This Week in Steve McQueen: The Sand Pebbles (1966)

This film, the latest installment in the Steve McQueen festival I’ve been attending, is about a rebellious Navy Machinist Mate, Jake Holman (McQueen), who loves engines a whole heck of a lot and authority a whole heck of a. . . yeeeeah, not so much.

Bounced from job to job, mostly on flagships, he finally gets his dream gig when he’s assigned at last to a gunboat, the San Pablo (nicknamed the “Sand Pebble”), where he’s to be the main guy in charge of the engine.  At first excited, his optimism takes a decided dip downward when it quickly becomes clear that life on gunboats is pretty different from life on flagships.  For one thing, the Sand Pebble has a strange labor system in place, apparently initiated in an attempt to appease the locals but taken to the extreme by a bunch of lazy ship officers.  The officers mostly just hang out looking spiffy, leaving the sailors with way too much free time — free time they mostly use for fighting and hanging out in bars.  Meanwhile, all the actual work on the ship gets done by the “coolies,” local untrained Chinese laborers.

Horrified by the state of the ship’s engine, Holman gets in trouble right away when he starts complaining about this system, which puts unskilled Chinese coolies in charge of things both important and dangerous.  When the head coolie is then killed in an engine accident, instead of taking it as a sign he was onto something, Holman is blamed and reprimanded by the captain (Richard Crenna), who orders him to train another coolie to take his place. While Holman first resists this idea (note: that’s putting it nicely), he soon becomes pretty fond of his trainee, Po-Han, who proves himself to be a quick, sharp study.

Meanwhile, Holman and another sailor, Frenchie (played by an extremely NOT French Richard Attenborough — don’t ask me) become close friends.  While the San Pablo is stuck in port for the winter, the two men become embroiled in a drama on shore involving a young Chinese woman, Maily, sold into prostitution when she couldn’t pay her debts.  It’s not long before the incredibly sweet Frenchie, along with the adorable brown pet caterpillar he carries around on his upper lip (dang, that was some bad mustache, Mr. A.), falls madly in love with her.  Despite the obvious dangers in doing so, Frenchie and Maily end up getting married and pregnant, two things that could get either one of them killed by Chinese soldiers.

One night, Frenchie decides he can’t spend another night without his love so he sneaks off the San Pablo to swim to shore.  When he doesn’t return, Holman goes after him, walking straight into a nightmare.  After all is said and done, Holman finds himself accused of the murder of a local as an increasingly propagandist and hostile crowd forms a blockade around the ship, calling for his head.  Fearing for their own safety, the rest of the Sand Pebbles angrily try to convince Holman to give himself up and, when he refuses, they attempt a mutiny.  Though the captain is quickly able to quash it, both his pride and his already-kinda-wonky psychology are damaged in the process, and when the ship is finally able to break through the blockade into open water, he begins making a series of cuckoo mistakes, eventually going so far as to defy official orders.  Instead of returning to the coast as directed, he becomes fixated on going up the river to rescue a group of Americans (missionaries and teachers) he is convinced are stranded and in mortal danger.

One of these Americans is a young woman named Shirley Eckert, played by a stunningly gorgeous Candice Bergen (I’d never seen her so young before, by the way — hot damn, good lookin!’).  Shirley and Holman had had a little romantic tension thing going since they first met, and their relationship had taken a few steps forward during part of the San Pablo’s stint in port.  So, though he clearly recognizes the folly of the captain’s plan, Holman nevertheless agrees to be part of the “away team” (or whatever it’s called when you’re not on Star Trek) and heads to shore to attempt the rescue.  We get one more spectacular shoot ‘em up scene, this one no kidding edge-of-your-seat, and then finally, three hours of plots, subplots, and sub-subplots later, the film ends with just about everybody dead.

Oh wait, spoiler alert, I guess!  OOPS.  (Oh, like you read down this far, please.  This is the longest damn movie review of all time.)

I’d seen this film only once before, and it was way back (way, WAY back) when I was a kid – I’d guess I was about twelve years old or so.  At the time, I remember being fairly amazed by it, I think in part because it tells so many different stories and in part because so many of those stories are about doomed love, a subject that tends to resonate well with 12 year-old girls (plus, that one scene with Po-Han gave me nightmares – if you’ve seen the film, you know the one I mean).

As an adult, though, I felt like this movie was kind of disjointed.  It was easily forty-five minutes too long, and was spread out all over the place, trying to cover too many stories and not doing a good enough job of making those stories feel smoothly interwoven.

My major issue with the movie, though, was McQueen.  Dammit, McQueen!  Once again, Steve does what I am starting to gather is his trademark move, a facial expression coupled with a tone of voice that I’m now going to officially dub “The Doofus.”  As I’ve said with the last several of his films I’ve written about here, I just don’t get this combo.  It worked in The Great Escape – with that character – but it has not worked a single time since.  And still he continues to do it!  Serious McQueen Fans:  was The Doofus really his trademark?  If so, can you explain the appeal?   It’s not adorable.  It’s not sexy.  It’s for sure not at all cool.  And it doesn’t work with most of his characters.  Jake Holman was no doofus; he was a macho ass-kicker.  So, what’s going on with this?  Bullitt is coming up next in the series, another one of McQueen’s films that gave me nightmares as a kid (I don’t remember anything at all about the story, but I still vividly remember the opening shoot-out scene).  Please tell me he’s not going to pull The Doofus in Bullitt?  That he finally figured out after this one that The Doofus was a dud?

Of course, clearly that won’t have been the case, because, surprise surprise, McQueen was nominated for Best Actor after The Sand Pebbles, confirming officially that he was onto something and I don’t know what I’m talking about (as if that needed confirmation. . .).  My only hope is that the sheer physical demands and emotional/personal problems he encountered during the making of this film killed off every last remnant of Doofus left in him.  Maybe this film toughened him up – he did say once that he considered the excruciating agony of bringing The Sand Pebbles to the screen to be his penance for everything he’d ever done wrong in his life (you can read about the problems encountered on the film’s Wikipedia page).

One can only hope.

In the meantime, this is definitely an entertaining film, grand in scale and ambition, and it’s well worth a rental.  Fans of Richard Attenborough, in particular, are going to want to pick this one up — I’ve never seen that man so thoroughly kissable.  Frenchie, oh, you sweet, sweet, good man.  I love you.


[Netflix it | Buy it]

Genre:  Action, War
Cast:  Steve McQueen, Richard Attenborough, Richard Crenna, Candice Bergen, Mako, Emmanuelle Arsan

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4 Responses to “This Week in Steve McQueen: The Sand Pebbles (1966)”

  1. Trip Says:

    Never mind the opening shootout in Bullitt; it’s the car chase and the San Fran scenery that made that movie legendary!

    1968 Ford GT390 Fastback Mustang vs. 1968 Dodge Charger R/T 440 Magnum – doesn’t get much better than that for old school American muscle!

    I also love playing “Guess that Street”…it’s still cool to see how SF looked back then.

  2. jo Says:

    When I read these reviews I’m amazed by how many Steve McQueen movies I haven’t seen.

    But one of my all-time favorite movies is a Steve McQueen movie: Love with the Proper Stranger. I saw it at an Impressionable Age and have loved it ever since.

  3. megwood Says:

    Ooh, I’ve never seen that one! Hitting Netflix for it right now!

  4. megwood Says:

    Oh, major bummerage! Not on DVD yet! (At least, not at Netflix.)

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