In the winter of 1965 director, Robert Wise ought to have been sitting pretty. His latest creation, The Sound of Music (1965) had swept the Academy Awards. Billed as ‘the happiest sound in all the world’ by some clever fellow inside 2oth Century-Fox’s PR department, The Sound of Music had virtually rescued the cash-strapped studio from financial ruin after the fiscal debacle created by the crippling cost overruns on Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s Cleopatra (1963). It is not overstating the fact to suggest Fox was a studio precariously perched on the edge of extinction; its’ corporate boardroom rocked by crisis; its facilities shut down and managed by all but a skeleton crew, even as recently reinstated studio chief, Darryl F. Zanuck and his son, Richard contemplated their next move. Green lighting The Sound of Music saved Fox from foreclosure. In hindsight, it would also prove to be more than a movie. Despite a slow start, The Sound of Music became a box office phenomenon, an instant and much-beloved cultural touchstone for the ages. Wise, who had put his personal stamp on some of the most instantly recognizable classics in Hollywood’s history (The Hunchback of Notre Dame, 1939; Citizen Kane, 1941; The Day The Earth Stood Still, 1951; Executive Suite, 1954, and, The Haunting, 1963, among them), and had won four Oscars (two apiece – Best Picture and Director for the landmark musicals, West Side Story, 1961, and The Sound of Music) had lots to crow about and even more reason to pause and bask in the afterglow of his seemingly unstoppable run of successes.
All the more surprising, then, to discover him half way around the world by the time Oscar came to call this second time, putting the finishing touches on his most ambitious project to date: The Sand Pebbles (1966) – an exhilarating big screen adaptation of Richard McKenna’s sprawling historical novel, shot almost entirely in Hong Kong. “When you want to make a film about China, you don’t settle for second best,” Wise would later muse, “There’s a certain amount of responsibility that goes with making an epic…a film this costly has to feel authentic.” As Communist China was off limits to Wise for obvious reasons, he, along with his production designer, Boris Leven, recreated 1920’s China in Hong Kong and Taiwan; cinematographer, Joseph MacDonald squeezing every last drop of tropical sweat out of their exotic isolationism. “With its traditions, foods and way of life, Taiwan is literally China in miniature,” Wise would later suggest.
Authenticity continued to be the order of the day once cast and crew settled into their quarters abroad; Wise commissioning the construction of a full-sized, steel-hulled gunboat, reminiscent of the USS Vila Lobos that had fallen into American hands after the Spanish-American War. Built by Vaughn & Jung; a time-honored engineering firm in Hong Kong, and rechristened the USS San Pablo, this stunningly accurate seafaring vessel, with its claustrophobic quarters and even more hellishly confined engine room, complete with fully functional turbines, would become the main setting for the picture, occupying roughly sixty percent of the staged drama and action; the rest recreated on full-scale sets, either redressed or built from scratch on the mainland and populated by well over a thousand real Chinese extras. At a cost of $200,000, and insured for a million against weather, fire, and, submarine and gunboat attacks, the USS San Pablo was then considered the most expensive ‘prop’ ever built for a movie; meticulously researched down to the last detail, with a working three-inch gun on its bow and one-pounder affixed to its stern.
Captained by Shih Hsien Miaso, a recently retired commander in the Nationalist Navy, and a crew of fourteen who slept aboard and were responsible for maintaining the ship’s vintage Cummins diesel engines and coal fire boiler, the San Pablo was capable of ten knots. Alas, she had but thirty inches of draft to enable maneuvers in the extremely shallow waters of the Keelung and Tam Sui Rivers. Accordingly, she reacted to even the slightest breeze like a flea caught in a hurricane, frequently running aground on the many sandbars. Navigation aside, Wise would reminisce about ‘losing sleep’ over the San Pablo’s two ocean voyages across stormy straits between Hong Kong and Taiwan. “I had my misgivings and my sweaty palms…as it turned out…needlessly...but at the time, genuinely warranted. I mean, we couldn’t afford to do it any other way or do it again should anything have happened to that ship.”
