The Sand Pebbles is a well produced handsome film. It was made at a time when director Robert Wise and star Steve McQueen were at the height of their powers. Wise was coming off The Sound of Music in 1965 (one of the most successful films of all time) and could make just about whatever he wanted (this was a passion project)—and McQueen was between The Great Escape (1963) and Bullitt (1968).
The Sand Pebbles is more epic than war film. It is shot on 35mm runs 182 minutes uses the wide 2.39 : 1 frame and it is set in 1926 Shanghai (filmed in Taiwan and Hong Kong). Wise was thrilled to have the juice to make this movie and years and decades after its release he reflected on this movie with great pride. It received eight Oscar nominations (including McQueen’s only one). The Jerry Goldsmith musical score nom may be the most deserving.
It is an epic with a brain (which wasn’t always common)- and the parallels to the involvement in Vietnam in the 1960s hardly seems coincidental. There are no easy answers here.
Candice Bergen is 20-years old here in 1966—this is five years before Carnal Knowledge for her. Richard Attenborough’s acting accomplishment in The Sand Pebbles is second only to McQueen’s. He plays Frenchy Burgoyne- a sensitive sailor and McQueen’s sidekick.
McQueen’s Jake Holman is a simple man and that plays to McQueen’s minimalist strengths. He loves his engine -the scene of him seeing his own engine is more romantic than any of the scenes with Bergen.
The sheer size of the film (length, location shooting, precision) is hard to fathom so recently after The Sound of Music.
While the film is attractive and perceptive, the vast majority of the style is nondescript- it simply cannot compare with the Wise’s finest efforts or certainly the best works in cinema from 1966.
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