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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Bullitt (1968)

Let’s cut away all the fluffiness and cut right to the bone. Steve McQueen is maybe the coolest actor to ever work in Hollywood. An underrated actor who had an incredible on-screen presence, he had his biggest success and popularity in the late 1960s. The Cincinnati Kid, Nevada Smith, Thomas Crown Affair, The Sand Pebbles, all excellent parts in good to great films. Nowhere was McQueen more at his coolest than 1968’s Bullitt.

A respected and hard-edged San Francisco detective, Frank Bullitt (McQueen) has been tasked with a somewhat dull but essential task from ambitious politician Walter Chalmers (Robert Vaughn). Prepping for a Senate hearing about a Mafia takedown, Chalmers has enlisted a key witness (Felice Orlandi), and Bullitt and two other detectives must babysit him over a weekend until the hearing. Instead, the witness is killed by two assassins, forcing Bullitt to find out what’s going on. Something doesn’t fit together as he examines the clues and evidence, but the pressure is on. Chalmers needs a scapegoat, and Bullitt seems like the perfect target to take the fall. Knowing he’s been backed into a corner, Bullitt has an extremely limited window to find out exactly what’s going on.

The late 1960s were one of the most influential periods in Hollywood history, changing the way films were made and more importantly, the stories that were told. From director Peter Yates, ‘Bullitt’ is a police/cop movie like none before it. It is a smart, stylish cop drama/thriller that gets better with each viewing. For starters, it was filmed in San Francisco, setting the stage for Dirty Harry, McQ and a whole cop genre to move into the city. It is an ideal backdrop for the story; a polished, good-looking city that is nonetheless hiding secrets. The score from Lalo Schifrin is a good mix of quiet, soothing jazz and faster-paced, more traditional yet still exciting musical cues (listen HERE). The style in an almost documentary-like fashion reflects some of the French crime thrillers that I’ve really come to appreciate, giving ‘Bullitt’ a different edge more than just the same old, same old cops and robbers story.

That starts with Steve McQueen as Detective Frank Bullitt, a veteran cop who always gets the job done but usually how he wants to do it, not how he should do it. That basic write-up is as cliched as the countless cop movie stereotypes that have been done to death in the years since, but McQueen gives the lead performance a different edge. Never one for huge dialogue scenes, McQueen’s Bullitt is a huge presence whenever he’s on-screen. He does more with a look here or there than many actors could do with an entire monologue with the camera trained on them. There’s a self-assured confidence in the part, a quietness about it too. Bullitt is an expert at what he does, but he’s not interested in fame or accolades. He does it because he’s really good, so good that he’s become almost desensitized to the violence he sees on a daily basis. McQueen = cool.

Okay, so we’ve talked about the plot, Steve McQueen’s badass-ness (is that a word?), and hhhmmm, what else? Oh, right, the cars. Some 45 years since its release, ‘Bullitt’ is still remembered fondly for an infamous car chase that opened the door for countless knockoffs, remakes and retries. Driving his 1968 Ford Mustang, McQueen pursues two assassins (driver Bill Hickman, killer Paul Genge) in, around and through San Fran, two muscle cars going at it for everything they’re worth. Schifrin’s soundtrack is left by the wayside, just the sounds of the two engines doing battle providing all the soundtrack that’s needed. Looking back on it now, it isn’t a flashy sequence, but it is clear how much it has influenced just about every movie car chase since. It is an extended sequence that runs about 10  minutes total (near the film’s halfway point), one that will definitely get the adrenaline pumping.

Now sometimes at the expense of the film’s style is the film’s story. It took me 3 or 4 viewings to really get everything down just right. Not to throw this out there as a cop-out, but an understanding of the story isn’t a must here. You watch for the style. Some reviewers/critics have an issue with the pacing, some point-blank stating that it’s a boring movie. It isn’t an action-packed movie, that’s for sure. ‘Bullitt’ takes its time but always knows where it wants to go. A chase through a hospital is subtle and underplayed but incredibly full of tension, as is the finale at the San Francisco airport as Bullitt chases a suspect across runways in use. We see little departures into San Fran with Bullitt’s girlfriend, Cathy (Jacqueline Bisset), on dates and at work, to Bullitt’s apartment, to follow up with witnesses. It’s rarely flashy, but there’s something charming just the same about that assured style.

Backing McQueen up, Vaughn does what he does best; gentlemanly slimy to perfection. His Chalmers is smooth and suave, but he’s really a snake waiting in the grass to strike. Don Gordon (a longtime, close friend of McQueen) is nicely cast as Delgetti, Bullitt’s longtime partner with Simon Oakland and Norman Fell as their superiors. Also look for Robert Duvall in a small but key (and effective) part as a cab driver whose help Bullitt enlists as he tries to figure everything out.

One of my favorites, an iconic flick from the 1960s, and one of Steve McQueen’s all-time bests. Haven’t seen it? What’s wrong with you?!? Highly recommended.

Bullitt (1968): ****/****

The Hunting Party (1971)

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The history of the western genre took quite a turn in the late 1960’s with the growing popularity of the spaghetti western. Sam Peckinpah took things one step further with his classic, extremely violent western, 1969’s The Wild Bunch, setting the genre on its way to a revisionist decade that looked at the American west with a more honest, cynical eye. Then, there’s 1971’s The Hunting Party, a western that defies descriptions or labels. Brace yourself for this one.