Wise and company were to have a time of it nonetheless; the production repeatedly delayed by every imaginable folly befitting such remote location work; including a minor civil uprising that resulted in local police teargassing the hotel where cast and crew were staying; a major earthquake, threatening to level everything to the ground; chronically inhospitable weather conditions, and, a delayed departure for home by one last snafu when the Republic of China withheld star, Steve McQueen and his family’s passports until additional moneys were paid for taxation. “The picture was essentially made in a war zone,” Wise recalled, “We were under constant military escort telling us where and what we could and couldn’t shoot. Every day, the navy had to inspect the waters for bombs The Chinese were just on the other side of the hill and they let us know it… flying regularly overhead. We even took gunfire after sailing a little too far north up the river. It sure felt like the Yangtze, let me tell you…hot and sticky. It rained just about every other day…and not just a cloud burst, but a downpour. I remember we actually lost a camera boat. Saved the camera…just barely, but the rest of it – sound equipment, everything, went straight to the bottom. Thank God nobody was hurt.”
Under such hostile circumstances, the initially planned six weeks’ shoot easily turned into seven months; Wise taking his lumps and diligently working to assure executives back home the added expense and setbacks were worth it. Indeed, by then The Sand Pebbles had become Wise’s labor of love. He had bought the rights to McKenna’s novel back in 1962, repeatedly promised financial backing; first, by the Mirisch Company, then Fox, but almost as readily delayed by Cleopatra’s skyrocketing budgetary demands. Without The Sound of Music it is safe to say The Sand Pebbles would never have been made; Wise finagling a deal to direct ‘Music’, with a guarantee from Zanuck he could make ‘Pebbles’ without restrictions or intervention from the studio. On November 22, 1965, barely a few months after production on The Sound of Music wrapped, cameras began turning on The Sand Pebbles; Wise, too involved in the daily grind of handcrafting his epic to realize his musical had already begun to catch the popular zeitgeist at home and abroad. Wise would not set foot on American soil until May, 1966; his pair of Oscars for The Sound of Music accepted at the awards ceremony by a very gracious Julie Andrews. Meanwhile, the port city of Keelung was transformed by Boris Leven into Shanghai Bund, circa 1926. As the rickshaw had long since been outlawed in China, Wise commissioned fifty built and appropriately aged to suit the period. Sixty false fronts were added to existing buildings to recreate the look of the old city; its harbor cluttered with a hundred sampans, fourteen junks and a genuine steam launch; the streets populated by thousands of Chinese extras, and seven 1920’s automobiles culled from a prop house in Australia.
Wise would encounter another setback in directing his extras; two thousand, dressed in vintage costumes, speaking no less than four irreconcilable provincial dialects, principally based in Mandarin, Cantonese and Taiwanese. Yet, even with 35 interpreters on hand to sort out the particulars, Wise struggled to gain a cohesive toehold; his call for ‘action’ resulting in one or two melees after the extras mistook its meaning and thought Wise was encouraging a skirmish amongst themselves. Nevertheless, Wise admired both their spirit and their work ethic. “You couldn’t have asked for a more hard-working group. Just fantastic. Always wanting to do it bigger and better than even you thought possible. I mean real commitment.” The shoot continued at a gruelingly glacier pace. At some point, the strain of the chronic rainy conditions threatened to shut down the production for good – Wise diligently and tirelessly ‘shooting between the raindrops’ as it were; pulling up stakes and moving into Shaw Brothers Studios in Hong Kong for ‘interiors’ and another three months. In its final stages, cast and crew relocated again; this time on American soil and inside a cavernous soundstage at Fox in June for a few additional interiors. “It really was a trial by fire,” Richard Crenna later admitted, “The heat… most of the time; me, in my crisp white linens trying to look cool and collected; the sweat just plaining off me. Bob (Wise) was incredibly patient and focused. I don’t think I ever worked for a director who had so much at stake and yet (he) managed to instill a sense of calm in the rest of us. We really did some of our best work for him. But he gave us the confidence to do it. Never a break in his professionalism. Never a moment where I felt he had lost his nerve and was ready to throw in the towel. You can’t really find it in yourself to give in, even when you want to, when the guy in charge refuses to let up.”
