In a film career that spanned 24 years, Steve McQueen earned a reputation as one of the coolest actors to ever grace the screen. He had style and a cool, badass factor that was on display in movies like Bullitt, The Great Escape and The Thomas Crown Affair, among others. What’s lost in the shuffle? As downright cool as McQueen was, he was just as strong an actor. Nowhere was that more on display than 1966’s The Sand Pebbles.
It’s 1926 in China, and sailor Jake Holman (McQueen) is arriving at his newest ship, the San Pablo, a US gunboat from the Spanish-American War. Holman has a bit of a track record, transferring from 7 ships in 9 years in the navy. A more than capable sailor, Holman has little use for military tradition, the rigidity of military life, and the thought that he should be ready to die for a cause he doesn’t believe in. Instead, he wants to be left alone in his engine room, taking care of the ship’s engine like few can. Holman wants to mind his own business and not be bothered, but as China tears itself apart, the San Pablo finds itself fighting for its life.
From director Robert Wise, ‘Sand’ is a true epic in an era and decade that was full of big, gigantic, roadshow epics. Based off a bestselling novel from author Richard McKenna, it’s a gem. It clocks in at 182 minutes and streamlines the novel (which is 520-plus pages) to the essential character, story and history. It was filmed on-location in Taiwan and Hong Kong and looks and feels authentic. You feel like you’re there in 1920s China, a powderkeg just waiting to blow up. Composer Jerry Goldsmith‘s score earned an Oscar nomination as well, mixing the booming, epic touches with quieter, more emotional moments and then some Chinese influences too. Listen HERE for an extended sampling of the score.
In his only Oscar-nominated role, McQueen absolutely brings it, showing off his acting chops in every scene. What’s most impressive is that he doesn’t ham it up, get too theatrical, or try to steal his scenes. He just does it, delivering his most human performance as Jake Holman, the US sailor/engineer who only wants to do his job. Talk about a tragic character, Holman gets one thing thrown at him after another. All he wants is to find his place in the world, but all the while, he’s pulled in 100 different directions. It’s an incredibly emotional part from the first time we meet Jake through all his trials and tribulations. Underplayed and perfect, nowhere is that more evident than Jake introducing himself to the San Pablo’s engine, stating “Hello, engine…I’m Jake Holman.” Criminally perfect, McQueen’s soft smile filling up the screen. Here is a man at his happiest.
McQueen leads an impressive ensemble, but his scenes with 2 characters especially carry the movie. The first is the love interest with Candice Bergen‘s Shirley, a young, idealistic and naive missionary who sees all the good in tortured Jake. Their scenes together are quiet and moving, two disparate souls brought together in unlikely situations. The other key relationship is between Holman and Po-Han (Mako, an Oscar-nominated part), a young Chinese man who Holman takes under his wing, teaching him all about the science of the engine. The scenes of the experienced engineer teaching Po-Han are the heart of the movie, bringing Jake and Po-Han to life, a brotherly relationship, a father-son dynamic, a teacher and student, but it all works.
So much more cast to mention! Reuniting after 1963’s The Great Escape, Richard Attenborough has an excellent chemistry with McQueen, playing veteran sailor Frenchy Burgoyne who clicks immediately with Jake. Frenchy’s subplot with a young Chinese girl, Maily (Emmanuelle Arsan) is especially heartbreaking. Richard Crenna delivers an incredibly underrated performance as Capt. Collins, the San Pablo’s much-maligned commander. Stiff, rigid, a patriot, intelligent but constantly worrying, Collins must find a way to get the San Pablo to achieve its mission, keeping countless plates spinning at all times. The crew includes Charles Robinson, Simon Oakland, Ford Rainey, Joe Turkel, Gavin MacLeod and Barney Phillips. Also look for Larry Gates as a devout missionary who won’t let anything stop him from achieving his mission.
While the story and historical setting are essential to the movie’s success, the true essential is the characters and how the history impacts them. Go along for the ride, regardless of your knowledge of Chinese history (I know pretty much nothing). There isn’t much action until the final 30 minutes, the San Pablo battling its way through a well-guarded boom defended by Chinese nationalist troops. The finale itself is far more small-scale, a moonlit plaza serving as the backdrop between several San Pablo sailors and some well-hidden Chinese troops.
And that ending…my goodness, that ending. As tough as it is, McKenna’s novel is actually much more harsh! The final line is a doozy, one that will no doubt stick with you long after viewing. McQueen at his absolute finest — up there with Papillon as his strongest performance — in this epic historical story with a great cast, well-developed story and memorable musical score. A must-see!
The Sand Pebbles (1966): *** 1/2 /****