THE SAND PEBBLES

The Sand Pebbles, the under appreciated 1966 epic, may seem another odd choice for a  blog dedicated to promoting my book, Lee Marvin Point Blank, but thanks to Oliver Stone, it’s actually quite appropriate. As I had done previously in my blog entries on Sean Connery and The Hill, as well as Lee Marvin and Point Blank, I was fortunate to write about the making of another personal favorite when director Oliver Stone made The Sand Pebbles his choice for inclusion in Serious Pleasures (1997). It follows below intact except for where I placed ellipitcal dots. Since I don’t believe in ‘spoiler alerts’ I removed the sentence in which he gives away the ending for anyone who hasn’t seen the film, yet. This month also being the 40th anniversary of Steve McQueen’s untimely passing, I thought it an appropriate time to include this.  Following Stone’s lengthy essay, is my piece about the making of the film set apart in italics. Enjoy!

Rare ad art from the original release of THE SAND PEBBLES.



“The Native Strain” Oliver Stone on The Sand Pebbles
I Think that Robert Wise is one of America’s most overlooked directors, and The Sand Pebbles is one of the most powerful big budget epics ever filmed. The backdrop for The Sand Pebbles is civil war-torn China in the 1920s, with a terrific Steve McQueen starring as Jake Holman, a world-weary sailor assigned to an American gunboat, the San Pablo, which becomes fatally enmeshed in another country’s problem. […….] 
   There are two extraordinary romances in the film, one between different classes (Steve McQueen’s working stiff sailor and Candice Bergen’s virginal, aristocratic missionary daughter); the other between different races (Richard Attenborough in a great performance as a veteran mariner and Marayat Andriane’s beautiful, oppressed Chinese woman). Both end in tragedy that tears your guts out. 
   There are so many memorable scenes in The Sand Pebbles‘ three-hours of running time. One of them, the politically motivated killing of a Chinese coolie (played by the Japanese-American actor, Mako) befriended by Holman, was the first movie scene that ever made me cry for an Asian character. There’s an incredible battle between the American gunboat and a blockade manned by young Chinese students that terrifyingly moves from distant shelling and shooting to brutal hand-to-hand combat. The tension between the sailors on the gunboat is very well delineated; many of Holman’s shipmates (like the one played by evil Simon Oakland) are beasts trying to drag him down to their level, instead of All-American heroes.

Montage of Steve McQueen in THE SAND PEBBLES.


   The Sand Pebbles was perceived as a failure in its time — audiences were still more attuned to the John Wayne version of war. But I thought then and now that it’s a remarkable and very brave film. I was a fan of Wise’s work even as a nine-year-old boy, when his Helen of Troy had a huge impact on me, encouraging me to read The Odyssey and other Greek classics and myths. The film was ridiculed at the time, but I recently saw it on a newly released laserdisc, and it still holds up as an inspiring mythological film.
   Over his 50 plus years of making movies after starting as an editor(with credits including Citizen Kane), Wise worked across all genres, and his 39 films include a number of classics. The Curse of the Cat People and The Body Snatcher, his first and third films were fine, moody horror movies. The Set-Up was a great noir boxing movie. The Day the Earth Stood Still is a science-fiction standard. The Desert Rats, Destination Gobi and especially Run Silent, Run Deep, with Burt Lancaster and Clark Gable, are exciting World War II dramas, with the latter a wonderful submarine movie that was the precursor for The Hunt for Red October, just as Somebody Up There Likes Me was the precursor for Rocky and The Andromeda Strain for Outbreak. Executive Suite, set against the business world, influenced me when I made Wall Street. I Want to Live! was the ultimate woman’s movie and Odds Against Tomorrow is one of the most depressing and powerful melodramas of the New York school of the Fifties. West Side Story was revolutionary in its approach to the movie musical and then Wise returned to his atmospheric early work with The Haunting, a frightening psychological ghost story with only four main characters. Then he made The Sound of Music, unbelievably successful, before turning the tables again with The Sand Pebbles. 
   I think it’s a real crime that Wise, like many others of his generation, including [George] Stevens, [William] Wellman, [William] Wyler, [Lewis] Milestone and [Stanley] Kramer, have been nailed by critics who rejected their classical style for the French Nouvelle Vague [New Wave] and their American imitators. I loved and was influenced by Godard, Resnais and the others, but it wan’t a betrayal to continue appreciating the American traditions.