Even the picture’s star, Steve McQueen, who usually thrived on feats of daring under challenging conditions, found The Sand Pebbles a trying experience to say the least. McQueen, who had not been under consideration for the part when Wise first purchased the rights to the novel in 1962, had risen to prominence in his profession since, thanks to breakout parts in The Magnificent Seven (1960) and The Great Escape (1963). But he was to suffer greatly from an abscessed molar while on location, refusing to see a dentist until he returned home, by which time a severe infection and fever had set in, forcing McQueen to temporarily withdraw, creating yet another delay for Wise. Afterward, McQueen took nearly a year off from making movies, in a rare interview, coolly suggesting that whatever sins he had committed in life had been paid for in full with the making of this movie. Indeed, McQueen would be honored with a Best Actor Oscar-nomination (shamelessly, the only one he was to ever receive); losing to Paul Schofield for A Man for All Seasons.
In retrospect, The Sand Pebbles is not quite the monumental epic Wise and the studio had hoped for; imbued with undeniable intrigues, yet perplexedly confusing in its vignettes. These never entirely meld together to drive the narrative forward. The picture’s rugged visual splendor is its best feature; Boris Leven’s sets looking very much of the period and authentically aged next to the murky, ocher-tinted rivers and gray-greenish semi-submerged fields of swaying rice. But by the time The Sand Pebbles premiered it was viewed through the rather clouded lens of history by some critics as Wise’s subliminal response to America’s then present-day involvement in Vietnam. In truth, The Sand Pebbles is far more an accurate reflection of period colonialism and racism most astutely expressed in the relations between the white American sailors, the coolies who manage the grunt work aboard their gunboat; also, the mainland prostitutes who service them on their furloughs.
The performances are uniformly solid and heartfelt, particularly McQueen’s stoic loner, shielding his truer feelings merely to cope with circumstances he cannot entirely understand. And yet, there is something remiss about The Sand Pebbles as an entertainment; an unsettling verisimilitude more relevant to the sixties than the 1920's, perhaps unintentionally stirred by the unassailable analogies with history. Wise would repeatedly deny he had tried to make a political statement about Vietnam with The Sand Pebbles, and yet the parallels between the movie and world events cannot be ignored; Capt. Collins’ (Richard Crenna) authority usurped and undermined by the rebellious Chinese; the mounting resentment from his crew as they are pressed into achieving the impossible; the moral ambiguity and growing disenchantment in knowing each intervention is more politically motivated than done for altruistic reasons.
Not surprising, Steve McQueen’s introverted and uncommunicative, Machinist’s Mate First Class, Jake Holman stands in as the figurehead for this growing disenfranchisement; McQueen’s career built on various incarnations of ‘God’s lonely man’ – resentful of his fellow shipmates and truer to his intuitions regarding the Chinese; an almost spiritual augury, starkly contrasted with his rueful military compliances. Holman’s first and only love is the San Pablo; in retrospect, an irreconcilable bond because she represents everything about American imperialism Holman quietly abhors. McQueen’s natural distaste for authority that, even by 1965, had branded him ‘the king of cool’ is well-suited to playing this part. The resemblances between actor and his alter-ego cannot be ignored. McQueen’s clear-eyed approach allows the audience to see past Holman’s wounded silence; to suffer as he does; desperate to uphold a sense of self apart from this rigidly structured sense of valor he neither respects nor is able to tolerate without sacrificing himself in the end although, arguably, at least on his own terms and for a cause in which he sincerely believes.
