I first saw "The Sand Pebbles" on television in 1976, and although in time I forgot the detail of the storyline, I remember well the emotional impact the film had on me.
I recently discovered an excellent site devoted to the film (www.thesandpebbles.com) and this caused me to revisit it. It had lost none of its appeal, indeed I found it all the more interesting and thought provoking.
I consider it a gripping and important film with challenging ideas and observations, and in order to clarify my own thoughts, I wrote the following essay. I thought other fans of the film might find it interesting, though I am aware these are only my thoughts, and I have not sought to discuss aspects of the production of the film - I have limited myself to discussing what I see as its major themes.
I would be delighted to hear from anyone who would care to comment on the film or my ideas about it.
You can contact me at: firstname.lastname@example.org
"The Sand Pebbles"
The action of "The Sand Pebbles" takes place during historic events (1926 China on the brink of revolution).
Often films which treat events of this nature concentrate to such an extent on historical accuracy and communicating the scale and import of these events that they become "dehumanised". The most successful "epics" are those which manage to capture the import and implications for a number of well-rounded characters. "The Sand Pebbles" quite definitely falls into this latter category.
The beauty of this film is that it depicts "big" events, but not in a vacuum - we are shown the most important aspect of the events, i.e. how they changed, affected, and even destroyed people's lives.
The political and personal dichotomy is constantly emphasised in the course of the film, and one major source of drama is the way in which the two infringe on one another. Early on in the film Shirley Eckert (Candice Bergen) says she wanted to be "swept up" by something. In fact she and the others are almost swept away by the tidal wave of events as she and the missionaries at China Light become (in spite of every effort to avoid the situation) political pawns for both "sides". Eventually Jake Holman (Steve McQueen) is told he is now nothing more than a symbol for his country, but we have seen and shared in the enormous personal turmoil that has led to his political symbolism and historical importance.
"The Sand Pebbles" provides a reflection on life in the American Navy at that time. China sailors were clearly regarded in a poor light. Jake even warns Shirley that, "nice American girls don't talk to China sailors". They are mocked by the native Chinese, treated somewhat haughtily by their superior officers, and regarded as an embarrassment or worse by the very people they serve to protect. We are reminded that the Military is not necessarily seen as a career (except by the officers), but often as a means of escape or even punishment. Given their general lack of respect and sense of worth, it is hardly surprising that the "Sand Pebbles" take comfort in having on board a squad of coolies to carry out menial tasks. However, they also serve a second and perhaps more important function - to allow the Sand Pebbles to feel superior to someone.
That is until Jake Holman arrives.
Jake does not feel the need to indulge in such practices and prefers to maintain his self-respect by doing his job and maintaining the engine to the best of his ability, without relying on "imported" help. Jake has tremendous empathy with, and indeed a preference for the company of his beloved engine. Engines and mechanical parts do what they are supposed to do, what they are designed to do. They respond to regular care and attention and always give of their best. You know where you stand with engines, unlike people whose emotions, attitudes and ambitions prevent them from "running smoothly" and may ultimately bring them into conflict with others.
Respect, care and downright affection for the engine reveal a gentle and fragile side to Jake - a side of which we might otherwise be unaware as he appears to attract disputes with others. This love of engines also allows Jake to develop a relationship (and then friendship) with Po-Han, one of the coolies who shows a particular aptitude for understanding the workings of the engine.
Jake is a straightforward, uncomplicated man who is honest and reasonable and treats others with respect if he is treated with respect by others. Problems arise when he (and the other Sand Pebbles) conflict with one another and more broadly with various aspects of society and world affairs, and the fates of these individuals are caught up in such affairs.
This is what makes "The Sand Pebbles" a great film. The fate of a group of fairly unruly and at times unpleasant China sailors is unlikely to inspire much interest, much less identification or association. But the film is about much more than that - it touches on themes such as social justice, finding one's place in society, racism, friendship, love, nationalism, the brutality of war, and the place of military intervention in foreign affairs.
Military and political intervention is the hub of the film - the element around which all other aspects turn and upon which they depend. The San Pablo's purpose is to protect American interests in a foreign land by flexing its military muscles if necessary. This reflects a colonial attitude and a willingness to take advantage of the apparent disunity of a nation in development. While such a situation may appear outdated and unacceptable in the context of modern politics, in fact it is not so different from the situation today where nations defend others largely because of oil interests, and multinational companies exercise influence on political decisions.
