Wednesday, October 22, 2008

A Frank Review of "The Sand Pebbles" (1966)

The Short Version? 1920s Chinese want Yankees to go home, especially the ones on gunships who start engaging in soap opera.
What Is It? Period Drama
Who's In It? Steve McQueen, Richard Attenborough, Richard Crenna, Candice Bergen
Should I See It? At least until the intermission, sure.

Thing is, this is a 3 1/4 hour long movie in the "Roadshow" edition, with only fifteen or so minutes directly related to nurgh's Emmanu-Wednesday feature, so we'll be doing some skimming here. I'll start with an overview and my thoughts, then move on to a detailed synopsis of Emmanuelle-centric elements in the future.

Engineer Jake Holman (Steve McQueen) tends to be an anti-authoritarian DIY control freak, so it's no surprise he keeps transferring around from ship to ship in the U.S. Navy. By 1926, he finds himself in China, assigned to the U.S.S. San Pablo. This gunboat patrols the Yangtze River, but it's seen little action, and is physically run by ignorant coolies. It's a situation Holman has little tolerance for, setting him at odds with Captain Collins and the rest of the crew. As Holman exposes the cancer within the San Pablo, he himself is blamed for the consequences of other's actions.

I liked the first half of "The Sand Pebbles," as it focused on the operation of the ship and relatable conflicts. That half only lags when characters like the missionaries Jameson (Larry Gates) and Shirley Eckert (19 y.o. Candice Bergen) show up to preach liberally about the exploitation of the Chinese and blah blah blah. There's are attempts here to treat Eckert as a love interest for Holman, but the actors have no chemistry whatsoever. From age to intellect to worldview, there is nothing to unite them beyond contrivance, and their both being so curiously sexless removes even that potential explanation. The actors are so terrible together, Bergen's presence actually breaks down McQueen's performance. Usually nuanced and fully inhabited, McQueen seems to start exasperatingly reading Holman's lines as the Eckert character wears him down.

Holman gets on better with Frenchy Burgoyne (Richard Attenborough,) whose English accent isn't too noticeable if you're not listening for it. The commentary tracks make it clear Attenborough is a lovable sort, and that comes through in his character. Even more charming is Mako as Po-han, a particularly bright coolie who wins Holman's respect and the audience's affection. Richard Crenna as Captain Collins has about the right size stick up his butt, while Simon Oakland is a bit too much a teddy bear to sell the bullying racist Stawski as more than comic relief.

The point is, the crew and tensions on the San Pablo were plenty enough to make "The San Pebbles" a solid picture. The missionaries comment of the seamen (and the sailors of the coolies) that keeping things simple is what they're about. The two lead actresses ruin that by bringing ridiculous soap opera to the table, and then the picture is lost to overwhelming political upheaval. The men of the San Pablo are too simple for either concern, and are crushed by a narrative too big for them. The entire second half of the picture is devoted to a long, sad trip deep into the shit with little hope for redemption and none granted. It becomes increasingly clear as you watch that no good can come from any of it, turning the picture into a dreary commentary on the then-current Vietnam conflict and all foreign adventurism since.

Marayat Andriane is pretty good in her part. Her appeal to the various johns is dubious, and she sometimes speaks in a seemingly affected "little girl" voice that doesn't sit well. You know from the start things aren't going to end well for her, and she's at her best when placed in peril. Her subplot was one of the better ones, but still leads the movie far astray from its strengths.

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