Attack (1956)

Attack 1956As long as there have been wars, there have been anti-war films. When I think of waves of anti-war films though, I start to think of the late 1960’s, especially in the U.S. as Americans grew disillusioned with the Vietnam War. But how about an early anti-war effort from the 1950’s that was ahead of its time in so many ways? Here’s 1956’s Attack.

It’s 1944 and Allied forces are advancing all over Europe on German forces. One infantry unit is dealing with a command issue though, especially as the fighting intensifies. Lt. Joe Costa (Jack Palance) is a platoon commander in an infantry company commanded by the cowardly Captain Cooney (Eddie Albert). In a recent engagement, Cooney’s outright cowardice and indecision cost the lives of an entire squad when he refused to commit a reserve to the fighting. As Costa tries to decide what to do, the Germans attack all along the front (the battle of the Bulge), pushing the American forces back. Can Costa hold his men together, or will Cooney’s inability to command cost the lives of even more men?

From director Robert Aldrich, this 1956 World War II movie is an oft-forgotten gem. Based off a Norman Brooks play, it never gets the credit it deserves for the truly dark, honest look it takes at war. These are normal, everyday soldiers trying to get through the war unscathed. These aren’t super-men single-handedly winning the war. Their commander’s general ineptitude at everything he does has some of the men, especially Costa, considering shooting Cooney because no one in the command system will do anything. The commanders are either inept or self-serving while the enlisted men simply want to survive the war.

In a career that featured one memorable tough guy performance after another, Palance delivers one of his best here. His Lt. Joe Costa is as tough as hell and an ideal platoon commander, but he’s human too. After years of fighting, all the death is starting to wear on him, especially when there was potential to stop those deaths. His Costa becomes obsessed with stopping Cooney, no matter how and no matter the consequences. Eddie Albert is frighteningly good as the inept Cooney, a company commander with some serious emotional issues, from alcoholism to daddy issues to fear of failure to…well, just about anything you can think of. Two amazingly different but incredibly memorable parts.

Aldrich had a knack for assembling some damn good casts, and though ‘Attack’ doesn’t have a ton of star power, it’s a damn good cast. In one of his first major roles, Lee Marvin is a scene-stealer as Lt. Colonel Clyde Barrett, the battalion commander using Cooney for his pull back home politically. William Smithers is excellent as Lt. Woodruff, Cooney’s executive officer caught in between his commander and the men in the company. The men in Costa’s platoon include Richard Jaeckel, Robert Strauss, John Shepodd, Jim Goodwin and a scene-stealing Buddy Ebsen as Sgt. Tolliver. Also look quick in the opening scene for Strother Martin as an infantry soldier and Peter van Eyck as an SS officer.

Considering the film’s rather dark subject matter and the timing in the Happy Days-esque 1950’s, it’s not surprising that the US Army wanted nothing to do with Aldrich’s film and offered no support. The result? A lower budget, gritty war film shot on the backlots in a Hollywood studio. It works nicely, ‘Attack’ reflecting its stage-based roots with some long dialogue scenes broken up by some surprisingly realistic, chaotic combat scenes. It’s hard not to look at the bombed-out French town and see the similarities with the finale to Saving Private Ryan.

A lot to be said here, ‘Attack’ getting progressively darker and darker with each passing scene. Aldrich leans on his film noir roots for some great uses of darkness and shadow as tensions rise. Even on repeated viewings, I’m surprised where the story ends up going in the final third of a 107-minute movie. It’s never gotten the credit it deserves, but it’s an anti-war classic. A must-watch.

Attack (1956): *** 1/2 /****

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PT 109 (1963)

John F. Kennedy  is known for any number of things from a tragically shortened life. His beautiful wife, Jackie, his supposed affairs with Marilyn Monroe among others, his charm and popularity, his turbulent presidency that included the Cuban Missile Crisis, and most tragically, his assassination under the rifle of Lee Harvey Oswald. One of the most fascinating parts of his adventure-filled life? His World War II exploits as told in 1963’s PT 109.

