The Sand Pebbles (1966)

Director: Robert Wise

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By Roderick Heath

Robert Wise was a professional. Such a description could be read as praise both high and faint, and it’s long been applied to Wise in both senses. A man whose early life was framed profoundly by the Great Depression’s impact on his family’s expectations and appreciation for the safe harbour working for RKO Pictures gave him, Wise spent over a decade learning film craft. Graduating to editing, Wise was Oscar-nominated for his work with Orson Welles on Citizen Kane (1941), where he laboured closely with the tyro blow-in to create the film’s unique textures and layered sense of the medium’s expressive modes and possibilities, through such tricks as dragging film strips over the editing room floor to reproduced the rough look of old newsreel footage. Wise knew film as a physical thing better than most anyone else in the business, as an organism of pictures and sounds wound together in complex, precisely ordered cords. Wise was soon pressed into service to patch together a releasable version of Welles’ The Magnificent Ambersons (1942) after Welles and RKO parted ways, tacking on a hastily shot final scene that was nominally true to the source novel but against Welles’ more downbeat intent. Wise soon came into the orbit of another genius impresario, if a radically different personality, in Val Lewton, whose series of suggestive horror films had proven a quiet boon for the studio.

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Wise made his directing debut on Lewton’s Curse of the Cat People (1944) when he was called upon to replace the first director, Gunther von Fritsch. That film belied its nominal basis as a horror movie to become more a darkly poetic paean to childhood. His third film for Lewton, The Body Snatcher (1945), proved a masterpiece of psychological horror that saw Wise evolve his own stern, statuesque take on the template Lewton had developed with Jacques Tourneur. Wise was launched on a career that saw him able to master just about any genre he turned his hand to: stone-hard noir films, intellectually curious science fiction works, tough war movies and social-realist dramas, even musicals. Such capacities helped him rise by the mid-1960s into one of Hollywood’s most efficient and reliable filmmakers, capturing Oscars for West Side Story (1961) and The Sound of Music (1965), two immensely popular movies that nonetheless still testify to how compartmentalised film appreciation can be, as they’ve never been in the slightest bit cool, in spite of the stylish and inventive filmmaking evinced in both.

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Wise was both esteemed and honoured by his industry and held in opprobrium by many critics for his dread status as a safe pair of hands, and he pulled off the trick of working long past the time when many old studio hands like him had been put out to pasture. Compared to Alfred Hitchcock and his thrillers or John Ford’s love of the western, Wise’s wide-ranging talents have long confused critical attention. But to scratch the surface of Wise’s films is to see his formative work with Welles and Lewton lingering in his shooting style and expressive lexicon, and to look past the frame of genre is to see threads of interest and refrains of substance running through Wise’s choices of material. Richard McKenna’s 1962 novel The Sand Pebbles immediately appealed to Wise. It’s not hard to see Wise’s identification with the character of Jake Holman, another young Midwesterner given his slot in a disciplined organisation and mastering technical arts, seeking the elusive hope of reigning over his own small realm, where proficiency might be sufficient to guarantee stability in life even in the midst of terrible upheaval.

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Wise had trouble getting studio backing for making a film of this downbeat tale based in dated geopolitics. When he did finally gain backing production was delayed by weather in Taiwan, where he planned to shoot, and Wise took on The Sound of Music, ironically, as something to fill in the time before he could make his passion project. Wise converted McKenna’s book against all odds into a commercial success, in part because it offered a strong showcase for star Steve McQueen, who also gained his lone Oscar nomination for playing Holman. By the time Wise brought the film to the big screen, too, McKenna’s period tale of faltering imperialism was also starting to look more prognosticative than historical, as the Vietnam War was becoming a hot topic. Wise was steadfastly against US involvement in the conflict, and The Sand Pebbles presaged the likes of Robert Altman’s MASH (1970) in allowing him to offer backdoor commentary. It also dramatized the experience of the cultural moment in watching a formerly disinterested and focused individual slowly become aware of his surrounds and forced to make his own moral judgements against the tide of expected behaviour.