Outside of McQueen’s stellar turn as Holman, and, to a lesser extent, Richard Crenna’s antithetical enactment as the stodgy martinet of the piece, The Sand Pebbles ascetically suffers from some ineffectual clichéd performances, beginning with Richard Attenborough’s clumsy turn as Frenchy Burgoyne; introverted, but sensitive, who breaks every taboo by falling in love with a Chinese girl (perpetually doe-eyed Marayat Andriane), buying her freedom and wedding in secret. Running true to form, we get Fox contract fav, Larry Gates, as Jameson – a dogged and entrenched missionary. Faring far better is Candice Bergen (at her most radiant) as his empathetic sidekick, Shirley Eckert. An unrequited love interest for Holman, Shirley has come to the Orient without any real purpose other than to flank and support Jameson in his misguided endeavors. Perhaps as counterbalance, both Ford Rainey and Simon Oakland pour on the brute in cardboard cutout as insurrectionist, Harris and toughie, Stawski respectively. The other standout belongs to Mako as Po-han; the ‘black gang’ (a.k.a. engine room) coolie, utterly devoted to Holman, but brutally sacrificed by his countrymen as Holman helplessly looks on.
The Sand Pebbles opens with Boris Leven’s immaculately cluttered recreation of China, circa 1926, and the arrival of Machinist's Mate First Class Jake Holman, who is being transferred to the Yangtze River Patrol gunboat, USS San Pablo – a.k.a. ‘the Sand Pebble’. In short order, Holman, disobeying director orders from the harbor patrol, finds himself some cheap liquor and a prostitute for a couple of hours. On the clipper bound to meet up with the San Pablo, Holman is introduced to a pair of armchair political analysists (Jon Lormer and Ben Wright) and the missionary, Jameson and his loyal companion, Shirley Eckert. She is immediately touched by Holman’s ability to relate to the local Chinese children who have been unceremoniously corralled into a caged enclosure to keep them separate from the white population traveling up the river. Unable to reach Holman in any sort of meaningful way, Shirley later shares her chance meeting with Jameson, who astutely points out all men in the military “reduce life to a very simple point…or no point at all.” Yet, all of these human interactions pale in comparison to Holman’s first introduction to the San Pablo; Wise and McQueen conspiring to create a genuinely moving ‘cute meet’ between man and machine as Holman peruses the ship’s engine room at rest, gingerly gliding his hands across her shiny steel gears and pistons; his admiration for this engineering marvel fully on display. No other ‘relationship’ Holman has in life will ever compare with this.
Po-han and Holman strike an immediate bond, united in their contempt for Chien (Tommy Lee); the boss coolie who takes it upon himself to release the steam while Holman is below, inspecting the bilge. Stawski attempts to set Holman right. Inspecting the bilge is coolie’s work and if he wants respect as a Machinist’s First Mate he will stick to his ascribed duties and leave the grunt work to those who know it only too well. Frenchy tries to explain the ship’s hierarchy to Holman; the coolies beholding to their masters who manage the output of their work in tandem with Capt. Collins’ overseeing his own men. Collins is even more cut and dried in his approach to commanding his ship; trading on the ‘give and take of death’ in service to the flag. During a routine repair, Chien is mortally wounded; Holman showing compassion by rushing to rescue him from the piston well. A short while later, Collins orders Holman to train another coolie to take Chien’s place. Holman puts his faith in Po-han and an unlikely bond of friendship slowly begins to evolve.
In port, the men indulge in a little ‘recreation’ with the locals; the proprietress of the local brothel, denying Stawski his chance with her most prized working girl, and instead offering her to the more sensitive Frenchy who is a novice at the art of love-making…even with a sure thing. Stawski is a boorish lot, fairly jealous of Holman’s respect for the coolies, especially Po-han whom he readily berates and brutalizes. Holman barters with Stawski to leave Po-han alone: an arranged boxing match inside the brothel. If Po-han wins he can remain onboard without fear of reprisals under Holman’s command. The unevenly matched pair begins to spar, Stawski relishing the opportunity to blood and beat the coolie to a pulp. This he does at the outset of their match, denied total victory by Holman’s coaching; Po-han repeatedly striking Stawski in the gut until he is toppled to the floor. The crew is emergency recalled to the San Pablo, thus interrupting the fight. Po-han’s triumph drives a derisive wedge between Holman and his crewmembers.