While the fighting rages in the Solomon Islands in the Pacific in 1943, Lt. John F. Kennedy (Cliff Robertson) arrives at a small naval base specializing in patrol torpedo boats (PT) meant to keep Japanese forces at bay. Kennedy is given command of PT 109, a beat-up old boat that has seen far better days. He’s given just a week to get the 109 ready for action, assembling a crew, including Ensign Leonard Thom (Ty Hardin), cleaning the boat, and rehabbing the engines. They manage to come in under deadline, Kennedy, his crew and the 109 thrust immediately into action. The day-to-day life of a PT boat is a dangerous one though, the boats meant to be used to buy time while the U.S. Navy still tries to recover from Pearl Harbor. Patrols, routine or not, rescues, deliveries, Kennedy and his crew take it all on, but the mission that will put them all in the history books awaits one pitch-black night in the Blackett Strait in the Solomon Islands.

One of my favorite movies growing up, I can still go back and visit this 1963 WWII movie from director Leslie H. Martinson and enjoy it from beginning to end. This isn’t the most hard-hitting of movies, but like some other WWII movies from Warner Bros., there is a distinct visual look and a straightforward style that plays well. Could things be tightened up a bit with a 140-minute movie? Sure, here and there, but it’s an excellent film just the same. It was filmed in the Florida Keys, and it’s sunny and sandy with plenty of palm trees to help stand in for the Solomon Islands in the Pacific. The musical score from composers David Buttolph and William Lava knows when to lighten the mood and when to show the developing drama, a score that sounds similar to another Warner Bros. WWII movie, 1962’s Merrill’s Marauders.

Released in theaters less than six months before his death in Dallas, PT 109 was made with the help of Kennedy right in the midst of his term as President. He even had final say on the actor who would play him, Robertson being his ultimate choice. It ends up being a great pick, one that makes the movie far more memorable in my eyes. Besides the striking physical resemblance — look at Robertson in an iconic JFK picture HERE — Robertson nails the heroic, likable, charming part of a future American president. That’s the movie’s goal, to show Kennedy as a hero. More on the details in the next paragraph, but Kennedy’s actions were more than enough so Martinson didn’t have to stretch things too much. Robertson’s Kennedy is smart, quick with a comeback and a plan, a leader who’s respected by his men and fellow officers, and a capable commander with a knack for doing the right thing. It’s not the most in-depth characterization, but it never set out to be. Kudos to Robertson, already one of my favorites.

Semi-SPOILERS from here on in. The truth of the story behind PT 109 is remarkable in itself. Patrolling in the Blackett Strait a dark August night, the 109 was struck by a Japanese destroyer similarly on patrol. Kennedy’s boat was ripped in two pieces, two crewmen killed in the collision. Banding the men together, Kennedy got the survivors to swim to a far-off island and hopefully wait for survival. What followed is and was an inspiring story in itself, Kennedy ultimately winning the the Congressional Medal of Honor for his heroic actions. The movie itself is divided into two halves, the first introducing Kennedy, the crew, the boat and their exploits, the second half following its chapter in history as a Japanese destroyer tears the little boat apart. Both halves are excellent, but it’s hard to beat the second half as the survivors desperately wait for help in one form or another, Kennedy swimming out into the Strait at night to flag down an American ship.

While the focus is obviously on Robertson as Kennedy, the supporting cast is very solid without stealing the spotlight. Hardin as 2nd-in-command Ensign Thom has a good chemistry with Robertson, Robert BlakeNorman Fell, Clyde Howdy, John Ward and Biff Elliot starring as the most visible of the 109’s crew. James Gregory is a scene-stealer as Commander Ritchie, the leader of a squadron of PT boats, a veteran officer who’s never seen combat but is always searching for the best out of his men. Even Robert Culp shows up at the halfway point as Ensign Barney Ross, an old friend of Kennedy’s who ends up on the 109 for its fateful missionMichael Pate making a memorable appearance as Evans, an Australian coastwatcher who plays an integral part in the eventual rescue of Kennedy and the remaining survivors. Also lending his voice talents in an uncredited narrator role is Andrew Duggan.

This isn’t a WWII movie that rewrites the genre. It is a movie meant to honor the heroics of future president John F. Kennedy, and it does it well. Exciting with some good action, some genuine laughs and some lighter moments, and Robertson in a great leading part as Kennedy himself.