The Sand Pebbles was a roadshow, an expensive film shown solely on a reserved-seat basis, made by the foremost practitioner of the form during its mid-Sixties, Robert Wise.

Opening page from SERIOUS PLEASURES chapter on THE SAND PEBBLES.


   Richard McKenna’s mammoth novel of The Sand Pebbles was based on his own experience of 22 years as a sailor in China during the 1930s. After he left the Navy, McKenna earned a B.A. in English literature, married the school librarian and wrote his only novel using the U.S. Villa-Lobos from the Spanish-American War as his prototype. The Sand Pebbles stayed on the New York Times bestseller list for 28 weeks.
  “I thought it was time the American public was reminded that the phrase ‘Yankee Go Home!’ which was very prominent in WWII was not born then but had been heard in a lot of areas around the world through the century,” said Wise, explaining why he wanted to turn McKenna’s book into a film. Wise, who had visited Vietnam during the earliest phase of America’s involvement, has also said he thought the story could serve as an allegory of what was happening there.
   He first approached United Artists, but after a budget dispute it was Darryl Zanuck of 20th Century-Fox who ended up purchasing the book rights. Wise balked at the front office insistence on making the film in San Francisco and held out for Taiwan, knowing that the process of obtaining permission would be a long one. 
   For the key role of sailor Jake Holman, he first wanted Paul Newman, with whom he had worked on Somebody Up There Likes Me. But, when Newman declined, Wise turned to another actor on his short list who had made his first screen appearance as an extra in Graziano biopic. The front office thought Steve McQueen was not a big enough star to carry such an expensive film.
   While playwright Robert Anderson worked on turning McKenna voluminous book into a workable screenplay, Wise accepted Fox’s offer to direct a film William Wyler had abandoned, The Sound of Music. When the film became the biggest grosser in history, Wise had carte blanche for The Sand Pebbles, and in the interim, The Great Escape (1963) and Love With the Proper Stranger (1963) had made McQueen a major star. Sensing that this would not be an overnight production, McQueen stipulated in is contract that his wife and two children accompany him to the Orient.
   Fox did secure permission to film in the Orient, but technically Taiwan and China were still at war. A week before the company’s arrival, a pitched battle took place near one of the film’s primary locations, but this international incident caused Wise no trouble at all compared to the problems that ensued during filming on locations at Keelung Harbor, Taipei, Tamsui and Hong Kong when production began November 22, 1965, with an 11-man crew, 47 actors and 32 interpreters. Helping the director get through “the most difficult film I’ve ever done,” which went way over its $8 million budget and 80-day schedule, was the news on the radio that he had won the Oscar for The Sound of Music.
   The problems were manifold and concurrent. On the 65th day of shooting, Costar Richard Crenna told a reporter, “The popular phrase here is that if you don’t like the weather, wait ten minutes, it’ll change.” and these unpredictable changes caused massive delays. Equally treacherous was the tide, which would leave the film’s main prop, the San Pablo (a $250,000 replica of the Villa-Lobos) stranded on shore at the beginning of a day’s shooting. Because the boat was built without a draft, maneuvering it was like trying to control a kite in a tail-wind. Most of the cast and crew members fell victim to illness. 
   Wise told an illustrative story about trying to get a simple shot of the ship’s flag on a bad-weather day: “This was the only thing I could think of shooting until the weather straightened out. We got the shot all lined up. The wind was blowing and we couldn’t hold the San Pablo. We had a tugboat on each side trying to hold her. She was swinging back and forth, left and right, ruining everything. Just as we were about to turn the cameras on, a puff of wind comes or a cable wold break and she would swing. After two hours of this I said, ‘That’s it! I’ve had it! Wrap everything up!’ I just couldn’t take it any more.”
   Although Wise held McQueen in high regard, he and McQueen disagreed constantly about what would work on film. Wise shot two versions of each scene, his and McQueen’s, to appease his star — a time-consuming process, particularly in view of the fact that none of McQueen’s versions wound up in the film.
   The film wrapped in May of 1966. McQueen was so grateful to return home that he was photographed kissing the ground of the airport tarmac. He told reporters, “Whatever sins I’m guilty of, I paid for them making this picture. I just hope something decent comes of it.”
   When the film began its roadshow engagement at the New York Rivoli on December 20, 1966, it got very good reviews. McQueen, buoyed by the best notices of his career, surprised everybody by publicizing the film in a way he had not done before and never would again. Although The Sand Pebbles lost money, it received eight Oscar nominations, including one for McQueen — the only one he received in his career. The film lost in all its categories.

