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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FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS OF LEE MARVIN POINT BLANK

Frequently Asked Questions (or FAQs), has become a popular aspect to most websites, and this one dedicated to underscore my book Lee Marvin Point Blank, is now no exception. Don’t know why I hadn’t thought of it until now but a recent transaction with a friend on social media gave me the idea. I’ve since amassed enough frequently asked questions I thought this a good time to address them. So, with that in mind…

Cover of the trade paperback that includes a quote from Leonard Maltin and a starburst heralding some exclusive additions.


1. How did you come to write about Lee Marvin?
I get this one a lot. Short answer is that of course, I’m a fan. Long answer is slightly more involved. Marvin is just one of my personal favorite actors that include the likes of James Cagney, Burt Lancaster and most of all, Steve McQueen. I’ve read a lot about all three actors so when the biography entitled STEVE McQUEEN: PORTRAIT OF AN AMERICAN REBEL came out in 1994, I had to read it. Having done so, I decided to try to contact the author, Marshall Terrill, to discuss a few aspects of his book. Much to my surprise, he responded and when he was next in L.A., we met up. A casual conversation turned into a friendship that exists to this day. Because I had a journalism background, early on he asked me if I ever considered writing a biography? I responded, “Yeah, you wrote it!” Since Marshall had a marketing background, he then proceeded to discuss possibilities based on what would sell and who has not had a definitive bio done about them. Enter Lee Marvin. I told him I’d think about it and he persisted so that over time I became fascinated with the research I was uncovering. Eventually (almost 19 years later!) it came into existence.

My copy of Marshall Terrill’s book that he inscribed: “It’s been a real pleasure to meet someone with the same zeal that I do for Steve McQueen. You really know your stuff. I’d really like to see you pursue a book on Lee Marvin. The timing is right and there’s no one better qualified to write it. Please keep in touch as I think you are incredibly well-versed in movies, which makes for great conversation. Take care, Best wishes, Marshall Terrill  2/15/94.



2. Did Lee Marvin ever attend any USMC reunions, why or why not? 
According to Lee’s first wife, Betty, he did maintain contact with his war buddies but didn’t particularly care to go to any reunions. Despite his sincere efforts towards promoting and helping the Marines throughout his life, the idea of reunions was something he was not fond of being involved in. As he told Johnny Carson one night, “I went to a few reunions but after awhile, you get bored hearing the same old war stories.”

Lee Marvin happily hands over a check for a USMC charity in support of his favorite branch of the service.



3. Why is there no mention of what Lee’s daughters are doing and why didn’t you interview them?
There is mention of what his daughters, Courtenay, Cynthia and Claudia have been doing in the bibliography entitled Posthumous Events Related to Lee Marvin. As to interviewing any of them, I did speak with each of them but none of them wanted to go on the record about their father which of course, is their choice and I respect it. Luckily, their brother Christopher did agree to be interviewed as well as write the poignant Afterword to the book.

Pictured here at Cynthia’s 1982 wedding are (L-R) Christopher Lamont Marvin, his sister Courtenay Lee Marvin, Lee Marvin, Cynthia Louise Marvin Michaels, Betty Marvin, and youngest of the four siblings, Claudia Leslie Marvin.


4. Is the story of Bob Keeshan (Captain Kangaroo) saving Lee’s life during WWII true? My agent, the late Mike Hamilburg, once called me up and asked me this as a friend of his said it was true. I told him exactly what I had written in a blog later on about the same subject involving such urban legends as found here. In other words, despite it’s nagging persistence, it is not now nor has it EVER been true. 

5. Who were Lee Marvin’s favorite and least favorite actor to work with in his career? 
Marvin was a professional and veteran of countless performances so he basically learned to get along with pretty much everybody he worked with. If he had a favorite actor my guess would be Toshiro Mifune, his costar in Hell in the Pacific (1968), of whom his admiration was immeasurable. 

At the press conference for the Japanese premiere of HELL IN THE PACIFIC, Marvin admires Toshiro Mifune as he fields a reporter’s question.

As to who was his least favorite actor to work with, well, that question got answered a while back but still worthy of this FAQ blog in terms of symmetry. The answer can be found here.

6. How come your book doesn’t have a filmography?
Ahh, but it does. It’s just not done in the obvious way of previous film biographies. There’s one of several bibliographies in the back of the book, and in the one entitled Important Dates in the Life of Lee Marvin ALL of his film (and most TV) appearances are listed. 

7. When does your next book come out and what’s it about?
Been avoiding this one for a quite a while now. The answer is….well, that will be in the next installment of Frequently Asked Questions *wink, wink*

There you have some of the most frequently asked questions that I’ve come across over time. Naturally, if any of your questions were not addressed, by all means feel free to ask them here and I’ll do my best to answer them. Thanks!
– Dwayne Epstein

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ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD….THERE WAS ALSO LEE MARVIN

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, the latest opus from favorite contemporary filmmaker, Quentin Tarantino, was anxiously awaited by yours truly like a kid awaits the end of the school year and the start of summer vacation. Seriously. Everything I had read and seen about it had me practically drooling in anticipation. Then I watched it.

(L-R) Brad Pitt as Cliff Booth and Leonardo DiCaprio as Rick Dalton leaning against the facade of Hollywood’s famed Egyptian Theater.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s not a bad picture, at all. It’s just that I guess my anticipation of it, had me expecting  more.
There’s also much to recommend. My family and I moved to California from New York in 1968 so I’m familiar with what the southern California scene of 1969 was like in those days. Tarantino’s re-creation of that time and place is something to marvel at throughout the film. Whether it’s the bus benches advertising Hobo Kelly, or the brief TV moment showing late night L.A. horror host Seymour, it brought back nostalgic childhood memories for yours truly.
Most of the performances in Once Upon a Time In Hollywood are also uniformly excellent. A true standout is Brad Pitt as the laconic stunt double and gopher to Leonardo DiCaprio’s fading TV star.
I say ‘most’ performances as some of them are downright strange. The film is peppered with cameos of real-life individuals and some are just strange. An actor playing Bruce Lee challenges Pitt to a fight in one of my favorite scenes and one of the most controversial in its portrayal of the legendary martial artist.
In another sequence, British Actor Damian Lewis makes a brief appearance as Steve McQueen at a party at the Playboy Mansion in a performance that can best be described as bizarre. While there is a resemblance, in speaking with McQueen biographer Marshall Terrill, we both agreed that the speech pattern Lewis invokes is just plain weird. He may have been trying to mask his British accent but the result is nothing like McQueen. Bizarre.
So, what is it about the film that received a six minute standing ovation when it premiered at the Cannes Film festival that I have a problem saying that it’s truly great? Simply put, the main character played by DiCaprio is just not worthy of much sympathy and being the central focus of the film, it’s the key factor keeping me from loving the film. Hate to say it but it’s true.
I won’t give away any more as I hate when writers do that sort of thing. Suffice to say, I’ll probably see it on DVD, if only to see again my Lee Marvin Point Blank interview subject, Clu Gulager as an aging Westwood bookstore owner. Until then, I wonder why such a big Lee Marvin fan as Tarantino left Lee Marvin out of the film when he was big box office in 1969. How big?  Check out Lee Marvin Point Blank to find that out. In the mean time….
-Dwayne Epstein

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