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The Sand Pebbles is in many ways a character study in an epic’s clothing, following McQueen’s Holman from the moment he begins his journey up the Yangtze River to his solitary death at its end. Holman, an engineer in the American navy, has been assigned to a gunboat, the San Pablo. The period is the late 1920s, a time when the US Navy was enforcing American commercial interests and sustaining a form of peace in China’s cripplingly schismatic post-imperial moment. Holman thinks he’s finally gained just what he wants, a boat just large enough to need his talents and small enough to give him an engine he can run to his own satisfaction. Holman’s hunt for an engine room he can lock himself in and run in peace proves to still be frustratingly elusive once he joins the boat, however, as he finds the craft has evolved as a microcosm of the political situation. The American sailors exiled to the San Pablo, or the ‘Sand Pebbles’ as they nickname it, are on the furthest fringes of the national consciousness and at the bottom of the military list of concerns. They compensate by leading pampered lives, their needs are tended to by a populace of Chinese coolies, for whom even the scant pay turned their way is a good living, an arrangement that also suits the boat’s commander, Lt Collins (Richard Crenna), who likes to keep his crew handy for action, should the need ever arise.

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Holman’s journey to join the San Pablo sees him thrust into the company of some other westerners on a ferry, listening to their discussions of big political matters and the rumblings of discontent with disinterest, and warning off pretty young Shirley Eckert (Candice Bergen), journeying upriver like to him serve as a teacher at a mission, that “girls don’t talk to China sailors.” Holman’s experience keeps intersecting with Eckert’s, however, provoking a tentative relationship. They’re trapped however on two sides of a dichotomy rooted however in the same basic fact: Eckert belongs to the missionary service, which considers itself above political ructions and dedicated purely to the betterment of the Chinese populace, but which one of the shipboard voices of wisdom warns her at the start represents a form of cultural imperialism to the locals only tolerated because of the harder, military version Holman serves. Eckert works under the idealistic Jameson (Larry Gates) at the Shining Light Mission, who becomes the unwitting, and unwilling, justification for Collins to launch an armed expedition to rescue them as the political situation deteriorates and China degenerates into civil strife. Holman inadvertently disrupts life on the San Pablo when he joins her. He finds the engine room is filled with coolies who don’t really understand the motor, but simply follow the instructions of their boss, Chien (Henry Wang).

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Chien jealously guards his tiny fief, to the point that when Holman embarrasses him he tries to cook him with a sudden steam release as he inspects the engine. The coolies aboard are overseen generally by haughty old mandarin Lop-eye Sheng (Paul Chun), whose authority is both unofficial and insidious. Holman’s lone real pal on the boat is Frenchy Burgoyne (Richard Attenborough), who falls in love with Maily (Maryat Andriane), a missionary-educated barroom hostess being forced to work off a debt to a gangster, Shu (James Hong). During a river patrol the gunboat breaks down when Holman’s warnings are ignored, and Chien is killed during repairs, in an accident that’s the result of his own poor maintenance. Holman is ordered to train a new boss coolie, so he chooses Po-han (Mako). Holman labours in spite of the young man’s poor English and lack of education to explain just how the engine works, becoming fond of his receptive pupil in the process. When another crewman, Stawski (Simon Oakland), bullies Po-han, Holman socks him. The incident is covered up and Collins denies Lop-eye’s demand Po-han be fired, as the commander feels the occasional need to take Lop-eye down a peg. Holman baits Stawski by proposing a proper boxing match between him and Po-han: Holman thinks the scrappy little Chinese guy can defeat the hulking Stawski, and hopes to win enough money to pay off Maily’s debt.

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McKenna’s novel was based in his personal experiences, but also bore the distinct influences of other works in a similar vein. The detailed depiction of a fetid and frustrated branch of the US armed forces between world wars, revolving around an apolitical outcast hero, recalls James Jones’ From Here to Eternity, whilst the climax is reminiscent of Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls. It’s the setting and the tale’s grim, unremitting vision of slow degeneration into chaos that sets it apart from both, where the great struggle against fascism was still looming for luckless heroes; here Holman is a victim of shifting tides that see the white, western fantasy of civilising the world according to its own precepts being finally beaten back and forced into a newly introspective posture. Wise had tackled a similar story before on Destination Gobi (1952), except staged there in reverse in both geographical and philosophical drift; a closer likeness was the study in besiegement and hanging-by-the-fingernails war effort and accompanying moral danger in The Desert Rats (1953).