(L-R) Young Chad and Terri McQueen watch as their father kisses the ground of the airport tarmac.


   “I’ve often wondered if maybe I tried to tell too many stories in The Sand Pebbles,” Wise has said of what he considers his most personal film. Co-star Mako is on record as feeling that the film was a head of its time as a Vietnam allegory. In any case, when Francis Ford Coppola was in the midst of filming his trouble-plagued Apocalypse Now, he requested a copy of The Sand Pebbles from Wise to show his crew what could be accomplished under adverse conditions.  
– Dwayne Epstein

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SEAN CONNERY

Sean Connery, the legendary Scottish actor, shook of his mortal coil on Halloween this year at the age of 90 and the world is a little less interesting because of it. In the midst of a global pandemic and a contentious American presidential election, the loss of Sir Sean Connery got sort of lost in the media shuffle of other coverage. 

From my private library. Think I’m a Sean Connery fan?


  However, to a fan such as I, it was anything but lost. Like most movie fans, he was my favorite James Bond but many of his non-Bond films were favorites, as well, especially the ones made during the Bond years. In many ways, he was the last true movie star: Handsome, rugged, charismatic, and an actor of criminally underrated depth and ability. 
  Luckily, when I was still researching Lee Marvin Point Blank, I was hired by good friend Bill Krohn to research the making of several films handpicked by filmmakers in a tribute book titled Serious Pleasures to commemorate the 1997 anniversary of Switzerland’s Locarno Film Festival. The films chosen that I was fortunate enough to write about included the first published work of my Point Blank research  that I reposted here. Fortunately, Woody Allen (!) chose The Hill (1965), as a personal underrated favorite worthy of rediscovery and I was the one who did the ‘Making Of” essay about it. It remains one of my personal favorites as well. Here then is that 1997 essay published in French and Italian only but translated by yours truly. I consider it a worthy inclusion to the myriad of Connery tributes. Rest in peace, Sir Sean. Your legend will always loom large.
– Dwayne Epstein
   
THE HILL

Chapter opening for my essay on THE HILL.

Woody Allen’s thoughts on THE HILL translated: “WITHOUT COMPROMISE by Woody Allen
THE HILL, for whatever reason, is little known to American viewers. In the career of Sidney Lumet, which includes a large number of great films, THE HILL is perhaps the best. In any case, I place it among the best American films. The execution of this gripping story is wonderful, whether it’s a series of gorgeous renditions or the inspired photo. It’s a brutal, uncompromising spectacle, and every time I see it I’m amazed that a film of this quality has gone unnoticed at this point.”