A cattle baron with few if any equals, Brandt Ruger (Gene Hackman) is leaving his ranch to go on a two-week hunting trip with four wealthy friends of his. His wife, Melissa (Candice Bergen), will be left behind at the ranch, but that changes in a flash. Not long after Brandt leaves on a luxurious train, Melissa is kidnapped by an infamous outlaw, Frank Calder (Oliver Reed), and his gang of 20-plus bandits. She desperately tries to escape time and time again, but Calder is always there to stop her, not to mention holding his men off from raping her. It’s down the trail that Brandt receives the news of his wife’s kidnapping. He has a plan, an altered hunting trip. Outfitting his friends with newly-fitted telescopic rifles, Brandt intends to  hunt the gang down one-by-one from a distance. Safe, right? What about his intentions with his wife?

Well, I’m usually not one to struggle with describing a western. I can typically find something redeeming about any western from a big epic to a low-budget B-movie. This 1971 western from director Don Medford is surreal at times, horrifically violent, cynical, downbeat, masochistic, slow-moving, uncomfortable and a whole lot of other adjectives I’d use if I could just find my thesaurus. It isn’t a good western or one I particularly enjoyed (even a little), but I’ll give credit where it is due. This is a ballsy western. It’s fascinating to watch, albeit in incredibly dark fashion. Recommended for die-hard western fans only, but my goodness, what a movie.

One of the biggest changes to hit the western in the 1960’s was the farewell to traditional good guy vs. bad guy stories. More anti-heroes came along, gunfighters and cowboys who found themselves somewhere in between. By the 70’s though, even anti-heroes were used less and less. Here in ‘Hunting’? There’s NOTHING but bad guys. No character is even remotely sympathetic, much less likable. Reed’s Calder oddly enough becomes the most sympathetic character (however little that sympathy is) only because everyone around him is so despicable. You’re actually rooting for no one. Not one character! The story gives no reason to, and even Bergen’s Melissa makes some inexplicable decisions, seemingly for the sake of the story moving along.

The cast certainly helps keep things interesting through the gory violence, masochistic tendencies and slow-moving story (winning trio, huh?). Reed’s Calder is a fascinating character, an outlaw who kidnaps a woman he thinks is a schoolteacher because he’d like to learn to read. As his gang is picked off from long range, he begins to unravel. He’s helpless, a pawn in someone’s rifle sights. A moody, physical part, one Reed handles nicely. Hackman’s Brandt becomes the villain, a man rich with everything in life who thinks only of himself, of his pride, of his reputation. He’s not worried about his wife’s well-being but instead how the kidnapping and repercussion will make him look. Bergen throws herself into the mix, but the script does her no favors in the process. Her actions are odd to inexplicable depending on the scene.

Western fans won’t be disappointed in the supporting cast backing up our lead trio. Calder’s gang includes Mitchell Ryan as Frank’s right-hand man, Doc, L.Q. Jones, William Watson, Rayford Barnes, and Richard Adams. For the most part, the gang is nameless fodder for Brandt’s hunting party. Brandt’s friends and fellow riflemen include Simon Oakland, G.D. Spradlin, Ronald Howard and Bernard Kay.

It’s not that ‘Hunting’ is one of the most violent westerns I’ve ever seen. It’s that it seems to revel in its violence. It has echoes of a snuff film, of an exploitation film, of graphic violence meant solely to shock. The opening scene shows a cow’s throat being graphically cut. No CGI. It happened. Once Brandt and Co. go on the hunt, it’s a series of long-range shooting with heavy-caliber bullets tearing men apart. Head shots and body shots and squibs galore with blood and rain matter all over the screen. In The Wild Bunch, the violence was on par with what we see here, but it made an emotional impact. That’s not so here. ‘Hunting’ wants to push the boundaries and keep on pushing for the sake of doing it. There’s no end-game in sight. The Missouri Breaks would use a similar storyline with the capability of long-range rifles five years later.

Unfortunately, that feels like the whole point of the movie. Brandt rapes Melissa in their opening scene and later tortures a prostitute by burning her with a lit cigar. Calder’s men want nothing more than to have their way with Melissa. Calder himself ends up raping her instead. Pleasant, right? Things never let up in a western that runs about 110 minutes. It’s exhausting and because there’s no real connection — other than wishing horrible things upon certain characters — with characters, the story moves at a slow, deliberate pace. So much negative in a film that with some tweaks (rather aggressive tweaks I guess) could have been infinitely better. Similar storylines have been tackled in The Professionals, Big Jake, The Last Outlaw, The Naked Spur and many others.

Some positives? Sure, there’s a few. ‘Hunting’ was filmed on-location in Spain with countless familiar backdrops from spaghetti westerns dotting the scenery. It’s a dreary, dusty and sweaty world but the visual backdrops can be beautiful with a variety of terrain from sandy deserts to a desert oasis to tree-capped mountains. Also, Riz Ortolani‘s score is haunting in a good way in helping bring the slow-moving story to life. Listen to the main theme HERE.

I can’t outright recommend this 1971 western because it simply isn’t very good, but as I mentioned, it is horrifying and fascinating throughout. The solid cast, the location shooting and a memorable soundtrack ever so slightly outweigh the immense negatives in this horrifically morbid revisionist western.

The Hunting Party (1971): ** 1/2 /****