Meanwhile, an off camera incident involving British gunboats in a skirmish with a local Chinese warlord results in an international scandal; the Bolsheviks claiming 2000 innocent Chinese were exterminated by U.S. forces. The apparent blame lain at their head, Capt. Collins receives orders from on high the San Pablo is to engage in a cease fire at once to avoid any further diplomatic disasters with the newly backed military presence under Chiang-Kai-shek. A little up the river, the San Pablo is moored while Holman and Frenchy go ashore to investigate the nearby China Light Mission run by Jameson. Shirley is reunited with Holman whom she introduces to Cho-jen (Paul Chinpae); the student leader of a small military division loyal to Chiang-Kai-shek. Holman and Frenchy are successful in convincing Shirley, Jameson and Cho-jen the revolution is fast approaching them. If they remain within the mission’s walls they will surely not survive it. Retreating to the San Pablo in the nick of time, Holman is alarmed to learn Po-han is still ashore, having been sent into the village by a vengeful Lop-eye Shing (Henry Wang) who has long since harbored a grudge over Chien’s death and knows Po-han will not be able to return in time. Indeed, the villagers capture Po-han and begin to wrest a methodical, bloody torture with their bayonets and knives in plain view of the San Pablo. Holman demands action. Rescue is out of the question. But Capt. Collins also refuses to intervene. With panged reluctance, Holman seizes a rifle and shoots his best friend dead to spare him the agony of an even more excruciatingly horrific and exacting murder. While Collins cannot endorse any man under his command disobeying a direct order – much less committing an act of murder before his very eyes - as a man, and knowing full and well what the Chinese would have done to Po-han given half the opportunity, he can certainly recognize Holman’s courage and sacrifice made on Po-han’s behalf.
Thus, when the Chinese revolt while the San Pablo is moored at Changsha, demanding the release of their brethren from the ship, Collins instead elects to attack and topple their meager sampans with the San Pablo’s firehose. A contingent from the San Pablo, escorting Jameson, Shirley and other white refugees, enters the city in time to witness Major Chin (Richard Loo) and his Nationalist Chinese forces remove the American flag from the Embassy. Ensign Bordelles (Charles Robinson) tries to negotiate a truce with Chin. But this quickly turns into a stalemate; Bordelles insisting the embassy is U.S. property, while Chin rightfully points out the building is on Chinese soil. The missionaries are guaranteed safe conduct under Chin’s command. But the same considerations are not extended to any member of the San Pablo’s crew whom Chin immediately orders to retreat via his own military escort, or be taken by force and detained. Bordelles is outraged but also outnumbered and withdraws with Chin’s escort. The jeering populace pelt Bordelles and his men with rotten eggs and other garbage, making their humiliation even more bitter and complete.
At liberty that same evening, Frenchy takes pity on a young educated Chinese woman, Maily, who is about to be sold into prostitution. Paying her debts to the owner of the brothel, Frenchy and Maily quietly fall in love. Frenchy confides to Holman he intends to marry Maily and make a truly honest woman of her. Holman is nervously optimistic, pursuing his own romantic interests with Shirley. She wonders what drew him into the navy. Holman sheepishly explains how, as a young buck, he engaged in fisticuffs with a man wearing glasses; blinded by rage – literally – as he inadvertently knocked one of his opponent’s eyes out. Taken before a magistrate on assault charges, the judge gave Holman three choices to consider: enlistment in the army or the navy or a stint inside a reform school. Holman chose the navy.