In 1964, when Sean Connery was starting to feel trapped playing the popular but unchallenging James Bond, producer Kenneth Hyman approached him about doing The Hill, a script written by Ray Rigby from the stage play he co-wrote with R.S. Allen, based on Rigby’s experiences in a North African detention camp during World War II. Connery initially declined because he was hoping to make a film version of The Adventures of Moll Flanders with his wife, Diane Cilento. 
   When the project fell through because Cilento was tied up filming The Agony and the Ecstasy, Connery reconsidered Hyman’s offer even though Thunderball was scheduled to start production shortly. Happily, director Sidney Lumet, who was already attached to the project, had a reputation for completing his films at break-neck speed, because he edited in the camera and demand that his actors deliver on the first few takes. 
  Connery signed on to play Joe Roberts, a busted non-conforming officer doing time in a hellish military prison, with no illusions about what a tough role it would be, or why he would be playing it. “It is only because of my reputation as Bond that the backers put the money up for The Hill,” he said later. Ian Fleming purists had always felt that Connery’s receding hairline, preceding lined face and tattooed forearms acquired in the Navy, worked against Bond’s image, but they were perfect for playing Joe Roberts. As an added touch, he decided to go without his toupee for the first time and grew a moustache for the role.
   For Sidney Lumet, it was a chance to work with a cast of classically trained actors like Harry Andrews, of whom he said: “When you get that kind of training….It’s brimming over. You can’t contain it. Everything is so rich. To have that kind of weight going for you in a supporting part is just magic.” He could have been speaking of anyone in the cast, which included Alfred Lynch (who co-starred with Connery in the minor service comedy, On The Fiddle), Roy Kinnear, Ossie Davis, Jack Watson and Ian Hendry. A bonus for Connery was the inclusion of an old friend from his earliest days as an actor, Ian Bannen.
   Exteriors were filmed in Gabo De Gata near Almeira, Spain. Prior to the cast’s arrival, the prison encampment with its punishment hill were constructed under the supervision of art director Herbert Smith and production manager Dick Frith. Since the Spanish desert sand did not mix with cement, one hundred tons of sand had to be shipped in, as well as 2,000 gallons of water for the oasis around which the camp constructed. Five hundred workers toiled for two weeks erecting the ominous hill, a 35-foot-high monstrosity made of 10,000 feet of steel and 60 tons of lumber, stone and sand. Once filming began, twelve men raked the sand daily.
   Even though exterior filming began in October, the temperature remained a blistering 115 degrees. For the next five weeks Lumet put cast and crew through ten-hour work days, six days a week. The close camera angles made stand-ins impossible, so actors were required to run up and down the hill with full packs in as many continuous takes as were needed to get the shot. “Doing it in several takes would have been charity,” said Lumet, “The actors knew it would be difficult but but they were all rugged men who were able to fulfill what were expected of them.” Lumet himself took the the Hill to make the point.
   “We were in the bloody desert and the food and water were ghastly,” recalled Ian Bannen. “It’d be hard to find words to describe the location…[It] was as smelly as Aberdeen on a hot day. Fishy-smelling, that’s what it was like. Just awful.” But Lumet was not a sadist — quite the contrary. “I think Time Magazine summed it up when it said Sidney makes love to his cast and crew,” added Bannen. “He’s a great sweetener.” All the actors fell ill, including the stoic Connery, who pulled a tendon and suffered a short bout of what he called “Spanish tummy.”
   Lumet and cinematographer Oswald Morris used a variety of lenses to shake the story free of its stage origins. Most of the action is set against the landscape at the beginning of the film, for which a 25mm lens was used; as the characters deepen, the 18mm lens is increasingly brought into play, not only to track feelings but to distort the officers’ faces as their power crumbles. Lumet also made extensive use of a handheld camera, with jerky zoom-ins during moments of shock and tension. 
   Following two weeks of shooting in a London studio, the film wrapped and Connery went immediately to work on Thunderball. Connery’s disdain for the Bond films was understandable: While he was filming with Lumet the British tabloids ran headlines like “Bond Takes The Hill,” and suggested that his rugged appearance in one behind-the-scene still was the result of a falling out with the Bond producers, and that it would ruin his image. “I’m not conscious of any image,” Connery bristled. “I play a part because I want to play it. Even if The Hill is not a success, does it matter? Some of the finest films haven’t been commercial successes.”
The Hill premiered in competition at Cannes, where it tied with France’s Platoon 317 for Best Screenplay. It was released in the U.S. early in 1965, making it hard for Academy voters to remember it by year’s end. Ironically, the wildly successful Thunderball won an Oscar for special effects. Despite good reviews, The Hill did poorly in the all-important U.S. market, but made money in Europe. Ian Bannen recalling seeing it in Greece; “It was incredible. I never witnessed cheering and applause like that in a cinema before.” One factor in the film’s domestic failure may have been the thick accents of most of the cast; several prints were actually made for the American market with subtitles, to no avail. As Mark Twain once said, “America and England are two countries separated by a common language.”