The film highlights the decreasing delineation between politics and military intervention, but also, and more importantly, the fact that politics touches everyone's lives, but especially those who are used as instruments of furthering political ambition or plans.
As Jake heads for the San Pablo he is invited to dine with some then unknown "dignitaries" who provide us with a sort of exposition of the political situation. When Jake is asked his opinion, he replies that he is there to take care of the engine, and "the rest is look-see pidgin, something for the officers. I don't fool with it". This very revealing statement sums up the situation as far as the ordinary China sailor is concerned. They are there to do a job. There is a clear delineation between enlisted men and the officers, and little or no real attempt is made to bridge the gap from either "side".
Jake's remark also reveals a lot about his own character and his attitude toward the military. After all he is hardly a willing conscript (along with, presumably, the majority of his shipmates). He finds various aspects of military life and discipline hard to stomach, but he feels that if he can contribute something of value, then he will be valued at least to some extent.
This is surely an aspect of life with which most of us can identify. Most of us focus our energy and efforts on surviving in society by getting a job and developing our skills to make a useful and valued contribution. Most of us rarely consider broader political questions except insofar as they touch our lives directly. Yet here, in 1926 China, Jake Holman is forced to recognise and reflect upon the broader picture and the issues that raises. For perhaps the first time he is invited to consider alternatives to patriotism and nationalism.
Shirley Eckert and the missionaries at China Light try to give up their nationality in an attempt to gain the trust and respect of the Chinese revolutionaries. More than that, they wish to abandon the concept of blindly fighting for and defending one's country's interests, especially at the expense of another country. They wish quite simply to help people through education and development. Jake is invited to join them and he sees this as a means of bettering and simplifying his life. After all his trials and suffering, for which the system is responsible, this is a way of avoiding artificial political posturing which can lead to conflict and death.
Jake has thus been pushed into a period of enforced personal growth and development, which curiously enough reflects the revolution under way in China.
Like the Chinese people, Jake has gained self-confidence through the depth of his feelings for Shirley and his friendship with Po-Han (the coolie he trained to run the engine and who was killed by the revolutionaries), Frenchy and Maily. All these elements, combined with the situation in which they find themselves, have led Jake to doubt the sense and purpose of why they are there, and even the authority of those in command.
Jake and the Chinese nation are no longer willing to accept their place in society. While Jake and those at China Light see a way forward in abandoning nationality itself, the Chinese seek to establish themselves as a nation. That they appear to be travelling in opposite directions does not matter - each is moving positively away from a situation they find unacceptable.
In a similar fashion the military has to develop new strategies to cope with politics and propaganda. Everything the military has been trained for and has found acceptable until then has suddenly become debatable and open to question. This is the dawning of the age of democracy and accountability in which political votes and standing may be won or lost through military action. This puts the officers and men under enormous strain, especially Captain Collins (Richard Crenna) who comes close to cracking as everything he has spent his life defending appears to be coming apart at the seams.
When they have the opportunity to exercise some direct action, they seize upon it as a means of re-establishing their pride. At one point when the American flag is unfurled in the course of a battle, the men's pride and sense of purpose and patriotism are momentarily restored. The flag provides something to believe in. It is a reassuring, simple, traditional alternative to the sea of doubt they have been sailing in.
Jake has always been an outsider or a rebel, forced to make a place for himself in society. While in China he experiences a sort of spiritual awakening, discovering in others and daring to recognise in himself qualities and values that bring him increasingly into conflict not just with the Navy, but with the system of society itself.
It is an excellent and thought provoking, if tragic, film, which engages emotions and the mind, and which has "haunted" me since I first saw it all these years ago. Emotion is, indeed, the key to the film's success. Dealing with big themes and issues, commendable though that may be, is worth very little in cinematic terms if you don't engage the emotions and sympathy of the audience. Here Robert Wise has succeeded in making us care for Jake and his destiny. We understand and sympathise with his feelings and predicament and there is a genuine sense of shock and loss for both Jake and Po-Han. The reality of the effect of politics and social strife on apparently insignificant individuals is therefore shared with all of us.