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Wise had a fascination for odyssey tales, stories of benighted people pushed to extremes by their own perverse motives, and a love for dramas driven by characters who represent different ways of conceiving the world, depicted in closely revolving binaries. In his later career, Wise’s films began to bear an increasingly clear and sardonic commentary on his reputation as a professional and a technician, as he took on projects revolving around characters dependant on their tools, faced with crisis as their works and implements fail them, their incapacity to understand why life doesn’t function in the same clear and mechanistic way leading them into dreadful traps of fate and conscience. These ideas connect movies seemingly as random as The Sound of Music, The Sand Pebbles, The Andromeda Strain (1971), The Hindenburg (1975), and Star Trek – The Motion Picture (1979), but it has also been bobbing around in his films since The Body Snatcher and his noir works like The Set-Up (1949) and Odds Against Tomorrow (1959).

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The narrative also evokes Wise’s overtly pacifistic, if frighteningly contradictory, mythology exercised in The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), except that here the pretences towards utopianism represented by Jameson and the missionaries are wedged between more worldly forces. The possibility that might makes right has been abandoned. Holman and Collins and also Jameson represent the kind of duologue who recur throughout Wise’s films, although where many such pairings in his films, from Grey and McFarlane in The Body Snatcher through to even Captain Von Trapp and Maria in The Sound of Music — characters with radically different moral precepts and ways of seeing the world bound together in a close and fraught relationship. Except that Holman and Collins don’t argue their values or radically different perspectives, but offer them instead in gestures and arias of feeling offered in their rank-enforced decorum. As he had on The Day the Earth Stood Still, Wise would transmute their dynamic into something more positive-minded in a science fiction work, Star Trek – The Motion Picture, where the conflict between discovery and discipline, rigidity and evolution takes on a radically different form but follows the same logical course.

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Although set at the time of the rise of Chiang Kai-Shek, the portrayal of the nascent Chinese nationalist movement is nonetheless styled to be more reminiscent of Communists, in their rhetoric and appearance. The regular drill sessions of the San Pablo’s crew sees them going through their paces in pretending to see off a hostile throng, enjoyed and mocked by a daily crowd who flee laughingly before the water spurts and steam plumes turned their way, until at least the San Pablo find themselves doing it for real, up against a suddenly naked and wintry fury. Holman is shamed in his disdain for the coolie system on board the San Pablo with the totemic phrase, “It’s his rice bowl,” allowing exploitation to continue under the guise of providing a living. The imperialist way also requires retarding all possibility of social change and advancement for the sake of general good order, represented by the rigorously enforced caste system aboard ship. The slow degradation of the San Pablo and her crew as representatives of their nation is first signalled when a Chinese general (Richard Loo) forces Bordelles and his escort to be marched disarmed back through the streets of Changsha, under a rain of refuse from crowds gleeful at the toppling of the strutting foreigners. The humiliated sailors are distraught – Bordelles commands his uniform to be burnt – except for Holman, who takes the event in his stride. Soon the ship is besieged by protestors demanding they leave, but the river level leaves the San Pablo stranded, rusting and abandoned by the coolies, forcing the resentful crew to do their job.

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Loss of face is diagnosed as a potent fear amongst the Chinese bigwigs Chien and Lop-eye, who stage punitive revenges in response to it, but the hapless Yankees prove equally hysterical and helpless before their own remorseless reduction to mere unwelcome interlopers and then quasi-renegades before the population they once policed. Lop-eye blames, credulously or not, Chieng’s death on a curse Holman put on the engine, a literal ghost in the machine, and throughout The Sand Pebbles individuals are crushed just as unheedingly as the unfortunate Chieng under the pistons. Almost every major character in the film dies like a dog in the course of trying to act upon their ambitions or principles. Po-han is caught and tortured by a furious mob, who use him as a prop in terrible political theatre in working for the Americans, obliging Holman to shoot him. Frenchy and Maily make a break to live together, but Frenchy dies from pneumonia caught sneaking off to join his wife and Maily is killed by thugs, possibly gangsters or nationalists, whilst Holman is blamed for her murder in the belief he was her lover. Jameson is gunned down by his former friends after Collins’ “rescue” effort sparks a local war, in spite of waving papers confirming that he’s made himself a stateless person. Jameson and Eckert’s student militia protector and former student Cho-jen (Paul Chun) is killed by Holman during a battle to penetrate a boom strung across the river, and Holman and Collins both die thousands of miles from home in a desperate rear-guard fight.