   Undaunted, Ken Hyman went on to produce another film for MGM that starts in a military prison, The Dirty Dozen (1967), which became the sixth highest-grossing film in the studio’s history. Sidney Lumet worked again with cast members Kinnear, Andrews and Bannen, and has made four more pictures with Connery to date. As for Connery, he cites The Hill as “An example of a film that wasn’t a success with the public but eventually became a supposed classic. The idea was to make an ensemble film and we made it.” It remains his personal favorite among all his films. 

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NOVEMBER ON TCM

November on TCM is upon us and as usual, they’re showing a few Lee Marvin gems. Maybe not as much as some months but there is always something worth watching in which he appears or has a connection to a given film. Regular readers here (if there are any!) know that my intention of this blog is to of course t encourage folks to read and discover my book Lee Marvin Point Blank. So coupled with that is to equally encourage folks to discover his films. With that in mind, I’ll be starting off each month with notification of his films or films he was connect with here on this site. First up, November on TCM. All times are PST:

I Died a Thousand Times airs Monday, November, 2, 10:30pm:

Ad art for I DIED A THOUSAND TIMES featuring a cowering Lee Marvin.


Since Shelley Winters is November’s “Star of the Month” on TCM, they’ll be showing her costarring with Jack Palance in this lush looking remake of High Sierra (194?). The original helped make Humphrey Bogart a breakout star and I guess Palance was hoping for the same. He did a few more sympathetic leads in the 1950s (The Big Knife, Attack!), but then quickly returned to villainous costarring status. A rare exception was his poignant turn as Lee Marvin’s buddy in Monte Walsh (1970) but Marvin had the lead that time. So, check out their earlier teaming in which Marvin plays second banana to Palance as his tough acting yet ultimately cowering henchman. More factoids about it were plumbed here.

Point Blank airs Saturday, November, 7, at 1:30pm.

The better ad art for POINT BLANK’s video release as opposed to the film’s original poster.


 






Considered the first “arthouse action film,” this stylized John Boorman thriller was largely ignored when first released but has since become a recognized classic of the genre, and with good reason. One of Lee Marvin’s first major starring vehicles is clearly also one of his best. It’s also the reason why I used it as my book’s subtitle as I explain in the introduction. If you haven’t seen the film, or even if you have, check it out again and be reminded of Lee Marvin’s gritty brilliance. Read more about it here.

The Dirty Dozen airs Wednesday, November, 11, at 11 am. 

Composite of scenes from the TCM perennial, THE DIRY DOZEN.

If Ted Turner and the good folks at TCM have a perennial favorite other than Gone With the Wind (1939), it must be The Dirty Dozen. It’s airing again as part of the Veteran’s Day line-up of classic war films and the testosterone driven classic still holds up no matter how many times you see it. The all-star male cast is one of the best ever and director Robert Aldrich gets them all to deliver the goods. No wonder TCM programmers like it so much. How much? Check this out

Honorable mentions:
Ride the High Country (1962) Sam Peckinpah’s best film besides The Wild Bunch (1969) airs November 6 and as a friend, drinking buddy and rival of Lee Marvin, it’s a definite must-see. 
Others worth viewing that Marvin doesn’t appear in this month but bears import in the man’s life and work are: the original High Sierra (11/4 & 11/29), The Hurt Locker (11/10) The Snows of Kilimanjaro (11/12), Brother Orchid (11/14), and Kiss Me, Deadly (11/21). Read Lee Marvin: Point Blank to find out their importance. Check local listing for airtime.
So there you have it! November on TCM for Lee Marvin fans. More to come next month and until then, stay safe!

– Dwayne Epstein

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