After watching Witness For The Prosecution, I continued TCM’s 31 Days of Oscar by watching the 1966 Best Picture nominee, The Sand Pebbles.
Considering that The Sand Pebbles is close to four hours long, it’s interesting how little there is to really say about it. Taking place in 1926, The Sand Pebbles follows the crew of the USS San Pablo, a gunboat that patrols the Yangtze River in China. The San Pablo is there to protect American business interests, which are in particular danger because China is caught up in a communist revolution. For the most part, the crew of the San Pablo are portrayed as being lazy and racist. They have little interest in understanding the culture of the people around them and they use Chinese laborer to do the work on the boat.
When Jake Holman (Steve McQueen) is transferred to the San Pablo, he upsets his fellow crewmen by insisting on working in the ship’s engine room himself, the fear being that if Holman is willing to work then the rest of them will be expected to work as well. The ship’s commander, Lt. Collins (Richard Crenna), views Holman as being a threat to morale and starts to make plans to get Holman off of his boat. But, first, the boat is going to have to get out of China…
The Sand Pebbles is an episodic film and some of those episodes are more interesting than others. Typically, an episode will start out positively and then end with some sudden tragedy. For instance, Holman trains one laborer (Mako) to be a boxer and then watches as he beats the most racist crewman on the ship. However, just a few minutes later, the laborer is captured and savagely tortured by the communists and Holman is forced to perform a mercy killing.
In another subplot, Holman’s only friend, Frenchy (Richard Attenborough), marries a local prostitute (Emmanuelle Arsan, who would later write an autobiography that would serve as the basis for a very different type of film). However, in order to see his wife, Frenchy has to continually swim to shore in the middle of the night. Frenchy soon develops pneumonia and dies while his wife is dragged off and apparently executed.
And finally, Holman strikes up a romance with Shirley Eckert (Candice Bergen), an innocent missionary. However, when her arrogant and naive boss, Jameson (Larry Gates), refuses to leave the country despite the revolution, the San Pablo is ordered to rescue them. This, of course, leads to a final battle with the communists which leaves a good deal of the cast dead.
As I watched The Sand Pebbles, my main impression was that it was an extremely long movie. The film’s climatic battle was exciting and Steve McQueen (not to be confused with the director of 12 Years A Slave and Shame) gave a good performance but otherwise, the film often seemed to drag. While the movie’s theme of Americans struggling (and failing) to understand another country’s culture had a definite resonance, The Sand Pebbles did not seem to be quite sure what it truly wanted to say about it.
Let’s face it — over 500 films have been nominated for best picture. And, while a good deal of them hold up surprisingly well and are still entertaining to watch, there’s also a handful like The Sand Pebbles, ambitious films that never quite reached their potential but were probably nominated because they seemed like the type of epic film that should be nominated. Many of these films were nominated and a few even won.
However, in the case of The Sand Pebbles, a nomination would have to be enough. That year, the Oscar for Best Picture was won by A Man For All Seasons.