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It’s remarkable that Wise was able to sell such a bitter story to a mass audience. The Sand Pebbles mediates its darkness with fillips of crowd-pleasing, like Stawski and Po-han’s boxing match, which sees the diminutive yet physically dynamic Chinese man eventually work up the wherewithal to bring down his bullying opponent, and Frenchy and Holman’s intervention to snatch away Maily after Shu tries to auction off her virginity to the highest bidder to some sleazy Americans. The film’s only true weakness lies in part in this mediation, as these aspects border on the caricatured at points. Also, The Sand Pebbles was released at a time when a certain level of existential angst was considered pretty cool in a movie, and McQueen was arguably playing a version of his basic star persona, particularly reminiscent of the proto-beatnik soldier he played in Hell Is For Heroes (1962). Wise had helped solidify Paul Newman’s screen image with Somebody Up There Likes Me (1956), playing one of Wise’s favoured brand of bewildered, naive heroes, and given McQueen’s famous emulation of Newman’s career it made great sense for him to slip into a similar part.

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The quality of The Sand Pebbles’ collaborators is arresting in itself, and its eight Oscar nominations fairly reflected this, even if the film finally won nary a one. Wise cast a battery of excellent character actors, including Oakland, Crenna, Gates, Hong, Loo, and Joe Turkel. Andriane, an acting ingénue better remembered as the nominal author and subject of the notorious erotic tome Emmanuelle, is fairly good as the brittle, anxious, religious girl who believes herself cursed for her sins. I can’t think of another film where Attenborough ever played an American, and yet he handles the role with the same casual openness and natural presence he always projected, conveying Frenchy’s strong yet innocent love for Maily, depending on Attenborough gift for playing anxious, repressed figures, wearing an air of pathos like a wetsuit. Jerry Goldsmith’s score helped make him a go-to movie composer, establishing a mood of stark, grand yet menacing exoticism in the opening credits that sets in play the mood of an oncoming age of cultural crack-up.

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McQueen’s characters so often only showed their inner lives through finite registers of his cold blue eyes, otherwise trying to maintain their workaday veneer, expressed in concise and stoic physicality. Holman presents a variation as he’s not as remote as other McQueen characters nor as coolly mature. Holman is rather nudged gradually out of a state of semi-perpetual adolescence over the course of the film, starting as a man Jameson feels comfortable in describing as one of the type who just wants the navy to take care of them, casually racist but also boyishly fond of children. He becomes, as Eckert notes, a teacher just like her, taking pride in making a real engineer of Po-han, and is provoked to become increasingly rebellious towards the institution that has been his home. Wise allows time to depict Holman’s education of Po-han with a gently humorous sensibility, a sequence that follows the earlier sequence of the disastrous repair job that nonetheless allows Holman’s love of machinery to become almost palpable, articulated through Wise’s precise diagramming of the engine room as a space, and observation of Holman at work. Even when the machinery fails and crushes flesh and bone, Holman calmly disassembles and reassembles the problem part in his pure faith. Wise’s sensitisation to process and craft here is telling on both a storytelling level, bringing the audience into Holman’s mental space, whilst also underlining his own subtext. The smooth running of anything is the result somewhere along the line of someone who’s damn good at their job and finds it sufficient unto itself as a calling.

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McQueen and Mako make for a fascinating study of contrasts on screen in large part because they were both very physical actors, but in completely different styles: McQueen’s poised and efficient movements versus Mako’s fluid, scrambling dexterity. Po-han’s boxing match is a little masterpiece of slapstick as he tries to survive the bout without committing to it, too used to being the low man on the totem pole, until Holman is at last able to stir both his sense of personal need, in wanting to stay aboard, and also fellowship, in wanting to save Holman from losing money. McQueen’s physical expressivity on the other hand carries the weight of tragic drama with the most measured movements, as he furiously shovels coal after shooting Po-han, or his quick, deft, yet somehow utterly devastating movements as he reboards the San Pablo after killing Cho-jun; Holman is a man almost aghast at his own capacity to keep operating smoothly even after he’s just axed a man in the stomach, but grateful for this talent at the same time. Holman’s great crisis of choice comes when Po-han is being tortured, driven to take the risk of shooting his pal in spite of the chance of starting a war if he misses, and with Collins dashing to stop him. Collins comes to regard Holman as a nuisance and demands after the shooting that he ask for transfer as soon as events permit, something Holman assures him he will do, in a scene laced with clashing brands of contempt constrained by nothing more or less than the material of their uniforms.