PT 109 (1963): *** 1/2 /****

Air Force (1943)

air_force_-_1943_-_posterThe opening days of World War II for the United States in the Pacific have provided some of the best war movies ever made, stories documenting the surprise attack at Pearl Harbor and the subsequent fighting at Wake Island, the Philippines and Midway (among other places). Movies like Tora Tora Tora, From Here to Eternity, Wake Island, Bataan and Back to Bataan among others are all very good to classic films. One that doesn’t always get the attention it deserves? That’s 1943’s Air Force.

Taking off from a runway in San Francisco, a B-17 bomber named ‘Mary Ann’ piloted by ‘Irish’ Quincannon (John Ridgely) and Bill Williams (Gig Young) heads out over the Pacific bound for Hickam Field in Hawaii. With several new members of the nine-man crew, they have little experience working together but quickly find themselves needing to get on the same page.  They fly into Hawaii on the afternoon of Dec. 7, 1941 just hours after the sneak attack by the Japanese Navy that almost cripples the U.S. Pacific fleet.  They land and are are quickly given orders to continue flying to the west.  Reports of Japanese attacks throughout the Pacific have the High Command on a major alert, and every man, pilot, and plane is needed to hold back the advance if the U.S. has any chance of staying in the conflict.

Director Howard Hawks did a wise thing setting this story in and around the opening days of the U.S. involvement in World War II. Looking at the story as simplistically as possible, we get a tour of the Pacific in the days following the attack on Pearl Harbor.  We see Battleship Row still in flames, we see the heroic defenders of Wake Island as they await a Japanese attack, we see military bases in Manila falling back under waves of Japanese attackers.  It serves two purposes, one being a jumping off point for everything that’s going on, and two, it shows these heroic efforts put forth by American soldiers, Marines, sailors, civilians and pilots throughout the Pacific against impossible odds.  And make no mistake, many of the people on Wake and throughout the Philippines were either killed or captured by the Japanese.

Credit is due though. For a movie released in 1943, the heavy propaganda is held relatively in check. ‘Air’ is more interested in the heroism of the soldiers fighting back against the Japanese push all across the Pacific. A couple exceptions though. An American machine gunner is forced to bail from his plane, and as his parachute descends to the ground, he’s machine-gunned by a Japanese pilot. As he lies dying on the ground, the pilot flies over again and finishes him off in brutal fashion. There are documented cases of Japanese pilots doing this throughout the war, but it is a truly uncomfortable scene to watch. Second, as pitch perfect as the first 90/95 minutes are, the final 30 is a little heavy-handed as the story insists on ending in a positive fashion.

You appreciate the sentiment for a 1943 audience that desperately needed a win, but it feels forced watching the movie now in 2018. Minor complaints in the big picture. The first 90 minutes are some of the best-ever in a war film.

Those complaints aside, I loved the movie starting with one of Hawks’ biggest strengths as a director.  He had a knack for working perfectly with predominantly male, ensemble casts, and Air Force has a good one.  Ridgely and Young play the pilots of B-17 Mary Ann with the crew including Harry Carey as veteran crew chief Robbie White, John Garfield as new machine gunner Winocki, Arthur Kennedy as bombardier McMartin, Charles Drake as navigator Hauser, George Tobias as mechanic Weinberg, Ward Wood as radioman Peterson, Ray Montgomery as newbie Chester, and James Brown as tag-along fighter pilot Tex Raider. With such a big ensemble, we only get tidbits of info about each man, but they cover a melting pot of the Americans fighting in WWII.  They bond through their common goal and will to survive, doing whatever they can to take the war back at the Japanese.

When propaganda works, it is typically because it hits a nerve.  I’ve long been a fan of war movies across the board, and you can’t help but root in patriotic fashion for this B-17 crew.  For a start, they’re very easy to like, all of them.  When one of the crew dies following a Japanese attack, you see the others throw caution to the wind in hopes of reassembling the plane so they can rejoin the war effort.  Carey and Garfield cradling machine guns in their arms fighting off Japanese Zeroes hits you in the gut.  It’s over the top and hammy, but it’s perfectly portrayed. Obviously now in 2018, we know the Allies won WWII.  But in 1943 the war was still up for grabs, and Americans could always use a positive jolt.  This certainly qualifies.

