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Monday, December 26, 2016

The Sand Pebbles

The fourth nominee for Best Picture in 1966 was The Sand Pebbles, one of those long, big, road show pictures. Directed by Robert Wise, in his follow-up to The Sound of Music, the film starred Steve McQueen, one of the great movie stars of the '60s, who was known as much for his attitude as his acting.

The Sand Pebbles is set in China in the 1920s, when U.S. gunboats patrolled inland rivers to try to keep peace between feuding war lords, the communists, and the newly formed Kuomintang, headed by Chiang Kai-shek. McQueen is a machinist's mate who is assigned to the San Pablo, a ship taken from Spain during the Spanish-American War. The crew call themselves the Sand Pebbles.

McQueen, as was his persona, plays a guy who isn't interested in getting along with others. He's labeled a "Jonah," or a sailor who brings bad luck. He is a genius with engines, but finds that Chinese "coolies" do most of the work on the boat. McQueen warns the captain (Richard Crenna) that there is a loose something or other that will break, but Crenna doesn't believe him until it happens. Then, the Chinese man responsible for the engine gets killed trying to fix it. McQueen trains a new coolie, played by Mako (who earned a Best Supporting Actor nomination).

There are a few set pieces that take too long, such as when McQueen bets that Mako can take the blowhard sailor played by Simon Oakland in a boxing match. McQueen's best (and only) friend, Richard Attenborough, falls in love with a Chinese girl, saves her from prostitution, and marries her, but that doesn't end well. Then the Chinese, to no one's surprise, get tired of having to deal with American gunboats and places it under siege. The San Pablo can not get out of the harbor at low tide, and has to sit out the winter.

The Sand Pebbles is a decent film but would have been better with about an hour cut (it lumbers in at 2:59). The end, when the ship fights its way out, and then McQueen and some other men try to rescue some missionaries (including Candice Bergen in an early role) are very suspenseful, but in those days it seems that a long film was equated with prestige. It's ideal for home viewing, when you can put it on pause and take the whole day to watch, like I did.

McQueen earned his only Oscar nomination for this film, which earned eight nominations but won none. Students of history may see the parallels between this period of Asian diplomacy with the Vietnam War, which was going full blazes in 1966, as the film takes the point of view that Americans were in the wrong place at the wrong time. We usually are.

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