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Collins’ status, both imposed and self-adopted, as the lone bulwark before chaos and representative of national strength and pride sees him tolerating the strange system aboard his ship in preference of the appearance of order and smooth working to its actuality. As events bear down upon him, they inspire him to provide a self-fulfilling prophecy as his actions provoke exactly the kind of violence he proposes to put down. Crenna’s performance is something of an antithesis to his today better-known part in the Rambo series as the soldier’s soldier; here his portrait of a self-appointed superman slowly devolving into raging, suicidal-homicidal neurosis is pungent, with his increasingly intense yet remote stair and tight-wound muscularity as if he can barely fit within his own skin.

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Collins’ own calvary comes when his men begin to refuse his orders as, blockaded by the nationalists demanding Holman be handed over in the belief he murdered Maily, they start chanting a demand for Holman to hand himself over rather than square off against the besiegers. Collins takes over a machine gun and, after firing a blast in the water to fend off the blockade, almost turns to gun down his own men, before checking himself, handing over authority to his second in command, Ensign Bordelles (Charles Robinson), and heading into his cabin to face a long night staring at his pistol in temptation to self-extermination. But larger political events hand him the chance instead to get lots of other people as well as himself killed in an auto-da-fe.

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Wise was the opposite a showy director, but all of his images have an adamantine strength, the rigorousness of his framings that manage to communicate without retreating into airiness, and yet also adapting into its era’s mode for epic cinema in the relative spaciousness it offers to tell its story. The film probably doesn’t look as radical now as it might have done in its day, in Wise’s complete eschewing of many of the usual shortcuts for this kind of moviemaking subject, avoiding back projection, model work, and Caucasian actors made up to play Chinese characters.

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The battle to break through the boom junks is a marvel of tight-wound directing, with Wise allowing the action to come on at the ponderous pace of the San Pablo, approaching the enemy at a slow chug, bullets careening off the hull, Collins hovering at the bridge windows in challenging one to give him his one-way ticket to Valhalla. Slow pace becomes subtly fluid and quicker in dashing lateral camera movements track the actors taking up station for battle, and then leaping into a fray that’s punishingly intimate, with much of the San Pablo’s crew being killed or terribly wounded in the process. The sequence climaxes in the raw shock of Holman, trying to hack his way through the boom rope, forced to defend himself and slaying Cho-jun. Death and carnage come on with reflexive speed and jarring pathos, satisfying the need in such a long, grim tale to pay off with some action at last whilst also finding nothing to celebrate in it.

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The film’s proper finale is even less consoling, but its sees Wise hit perhaps the directing peak of his career. Collins, Holman, and some other crewmen head to the Shining Light Mission to bring down the missionaries, but cannot talk them into leaving. Jameson is killed and Collin dies, after Holman at last makes his choice to remain with Eckert, refusing Jameson’s commands. But Holman is nonetheless force to follow Collins in battling off Chinese soldiers to allow Eckert and his fellow crewmen to escape. This eerie scene takes place in the mission’s vast courtyard, a reappropriated piece of Chinese infrastructure that finally becomes a nightmarish trap, mocking voices echoing out of the dark, bullets whistling and striking down men like the thunderbolts of a contemptuous god for human pretence. This sequence in particular seems to have had a strong influence on the Do Long bridge sequence in Apocalypse Now (1979), with its assailed American warriors lost in a distant night listening to the taunts and cries of a determined enemy. The use of suggestion, the evocation of an almost cosmic dread through careful deployment of sound, confirms how much the Lewton imprint stuck with Wise, the sense almost of a landscape coming to life to clutch and defeat the humans scurrying upon it. Holman dies, shouting out his confusion in the face of such forces (“What the hell happened?”), propped up between the farm machines that should have been his next, natural life project, perched between the sword and the ploughshare. The difference between his death and Collins, however, is that Holman dies to save the life of someone he loves.

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