Monday, 13 February 2017

The Sand Pebbles (1966)

Jake Holman is an engineer in the US Navy, recently transferred to the San Pablo, a gunboat in central China during the warlords period of the 1920s.  Jake's looking forward to working on this smaller vessel after some time on larger ships: he figures there'll be fewer people telling him how to run the engine.

On arrival, though, Jake discovers that most of the work on the boat is performed by Chinese labourers, leaving the crew free for military drills.  That doesn't suit Holman, who wants to take personal care of the engine.  Naturally his resistance to the established practice puts him at odds with most everyone else on board, and that gets doubled when he takes an interest in one of the Chinese workers, begins to train the man properly, and even takes his side in a dispute with one of the white crewmen.

So things aren't exactly rosy on the San Pablo, even before China explodes in a wave of anti-foreigner sentiment.  Now the crew must endure an entire winter confined on the ship while more or less besieged by antagonistic locals, which will strain tempers further, even as the danger to the American civilians they must protect becomes greater and greater.

Often the films that get a 'not recommended' tag around here have some obvious technical deficiencies, such as bad acting, awful special effects, annoying protagonists, or even straight up not bothering to provide audible dialogue.  None of these are true of The Sand Pebbles, which has a strong cast (Steve McQueen, Richard Attenborough, Richard Crenna), plenty of budget to get the visual and audio right, and a solid protagonist.

No, The Sand Pebbles instead gets a not recommended for two main reasons: the first is that it is way too long.  The second is that the characters and situation are so overwhelmingly ugly.  The other crewmen are racist, sexist jerks who are willing to throw Holman under a bus when things get tough; the Chinese grievances against westerners are justified, but their actions in response are repellent; and so forth.

Unless you want to spend three hours being reminded that often, people suck, steer a course away from The Sand Pebbles.

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