As the unstable détente between the Chinese and the Americans begins to crumble Collins revokes shore leave for all his crew members to ensure their safety. Frenchy, however, is determined to wed Maily and, with Holman and Shirley as his best man and maid of honor, the couple takes their vows in a tiny church. Unable to gain access to his wife on a regular basis, Frenchy resorts to sneaking off the San Pablo in the dead of night. However, when he does not return by morning after one of these secretive flagrante delicto, Holman is ordered by Collins to bring him back by force. Holman finds Maily at Frenchy’s bedside; Frenchy having succumbed to a virulent strain of pneumonia the night before. There is no time for mourning, as the Kuomintang militia burst into the room. They brutalize Holman and drag a terrified Maily away.
The next day, several Chinese demand Holman be turned over to them for justice; Holman accused of murdering Maily and her unborn child. Learning the truth from Holman, Capt. Collins refuses to surrender him to the Chinese, though not out of any sense of loyalty to Holman; merely, to remain staunchly focused on the spirit of the law. In retaliation, the Chinese blockade the San Pablo. Fearful of reprisals from the Chinese, a small contingent from the San Pablo’s crew lead by Stawski is ready to give up Holman to save their own skins. They even attempt to goad Holman into surrender. At the last possible moment, Collins orders a gunner fire the Lewis rifle across the bow as a warning shot. The gunner refuses, suggesting his gun has jammed. This leaves Collins to take a stand alone. This, he does, and then orders the San Pablo’s river patrolling to begin anew. However, Collins receives word of a Chinese blockade set up to detain them near Nanking. Smashing through this blockade, casualties are incurred on both sides in some bloody hand-to-hand combat. During this melee, Holman shoots Cho-jen. It now becomes clear to Collins the San Pablo must proceed to China Light Mission to rescue Jameson and Shirley from the imminent deluge. No treaty on earth will spare their lives now.
However, upon their nighttime arrival, Collins is challenged by Jameson, a devout anti-imperialist. What have American forces cared for Chinese civilians; the rape and bloodshed of thousands the result of placating the warlords who, until now, have afforded the U.S. safe passage in return for weaponry to rise up against the provisional government. Collins informs Shirley she will likely be raped if she remains at the mission; Jameson tortured too. But Holman takes a stand with Jameson and Shirley, not only refusing to escort them by force back to the San Pablo, but also deserting the ship to remain at their side. Their bickering wastes valuable moments in their plotted escape. Learning of Cho-Jen’s murder, Jameson blames Collins for the deluge about to unfold. Nationalist soldiers ambush the mission, killing Jameson and Collins. Holman orders his two surviving cohorts to hurry Shirley back to the San Pablo. He will remain behind to prove them with ground cover. Shirley tearfully agrees, but makes Holman promise he will follow them. He agrees, perhaps realizing the end is near and unlikely to favor his safe return. Indeed, after getting off a few successful rounds to delay the encroaching Nationalist forces, Holman is shot through the chest. Collapsing near the mission’s wall, he mutters his last words with utter disbelief: “I was home...what happened? What in the hell happened?" A second shot proves fatal. In the final moments, we glimpse Shirley being escorted under the cover of night to the relative safety of the San Pablo. At the break of dawn she sails away toward an uncertain future.
As an entertainment, The Sand Pebbles veers wildly between pseudo-analytic anti-war rhetoric and angst-ridden syrupy melodrama. A picture, particularly one made under the auspices of the then expiring studio system, and despite the sixties predilection for counterculture imbued with its own ‘flower-powered’ anti-Vietnam War sentiments, is nevertheless in trouble when it fails to present America in a flattering light; in The Sand Pebbles’ case, the anti-climactic demise of one of Hollywood’s new favorites – Steve McQueen – leaving audiences deflated. If only made a few years earlier, the picture might have fared better at the box office. Wise had ironed out a tentative deal to make his opus magnum as early as 1962 when the Mirisch Company suddenly reneged on their offer to back the film, leaving Wise to pick up the $300,000 option on Richard McKenna’s book. The deal sealed between Wise and 2oth Century-Fox immediately followed. Yet, The Sand Pebbles suffered repeated delays as newly ensconced studio chief, Darryl F. Zanuck grappled with the inherited debts from Cleopatra, as well the logistical nightmare of producing another weighty epic. Initially, Wise had gone after Paul Newman as his star. But the blue-eyed box office dynamo, recently come off a lengthy – and trying – shoot on Exodus (1960) in Cyprus and Israel, showed zero interest to make another movie half way round the world. Meanwhile, actor, Peter Fonda campaigned hard for the role of Jake Holman. Fonda even screen-tested for it before Wise elected to offer the part to Steve McQueen instead.
