All in all, Fox Video has done an excellent job. Still, without supplementary material, this package doesn't seem to merit the high price of $79.98, even if the movie does get better with repeated viewings.

Source: The Perfect Vision, Volume 5, Issue #20, Winter 1994

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