Following his enormous Oscar success of the previous year, Robert Wise backs up The Sound of Music which brought him the top directorial prize and also claimed Best Picture, with the epic and ambitious war picture The Sand Pebbles. As sprawling in narrative as it is in its coverage of themes, and armed with the electric performance of Steve McQueen (for which he earned his soul Oscar nomination) the film tackles a plethora of issues ranging from love, blind national pride, integrity, friendship, and most overtly racism and the moral ambiguities of enforced diplomacy, a notion particularly resounding in 1966 mirroring the United States’ involvement in Vietnam.
The “sand pebbles” in the title is the self-assigned nickname of the crew on the USS San Pablo, a gunboat patrolling the Yangtze in revolutionary 1926 China. Ravaged by corrupt warlords and the oppressive external world powers with communism looming, China is immersed in volatility and the film captures the crew in a state of mounting despair. Following a transfer, the hardnosed, rough edged engineer Jake Holman (McQueen) finds himself amongst this crew, captained by Lieutenant Collins (Richard Crenna) whose integrity is fighting a losing battle to his allegiance to America’s misguided diplomacy, and populated by “coolies”, largely unskilled locals who have been short-sightedly installed to ease the crew in their workload.
Just as he does the San Pablo itself, Holman keeps the narrative moving, his rebelliousness fuelling a plot which unfolds episodically with a series of challenges, both moral and physical, confronting the crew. What’s important to note though is that Holman is not rebelling to deliberately spite the system he is a part of, but rather he rebels as a bi-product of his strict work ethic which is in direct contrast to a crew who would rather take the easy route over the right, making for a protagonist heroic in his resoluteness, endearingly human in his blue collar attitude, and charismatic in its performance.
Holman’s first order of business upon the San Pablo is to challenge the impractical coolie system and the complacency it encourages, putting a spanner in the systematic works of the boat, and is accordingly singled out as an outsider. Accepted only by 2nd Class Machinist Frenchy (Richard Attenborough) and by romantic interest Shirley (Candice Bergin), an anti-imperialist missionary teaching along the Yangtze, Holman comes to act as the catalyst to a chain of events which explore the validity of America’s involvement in Chinese affairs.
Although the story will test patience with its length, it’s Wise’s ability to craft a series of captivating relationships which propels the film. Particularly striking is the beautifully sympathetic relationship of Holman and a coolie who he comes to admire in his surprising work efficiency, Po-Han (Oscar nominated Mako). Conversely the antagonism of Simon Oakland’s Stawski, belligerent, arrogant and racist, all too happy to take advantage of the coolies, wonderfully establishes the Holman versus all mentality which characterises the boat, well captured by cinematographer Joseph MacDonald in all its claustrophobia which perfectly complements the accelerating tensions, and breathing poignant life into the film’s themes of morality and integrity. These relationships also pave the way for wonderfully tense moments peppered throughout; a boxing match between Stawski and Po-Han, a mercy killing, a bidding scene in a brothel, and most crucially the film’s violent finale where the San Pablo must confront a resistance where Wise boldly and admirably dives into the ambiguous, shades of grey area inherent in war.
However with its heart so firmly fixated on politics and morality, when the film strays into romance it finds itself on uncertain ground .The two romantic relationships, the before mentioned relationship of McQueen and Bergin and an angle involving Attenborough’s Frenchy and a hopeful Chinese prostitute, come off as obligatory and peripheral respectively. For the longest time they each have no direct impact on a story whose priorities lie elsewhere, and they become hard to justify as part of an often plodding three hour run length. The film’s welcome ultimately wears thin and it never quite establishes a clear cut momentum, something accentuated by the film’s episodic story mechanics, which moves from one incident and theme to another, making the screenplay creaky if not daring.
Undeniably admirable and well crafted, The Sand Pebbles in the end just doesn’t quite total the sum of its parts, bolstered though it is by its great performances and ambitious dramatic reach.