Wise could only marvel at the way negotiations went with McQueen, whom he had not seen in several years. In that relatively short period, the relative unknown had morphed from homeless and hungry young nobody into a full-fledged movie star with sizable clout at the box office, living lavishly in his shiny new mansion. “If I hadn’t made it as an actor, I might have wound up a hood,” McQueen later sheepishly confessed. But in the spring of 1962, after a series of increasingly complex roles for which McQueen consistently rose to the occasion, Wise effectively handed him his most challenging and coveted part yet, with the caveat of what then was the fantastical sum of $650,000, plus a percentage of the profits. Unaware of the arduous and lengthy shoot to follow, McQueen thought himself the luckiest of men. In retrospect, he would be squeezed to the breaking point for every last penny. “He was the perfect choice for Jake Holman,” Wise later reflected, “I've never seen an actor work with mechanical things the way he did. He learned everything about operating that ship's engine, just as Jake Holman did in the script. Jake is a very strong individual who doesn't bend under pressure, a guy desperately determined to maintain his own personal identity and pride. Very much like Steve. He's marvelous in the picture, because he has the attitude and looks to carry the dialogue. He's not only an emotional and instinctive actor, but a thinking actor.”
Wise was to capitalize on the notoriety attained from the runaway hit status of The Sound of Music; the Zanucks agreeing to his $8 million budget outright and virtually any other request made thereafter; certain, Wise would deliver another king-sized money-maker to fatten their coffers. Possibly, not even Wise was prepared for The Sand Pebbles’ shoot to drag on so mercilessly; principle photography commencing on Nov. 22, 1965 and not completed until somewhere in the middle of May, 1966. By then, Wise and his nomadic cast and crew had moved across the Orient, from Keelung to Tam Sui, Taipei and Hong Kong; The Sand Pebbles running over budget by nearly $3 million dollars. While in Taiwan, McQueen came across an orphanage run by Catholic priest, Edward Wojniak; a hovel actually, playing host to scores of young girls who had been sold into prostitution by their own families. Likely, the discovery hit home for McQueen, so described in Darwin Porter’s scathing tell-all as “the illegitimate child of an alcoholic prostitute, beaten and brutalized by a drunken stepfather who pimped him out as a rent boy”; who “grew up… a gang member, arsonist and thief” and between jobs “as a circus barker, lumberjack, brothel worker”, survived by selling sex. According to Porter’s account, McQueen “had no morals. “He was an alley cat who would have sex with anyone. Yet that’s what helped make him a star because he was willing to sleep with anybody – men, women, acting coaches, co-stars, rivals, idols – if it could win him a role.”
Setting aside these lurid and unflattering aspects of McQueen’s youth, and also co-star, Candice Bergan’s comments made during the shoot; that McQueen was something of a no-talent prima donna on the set, frequently getting into fights with the locals (a statement virtually disavowed by the rest of the cast and crew), by contrast, McQueen took pity on girls and women placed in Wojniak’s care, quietly writing a $25,000 check to the mission and later, continuing to support its causes with additional funds, clothing, autographed pictures, etc. even after Wojniak died. “Steve was a very generous man,” friend, Steve Ferry later recalled, “He would have given the shirt off his back to anyone who needed it.” McQueen's other costar, Mako, equally found him to be “a quiet, unassuming fellow…wearing blue jeans and a blue polo shirt and sweat socks and sneakers. He did possess confidence and charisma, but he was very quiet. (He) really impressed me. Not so much when you're working with him in person, but when you see his work on screen. There is little wasted emotion. He came to know the camera so well. His work was so subtle and right on the money. I think he was unique in the fact he chose to do less on the screen. By doing less, he brought simplicity on the screen, and at the same time he was very much the image of the American man.”
