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 /****

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The Deserter (1971)

the-deserterAs a freshman in college, I stumbled across the cast listing. That jumped to Amazon to see if the movie was available. Sure enough, a beat-up VHS tape was there and fairly cheap. Fast forward a couple weeks to Thanksgiving break — when I got home and a VHS player was available — and I got to sit down with a movie and cast that just sounded too good to be true. Verdict on 1971’s The Deserter? Brutally underrated, a ton of fun and deserves far more of a reputation.

After his wife is brutally murdered by Apaches, Captain Victor Kaleb (Bekim Fehmiu) shoots and wounds his commanding officer and deserts, going on a rampage killing Apaches. Two years later, the cavalry needs him and comes calling. An Apache chief is assembling a huge raiding party of Apache warriors below the border in Mexico with his attack looming, an assault that could wipe out hundreds. Kaleb’s mission is simple. He must recruit a small squad of men — specialists and troublemakers alike — and train them to fight like an Apache before leading them into Mexico to attack the Apache camp before it’s too late. Can Kaleb pull off the mission? Will anyone even get out alive?

For me, westerns with this formula don’t get much better than this. A western version of The Dirty Dozen, ‘Deserter’ is simply a hell of a lot of fun. The cast is crazy, especially when you assemble all those stars and recognizable faces for a men-on-a-mission flick. The formula is as straightforward as they get. Establish the mission, assemble a team, can the team pull off the suicidal mission and get out? Filmed in Spain and Italy (even Yugoslavia), ‘Deserter’ isn’t quite a spaghetti western, but it certainly has the feel of it. If you’re even a remote fan of the western genre, I guarantee you’ll get at least some entertainment value here. If not, I’ve got nothing for you…

A Yugoslavian actor who never quite made it big in the U.S., Fehmiu is an unlikely choice for the lead role as the vengeful anti-hero. Still, I come away impressed each time I watch the movie from director Burt Kennedy. Fehmiu is cold, harsh and brutally efficient at getting the job done. In undertaking the mission, he’s getting revenge hopefully. Nothing more, nothing less. Somewhat wooden at times, Fehmiu benefits from a script dripping with memorable one-liners, a script from western regular and always reliable Clair Huffaker. As for the rest of the cast….oh my. Just oh my.

What follows isn’t necessarily A-list stars, but instead, recognizable genre stars, character actors, and an all-around energy to fill out Kaleb’s death squad. There’s Richard Crenna as Brown, Kaleb’s former commander and rival, Chuck Connors as Reynolds, the bible-thumping Chaplain and dynamite expert, Ricardo Montalban as Natchai, the Indian scout, Slim Pickens as Tattinger, the wily veteran scout, Ian Bannen as Crawford, the British officer scouting the Southwest, Brandon de Wilde as Ferguson, the inexperienced young officer, Woody Strode as Jackson, the troublesome strongman, Patrick Wayne as Robinson, the Gatling Gun specialist, Albert Salmi as Schmidt, the vengeful sergeant, Fausto Tozzi as Orozco, the knife fighter, Doc Greaves as Scott, the sergeant, John Alderson as O’Toole, the fiesty Irishman, and Larry Stewart as the younger of the 2 Robinson brothers.

Other than some quick Kaleb exposition — he’s a dynamite man, a knife fighter, a Gatling gun specialist — we’re given little information about these men. We don’t need it though. It’s a specialist movie on an impossible mission. Who’s gonna make it? Who’s not? There’s some impressive star power so the guessing game will keep you guessing until the end. It did for me! Oh, and John Huston has a memorable turn as General Miles, the new cavalry commander who has to send Kaleb and his squad on the suicide mission. Under-utilized? Too much going on? Maybe, but it is F-U-N.

What are spaghetti westerns usually synonymous with? Their musical scores. No Ennio Morricone here, but composer Piero Piccioni brings his A-game in an often odd/bizarre score that resonates each time I check ‘Deserter’ out. Check out an extended sample HERE. The jazzy, playful theme is catchy as hell, but I love its quieter moments with an orchestra playing a soft, moving, mournful theme. Like I said, an odd combination but one that works.

So what else? The action isn’t overdone here with a couple little fights sprinkled here and there early. The extended training sequence has some fun surprises in store with the action — and mounting casualty report — kicking in over the last 30 minutes as the mission gets underway. Loud, chaotic and bullet-dynamite-knife-Gatling Gun riddled finale that does not disappoint. As I mentioned, the script is a gem of memorable one-liners (check some out HERE) in a story with dark undertones but some lighter, clever moments too along the way.

A hidden gem for me, and one of my favorites. I would love to see a widescreen print of the movie, having only seen pan-n-scan VHS copies and a public domain DVD that cut about 6 minutes off the finale run-time I saw on the VHS. If you can track a copy down, I highly recommend it. As far as entertainment value goes, this one is hard to beat.

The Deserter (1971): ***/****