Underrated on all accounts. An excellent movie portraying the early weeks of World War II in the Pacific from director Howard Hawks with an excellent ensemble cast.

Air Force (1943): *** 1/2 /****

Big Jake (1971)

big_jake_ver2Over the last decade of his career — the late 1960s and into the 1970s — John Wayne was wary of following along with the Hollywood trend of ultra-violent movies. He even turned down the Dirty Harry role, later doing 2 pretty mediocre cop movies. It’s oddly appropriate then that over the span one of his best movies (and a fan favorite) is one that embraces some bloody violence. Here’s 1971’s Big Jake.

It’s 1909 along the Texas/Mexico border when an outlaw, John Fain (Richard Boone), leads his gang of murderers and cutthroats in a vicious attack on the expansive McCandles Ranch. Ten people are killed, and ranch owner Martha (Maureen O’Hara) sees her grandson kidnapped. Fain demands a ransom of $1 million, leaving a note that says simply “Follow the map.” Knowing her grandson could be killed no matter what she decides, Martha seeks out her estranged husband, Jacob (Wayne), to take the ransom money into Mexico and get his grandson (who he didn’t know) back. With help from his two sons, James (Patrick Wayne) and Michael (Christopher Mitchum), and an old friend, Apache Sam Sharpnose (Bruce Cabot), Jacob agrees, setting off to bring his grandson back alive or his captors dead.

I’ve long been a John Wayne fan, and this 1971 western from director George Sherman (although it is reported Wayne helped direct with an ailing Sherman) has long been a personal favorite. I watched TV edited versions for years, so it’s always fun to pop in the DVD and see the full 110-minute movie! With its surprising violence and even some uses of blood squibs, ‘Jake’ is obviously a departure for Wayne. It’s balanced out though with some odd comedy (mostly works), a familiar, deep cast, and beautiful filming locations in Durango, Mexico — a favorite spot of Wayne to make movies; The War Wagon, Sons of Katie Elder, The Undefeated. This isn’t a western that rewrites the genre and is far from its revisionist peers of the time, but it’s damn entertaining from beginning to end.

By this point in his career, Wayne could have done a part like this with his eyes closed. To his credit, he never did. He brings a certain energy to the part, a rough edge as we learn about his Jacob McCandles and his past. This is easily one of his most quotable parts, the Duke delivering one crackling one-liner after another. It never feels forced, Wayne’s gruff delivery bringing it all together. His chemistry with his supporting cast is impeccable, especially his early (and too short) scenes with frequent co-star Maureen O’Hara. On the tough guy angle, his dialogue scenes with Richard Boone are pppppperfect, especially the build-up to the final showdown. Throw in the estranged father scenes as he reunites with his sons, Patrick Wayne’s James and Mitchum’s Michael, and you’ve got a bunch of positives in an at-times eccentric western.

The cast is far from done there, especially an underused Richard Boone as the calculating, brutal John Fain. Most villains cower in Wayne’s shadow, but not Boone. Watch THIS scene for an example (apologies for the low quality). Fain’s gang includes O’Brien (Glenn Corbett), a half-breed gunslinger, Pop Dawson (an unrecognizable Harry Carey Jr.), Kid Duffy (stuntman Dean Smith), a deadshot with a rifle, John Goodfellow (Gregg Palmer), a machete-wielding psycho, Trooper (Jim Burk), an Army deserter, and Will Fain (Robert Warner), John’s brother who favors a shotgun. Singer Bobby Vinton makes a brief appearance as Jake’s third son. Also look for recognizable western faces John DoucetteJohn AgarJim DavisHank WordenChuck Roberson (Wayne’s stunt double), and Roy Jenson. Wayne’s real-life son, Ethan Wayne, plays the kidnapped Little Jake.

After the opening narration and bloody and bullet-riddled raid, things settle in at a decent pace. Wayne’s introduction off a memorable line from O’Hara is a gem. From there, it’s a story on the trail as Jacob, his sons and Sam, and Jacob’s dog…Dog, trail Fain and the gang into Mexico, finally catching up in a boom town named Escandero. The final shootout and hostage exchange is a gem and the obvious highlight of the movie. It takes place in a walled-off Mexican compound — historically a key location in the Mexican Revolution — in the dead of night. Some great dialogue, a couple genuine twists and plenty of bullets flying.