But McQueen could be difficult too; leveraging his newly acquired star power to get his way. He clashed early on with Wise over a costume change, incurring the director’s momentary ire as Wise was in the middle of setting up a very difficult dolly shot when McQueen approached him for this debate. Wounded by Wise’s curt refusal to discuss the matter, McQueen did not speak to Wise for nearly three days; the stalemate diffused when his agent arranged, with Wise’s acquiescence, for the actor to sit in on the dailies; a luxury Wise did not extend to any of his players. “When Steve saw the dailies and saw how good he looked, he decided to talk to me again,” Wise later said, “As a matter of fact, he never gave me a hard time again.” Evidently, by the time Candice Bergan came around to writing her memoir in 1984, she had somewhat mellowed in her lyrically astute and sad-eyed reflections. “Coiled, combustible, Steve was like a caged animal. Daring, reckless, charming, compelling. It was difficult to relax around him and probably unwise--for like a big wildcat, he was handsome and hypnotic, powerful and unpredictable, and he could turn on you in a flash. He seemed to live by the laws of the jungle and to have contempt for those laid down by man. He reminded one of the great outlaws, a romantic renegade, an outcast uneasy in his skin ... he tried to find truth and comfort in a world where he knew he didn't belong."
Despite mixed to negative reviews, The Sand Pebbles grossed $27 million – not entirely a mega-hit, though hardly a slouch or box office flop either. As one of the first major productions to be shot in Panavision, it also marked an end to the studio’s long-since patented Cinemascope format. In its initial ‘road show’ presentation, The Sand Pebbles ran a lengthy 195 minutes, complete with overture, entr’acte and exit music cues written by Jerry Goldsmith (a second choice for the honors after composer, Alex North left the project). However, by the time the picture went into general release, it had been pared down to 182 min. without Wise’s consent or participation. Today, it survives as something of an anomaly in both Wise and McQueen’s careers; a weighty, at times compelling, and undeniably, superbly photographed would-be epic; one that, alas, only comes to life in brief fits and sparks.
Fox’s Blu-ray of The Sand Pebbles is now more than a decade old. Yet, despite improved mastering techniques this 1080p transfer continues to hold up rather well. For starters, it escapes the studio’s then predilection for applying undue and egregious DNR, to create smooth and waxen images, scrubbed free of their indigenous film grain. Appropriately framed in 2.35:1, The Sand Pebbles looks crisp without adopting any obvious artificial enhancements. So too is color fidelity solid, if slightly subdued. Contrast is bang on but there is not much pop to this palette, although, I suspect this is in keeping with the original look culled from surviving elements. A few years before, Fox gave The Sand Pebbles a lavish 2-disc DVD release. We lose some of the bells and whistles from that DVD on this Blu-ray; including the fabulously put together collector’s box, well-written and informative insert liner notes on the making of the movie and some superfluous lobby cards; but, most disheartening of all – the full road show cut of the feature. Only the 182 minute presentation gets the hi-def treatment here; Fox including the excised sequences as an ‘extra feature’ in standard def. We also get a wonderful audio commentary by Robert Wise and Richard Crenna, and a few junkets made at the time to promote the picture. The Sand Pebbles has been given a spiffy DTS 5.1 audio upgrade. Indigenous background noise is mildly exaggerated, but otherwise dialogue and effects have been solidly integrated with dialogue and Jerry Goldsmith’s score sounding remarkably full-bodied. Bottom line: recommended with minor caveats.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)