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!
“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.
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.
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.
“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