The Sand Pebbles (1966) – Robert Wise

Robert Wise directs Steve McQueen, Mako, Candice Bergen, Richard Attenborough, James Hong, and Richard Crenna in this adaptation of Richard McKenna’s novel, and my next port of call in the Great Movies – 100 Years of Film book following my screening of Lawrence of Arabia.

McQueen is Jake Holman who has just been assigned to the U.S.S. San Pablo, or The Sand Pebble as she is affectionately known by her crew, in 1926 China. An engineer, his job is to keep the ship running as she patrols the Yangtze river as the country is swept up in revolution.

Cultures clash as residents and foreigners try to hold an uneasy peace and tolerance of one another, until events reach a head.

Attenborough is Holman’s mate, Frenchy Burgoyne while Crenna wears the captain’s bars as Collins.

As Holman tries to figure out the routine of the ship, he learns that there is an unusual working relationship between the American and Chinese crew that man the Pablo. Holman tries to understand the situation, and slowly begins training and working with Po-Han (Mako). A friendship that costs him dearly.

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Hostilities arise as China begins to unite against all of the foreign powers intruding on their country and the San Pablo must travel upriver to rescue some missionaries, including Holman’s potential love interest, Shirley Eckhart (Bergen) who is working as a teacher.

The film is solidly produced but lacks an epic feel to it, which is unusual considering Wise’s talents, and a fantastic score by Jerry Goldsmith. That doesn’t mean the story isn’t engaging, and the cast captivating. I just think the story could have more sweep to it, but it is entertaining nonetheless.

Through the course of the film we see how all sides are incredibly horrible to one another, racism, sexism, abuse, violence, all of it boiling up in a country on the verge of revolution.

I ended up quite liking this film, the cast is very solid, and McQueen, as always, is very likeable in his role, and the supporting cast around him is top-notch, and bring their characters to life wonderfully.

I remember seeing this movie a long time ago when I was working in a video store (on VHS – it required two tapes) and not enjoying it as much as I did this time around. Obviously I’ve grown and learned to appreciate film.

I mean with the cast, Wise as director, a score by Goldsmith, there was almost no way this one couldn’t have been a winner. But as we know, it’s not my favourite pairing of Goldsmith and Wise…

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