I should say that Jerry Goldsmith's superb music plays a significant part in underscoring and enhancing the emotionally charged scenes.
I have embarked on the novel by Richard McKenna, and although I haven't as yet completed it, I have been struck by just how closely the film's script follows the book, right down to the dialogue. Had Richard McKenna lived, I'm sure he could have had a highly successful career as a scriptwriter as his dialogue captures the essence of the characters and his descriptions of place and action capture atmosphere and tension.
A review of the film I wrote for imdb.com and Amazon:
"The Sand Pebbles" has been one of my favourite films since I first saw it on television in 1976. It is set in 1926 in revolution-torn China, when the crew of an American gunboat, the San Pablo, is called upon to rescue some American missionaries working far up the Yang Tse river.
The widescreen version does justice not just to the sweeping panoramas of the quite breathtaking Chinese scenery, but also to the sweeping events and themes of the story. It is in every way a "big" film, dealing with political and military intervention (clear parallels with Vietnam at the time of release), nationalism, racism, and the horrors of war. Yet for all its heavy themes, it is most successful in the depiction of its very human characters.
These characters are not just the means of conveying the "messages" of the film, or fodder for the gripping and well-staged action scenes. They are individuals in their own right, involved in something far greater than their own destinies. Some are unpleasant and ignorant while others are honourable but lost in the sea of historic events surrounding them. Some, like Jake Holman (Steve McQueen), demand sympathy and respect as they struggle to come to terms with their personal challenges brought to the fore by these historically significant and politically dangerous events.
Inevitably there are slow and confusing passages as the political implications are expounded, but these are more than compensated for by our emotional engagement as we become involved in the stories of the people caught up in the political fall-out.
Robert Wise's direction is strong and emotionally charged, complemented perfectly by Jerry Goldsmith's wonderfully haunting and ominous music. Steve McQueen gives what was probably the performance of his career (receiving his only Academy Award nomination), and he is supported by a wonderful cast including Richard Attenborough, Richard Crenna, Candice Bergen (aged just 19), and especially Mako. But it is really McQueen's film. His very presence lifts scenes and he manages to convey authenticity and gain the sympathy of the viewer with consummate ease.
Apparently misunderstood by some critics on its release, it is a powerful and intrinsically human anti-war film. It is not a happy film, but it is totally absorbing and thought provoking.
The following interesting and illuminating article is provided by Eva from Boston:
Steve McQueen did a breathtaking job bringing Jake Holman to life. For such a taciturn character, he was incredibly expressive and multi-dimensional, singular while not trying to make himself stand out, simple in motivation but had great capacity for tolerating complexity, un-social but capable of deep loyalty to the people he connected with, but most of all, superbly cool and self-contained while intimately involved, uncontaminated by disdain and indifference. It is not everyday one sees a Hollywood flick with that level of character understanding and finely honed execution.
As a whole, I thought McQueen's character almost single-handedly held the film together and kept audience interest going through several bad stretches. The film could have used some inspired editing, and the direction dragged precisely in places where briskness and suspense was called for. Nonetheless, it was a thoughtful treatment of the morass countries, races, individuals find themselves in when reality falls prey to politics, when battle lines get drawn, whether participants were willing or not. Do please ignore the sketchiness with which the film portrayed the social and political context of China in 1929. It would take a few more films to do that justice.
The Sand Pebbles touched on the perennial lessons on international exploitation and identity politics in which fear becomes the social currency. The characters and events illustrated the moral slipperiness of race and identity, the falseness of political positions, the dangers of self-indulgent, righteous social justifications (even when rightfully justified), and ultimately, the uselessness to which moral judgment can be rendered once power play encourage violence to escalate.
Jake Holman's last words capped it all. "What the hell happened?" Indeed! Violence and exploitation has a way of creating mob mentality which strip nations and individuals of sense, of discernment, of ability to evaluate complexity, and steering the masses into arbitrary and false positions regardless of the facts and what most people actually think and feel. Reduced to this game of extreme, the ruling mentality becomes "kill or be killed". McQueen thoughtfully embodied his ambivalence and dismay.
Take heed, warmongers and pacifists alike.
Thank you for taking the time to read my page on "The Sand Pebbles".
I hope you found it interesting and worthwhile.
Stuart Fernie (email@example.com)