One of my favorites, and a John Wayne gem. Highly recommended.

Big Jake (1971): ****/****

Shenandoah (1965)

As far as directing powerhouses of the 1960s, Andrew V. McLaglen will never be remembered as one of the greats. He started off in television before making the jump to feature film, teaming several times with John Wayne while also specializing in audience friendly “guy movies.” Good guys versus bad guys, lots of familiar faces and situations, you know the formula. One of his best? An underrated Civil War drama, 1965’s Shenandoah.

It’s 1864 in Virginia, and the tide of the Civil War has turned as the Union forces are slowly beating down the Confederate armies. Doing his best to remain free of the bloody fighting, farmer and patriarch Charlie Anderson (James Stewart) wants nothing to do with the war. Both for himself and his family — seven kids, one daughter-in-law — Anderson simply wants to keep working his 500-acre farm and get through the war unscathed. Fight for Virginia? Fight for slaves he doesn’t have? He fights for what he believes in, his family and his farm. Well, that’s what he’d like to do. While the fighting rages on, Charlie is stunned when he finds out his youngest son (Phillip Alford) has been confused as a Confederate soldier and captured by nearby Union forces. Now the war and the fighting that Anderson has done so well to steer clear of has landed square on his front porch. Can he find his son amidst the hell of war?

This was a movie I watched often growing up when my sister and I had sleepovers with my Grandma. It made an excellent Civil War double feature with Friendly Persuasion, and let me tell ya, they both hold up! I watched this McLaglen-directed Civil War drama for the first time in years, and it resonated just as much now as an adult as it did when I was a kid, if not more. McLaglen had some excellent movies to his name — The Wild Geese is a favorite, Hondo, McLintock are also excellent — but this is his best movie overall. The story is a series of very effective, often moving and often disturbing vignettes, all held together by the Anderson family. Filmed on-location in Oregon and California, ‘Shenandoah’ is an underrated visual film, and the musical score from composer Frank Skinner is a gem. So what stands out viewing this one as a 32-year old, not a 13-year old kid?

That would be James Stewart, one of my favorites in just about any movie he’s in. This doesn’t get the attention or notoriety as one of Stewart’s best performances, but it certainly belongs in the conversation. I love what he does with the part of Charlie Anderson, a stubborn, feisty Virginia farmer and widower looking out for the best intentions of his family. He doesn’t care about the war, about slavery, about Union and Confederate. He will do anything, ANYTHING, to protect his family. Stewart has some great scenes with the younger supporting cast, especially Alford’s youngest son, only called ‘Boy,’ with his daughter, Jenny (Rosemary Forsyth), daughter-in-law, Anne (Katharine Ross), and his sons. There are too many memorable, emotional scenes to mention, but my favorites are the most simple. Minutes before the Andersons go to church each Sunday, Charlie visits his wife’s grave and just talks to her. Simple perfection, Stewart absolutely nailing the underplayed but charged scenes.

Stewart is the unquestioned star of McLaglen’s film, but ‘Shenandoah’ offers quite the ensemble of recognizable faces. Glenn Corbett and Patrick Wayne play Jacob and James, the two oldest brothers. Corbett especially stands out as Jacob who’s beginning to question if their choice to stay out of the war is the right decision. Wayne is solid too, especially in his scenes with Ross. In her film debut, Forsyth is excellent, a subtle scene-stealer as innocent, tough and thoughtful Jenny who’s also interested in a young Confederate soldier, Sam (Doug McClure). The other Anderson boys include Charles RobinsonJim McMullan and Tim McIntire. Maybe the best thing you can say about the story is that the family dynamic, it just works. You believe them as one cohesive unit, one that stands together through thick and thin.

But wait, there’s more! Also look for George Kennedy as a sympathetic Union officer, Gene Jackson as Gabriel, a friend of Boy’s, a slave, Paul Fix as the local doctor, Denver Pyle as the pastor, James Best as Carter, a fellow prisoner who takes Boy under his wing, Harry Carey Jr. as another Confederate prisoner, Tom Simcox as Lt. Johnson, a Confederate officer, with Kevin HagenDabbs Greer and Strother Martin also playing small but memorable parts.

