The Sand Pebbles is a three-hour epic of American gunboat diplomacy in China in 1926. It was released in 1966, and in those days, long films had intermissions, with music! I saw it about that time. Memory is a funny thing that amazes me always – I am dumbfounded at how much of the movie I recalled from my boyhood viewing of it.
The hapless ship, San Pablo, is captained by Richard Crenna, a Navy man who feels he’s come down in the world, or been forced down, by being given command of this much derided gunboat. Still, he’s a spit-and-polish guy, who makes the American presence known by flying the flag and leaving a trail of smoke wherever orders send him, no matter the reason.
Steve McQueen, as Jake Holman, does his tough but sensitive loner thing as the ship’s engineer. He just wants to be left alone with his machines, and he don’t care about nothing else. The Japanese-American actor, Mako, plays the coolie whom he trains to be his assistant once he realizes the guy has mechanical aptitude. Jake is no thinker, but he takes people as they are, without preconceptions.
I remember Mako’s frequent turns in the movies and on TV, often as a crazy Japanese officer, or Asian thug. Another flash of memory brings him to mind as one of the two antagonists in The Challenge, an awful TV movie from 1970 that struck me as absurd even at my then young age. The story is that to avoid nuclear war, the USA and an unnamed Asian power agree to settle their conflict by each supplying a champion to fight it out, to the death, on a tropical island. Mako supplies comic relief, intentionally?, by shouting taunts to the American, whom he calls “Joe.” “My name’s not Joe!” shouts Darrin McGavin. “All American’s Joe to me, Joe!” returns Mako. I love that line. As one reviewer noted, the director protected his reputation by using a pseudonym, but Mako and Darrin didn’t have that option.
Mako doesn’t fare well in this film – caught onshore when an anti-foreigner riot starts, he is strung up and tortured as a running dog serving the American foreign devils. Holman and the men watch from the safety of their boat, ordered to hold their fire by the captain who is strictly forbidden to avoid all incidents – it would be propaganda fodder for the Bolsheviks – as the man pleads to be put out of his misery with a rifle shot. His mentor, Holman, obliges, and kills him with a shot, then throws his rifle into the sea in disgust.
Sick of the military, disgusted by American policy, by Chinese Nationalist propaganda, by the riots, by racism on all sides, Jake just wants to be left alone. Nevertheless, he forms a bond with a young American teacher serving with an idealist missionary, an old “China hand.” Played by Candice Bergen at 19 years old, she senses his basic decency and intelligence. Perhaps there is something to live…and die for?
When the crew nearly mutinees, the captain is despondent, and contemplates suicide. News of widespread uprisings saves him by giving him the opportunity to redeem himself and his crew in a daring and unauthorized “last thrust into the heart of China,” to rescue the teacher and the missionary. The missionary isn’t interested in being rescued; he’s renounced all nationality with a letter to Geneva, and wants to stay on, convinced he will not be harmed, or treated like an American foreign devil. He understands a lot about China, but not much about political revolt. The troops shoot him down as he waves his letter at them like a white flag.
The captain rises to the occasion of the incident he has pursued, and acts bravely and heroically. Jake stays behind to delay the pursuers while the remaining American shore party rush back to ship with the young woman. He knows he might not make it, but there’s that girl to protect… You almost think he’s going to make it, running for that back gateway out, but he’s shot. As he sits with a bullet in his chest, he wheezes, “I was almost home…” Then he shouts, “What the hell happened!” and is shot dead. It’s almost…existential. Far better than the “There is nothing..!.” as Joe dies in The Wages of Fear.
When I told my sister that I had just seen the film, she asked if McQueen was in it. I said he was, and that he was shot in the end. “He always dies in the end of his movies,” she said. Did he?
Some reviewers see the film as the beginning of the anti-American Vietnam War era genre of war film. Perhaps so, but if it had a political axe to grind, it was not overt: its focus is on the characters, and how they deal with their situations, created by an era of brutal conflict. Sort of Sound of Music (same director), without the music.
Steve McQueen is one of the oddest male stars I know. He famously remarked that he wasn’t sure acting was a proper career for a grown man, and he never seems like he’s quite comfortable with where he is – as if he just stepped into the scene…like a real person.