So 32-year old me certainly picked up some new things, or at least was able to process things differently. This is one hell of an anti-war flick. The portrayal of the latter stages of the Civil War is unsettling and often times, disturbing. Death awaits around every corner, hiding behind every tree. The lines are up in the air as the war takes a turn toward its ultimate conclusion. A late battle between a small Confederate camp and a larger Union force with heavy artillery is quick and awful and uncomfortable, one of the more underrated battle sequences I can think of. The last half hour especially features one kick in the gut after another that truly hammers home the anti-war message. And that last scene? Pretty perfect, the possibility of hope lingering in the air amongst all this pain and suffering and death. One of my favorite movies.

Shenandoah (1965): ****/****

Bend of the River (1952)

bend_of_the_river_-_1952-_posterWhen you think of all the great western directors that worked at the height of the genre’s success — the 1950s through the 1960s — plenty of names comes up, directors like John Ford, Sergio Leone, Sam Peckinpah, Howard Hawks, Budd Boetticher to name just a few.  And then there’s Anthony Mann, who rarely gets the credit he deserves for an impressive filmography. He’s often known for his films with star James Stewart, (8 pairings, 5 of them westerns)like 1952’s Bend of the River.

It’s 1866 and a wagon train is heading west to Oregon. Scouting for the wagon train is Glyn McClintock (Stewart), a former border raider who’s looking to go clean and put his checkered past behind him. The families traveling aren’t aware of Glyn’s past though. To them, he’s just a more than capable scout and gunman. Along the trail, Glyn rescues Emerson Cole (Arthur Kennedy) from a lynching, Glyn not sure if he saved a guilty or an innocent man. Cole decides to tag along, help Glyn and the wagon train make it to Oregon. More and more challenges await though, from Indians and bandits to problems from within. Can Cole go straight? Can Glyn escape his past?

Like any of the western director/star pairings listed above, the Mann-Stewart westerns have a rhythm, a formula they stick with through thick and thin. I’ll get into that formula more in-depth later, but the gist of it is simple. Released in the 1950s, these movies still have that traditional western feel of the 1940s/1930s while starting to tackle more adult/realistic issues that became prevalent throughout the 1950s. Throw in some beautiful filming locations, solid score and deep casts, and you’ve got a winning formula.

A staple of the Mann westerns was Stewart’s flawed, often tragic anti-heroes. His Glyn McClintock certainly qualifies. Stewart played tortured like few others. These aren’t super-heroic gunslingers who can do no wrong. He’s genuinely trying to go straight, to prove he’s a good man. Oh, and he may have to prove that with the lovely Laura (Julie Adams), the daughter of one of the farmers (Jay C. Flippen) on the wagon train. So if Glyn is trying to go straight, what about Cole? Kennedy is a scene-stealer as the ruthless gunfighter who you’re not always sure of his intentions….but you really are. There is little doubt where this is going, but in the meantime, Stewart and Kennedy are excellent in starring roles.

Another frequent Mann collaborator and a rising star in his own right, Rock Hudson has a fun supporting part as Trey Wilson, a young gambler who finds himself working on the trail with Glyn and Cole. In the wasted villain department, Howard Petrie plays Hendricks, the owner of an Oregon town with his hand in everything that will make him some money. Chubby Johnson and Stepin Fetchit are misused in a politically incorrect subplot about a river boat captain and his assistant. Also look for Harry Morgan, Jack Lambert and Royal Dano as troublesome drifters, and Francis Bavier (later Aunt Bea on The Andy Griffith Show) in a small part.

‘Bend’ was filmed on-location in Oregon — including Sandy River, Mount Hood and Timberline — and looks stunningly beautiful. The mountainous backgrounds are provide quite the different look for the story as Glyn, Cole and the wagon train navigate through all the snow-capped mountains. It isn’t the quickest moving story, but it’s never slow. Some good action along the way, and a more than capable cast to lead the way. Not the best Mann-Stewart pairing, but an above average western that’s definitely worth a watch.

Bend of the River (1952): ***/****

The Sand Pebbles (1966)

the_sand_pebbles_film_posterIn 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 /****