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"I ain't got no more enemies!"
on 27 November 2007
The Sand Pebbles, Robert Wise's epic tale of gunboat diplomacy in the turbulent China of the mid-Twenties is hugely ambitious and hugely expensive, yet, as with the best of his work, the focus is firmly on people, the momentous political events kept in the background until their consequences begin to overwhelm the principals. Even then, they are only drawn out of the small worlds they create for themselves (for Steve McQueen his engine room, for Candice Bergen her teaching in a remote mission) for purely personal reasons.
More than any epic of the Sixties, The Sand Pebbles seems to draw heavily on the chaos and the confusion of the then ongoing Vietnam War, so it's a real surprise that Wise seemed genuinely unaware of any parallels. Yet, perhaps because of history's tendency to repeat itself, they're all too apparent in the finished film. The enemy is unclear: one minute it is the communists who are trying to incite an incident, the next Chang Kai Shek's Nationalists (although filmed in Taiwan with his approval, it is surprisingly critical of his actions). The only constant is "Yankee go home."
McQueen's engineer Holman is pointedly referred to as a symbol of his country by his ineffectual commanding officer, but what kind? He holds no opinions, preferring to put his faith in machinery rather than people or politics, yet his mere presence is divisive. Even his own countrymen and crewmates turn against him and join in with their nominal enemies in an angry demonstration against his alleged crimes. While he projects the image of the simple, honest and misunderstand ordinary man suffering a situation not of his making that America's old guard wanted to believe of their boys in Asia, he ultimately declares his independence from a fight he cannot understand ("I ain't got no more enemies") and is only drawn back from desertion to save the woman he loves but doesn't quite understand.
The contradictory and opposed feelings of the folks at home are made clear from the opening debate on whether China can be trusted with its own destiny to Larry Gates' missionary renouncing his own nationality as he prays for a Chinese victory: he may stop short of burning the flag, but he has no qualms about cursing it ("Damn your flag! Damn all flags!").
Rather than setpiece battles (although it has a doozey of one in the last act), it is a film of escalating incidents, increasingly violent and all rendered impossible to deal with by the demands of diplomacy and provoking an endless source of black propaganda. Even when the American flag is obscured by a thick cloud of opium smoke emerging from the San Pablo's smokestack, the Americans remain innocent in principle but lose the moral high ground as they either exploit the locals for their own comfort or end up fighting among themselves.
Even the Captain's attitude is confused. He talks of duty, yet runs a slack ship for fear of giving the discontented crew an excuse for mutiny, even turning a literal blind eye to one crewmember's desertion. When it matters most, his crew openly disobey him, provoking him to consider suicide before defying orders and endangering his crew in several efforts to "die clean." The film itself has been accused of being equally confused, but it simply portrays the confusion, making no judgements. No dogma triumphs in this film, no side wins: all that is left are people forced into dealing with situations that will not profit them.
Robert Anderson's script manages to give nearly all of the characters a story of their own that are integrated into the main fabric of the plot while Wise isn't afraid to take the time each scene needs rather than rushing it, and that's repaid with uniformly excellent performances. The Oscar-nominated McQueen is in complete harmony with his role and shows remarkable sensitivity in his final scene with Marayat Andriane, whose romantic subplot with a genuinely affecting Richard Attenborough overshadows McQueen's uneasy nearly-romance with a very sweet and very young Candice Bergen. Richard Crenna is outstanding as the Captain driven to thoughts of suicide and equally suicidal heroism, with good support from Mako and a mug's gallery including Simon Oakland and Joe Turkel below decks.
A replacement for Alex North, who bowed out over concerns with the film's violence, Jerry Goldsmith's score (treated to an isolated score track with brief interview extracts wit the man himself) is one of his very best. From the tense and brooding main title over the strikingly simple design of a sampan dwarfing the gunboat to the hauntingly unresolved love theme he never overplays his hand or overdoes the Oriental flavor or the big, epic cues: they're there when needed, but all the more effective for not swamping the picture. Kudos too to Boris Leven's production design and Joseph McDonald's cinematography which, with its good use of color and location, makes 35mm look like 70mm.
In addition to a plethora of special features, Fox's 2-disc Region 1 NTSC also finally restores the original 196-minute roadshow version, although sadly the source print has faded quite badly, so you're left with a choice of a beautiful transfer of the 182-minute general release version or a rather soft transfer of the uncut version. It has to be said that both cuts work equally well, with little of substance cut. Yet while the cuts are sensitively made and the shorter version adheres to the old editor's maxim that "if it wasn't there would you know it was missing?," for anyone who likes the film they'll be a welcome addition. For those interested, the major restorations to the roadshow version are:
- Before the first repel boarders drill there is a brief scene with the tailor coolie measuring Holman for a new uniform on deck.
- A brief scene of local bandits firing on the San Pablo from the shore as the gunboat patrols the river.
- After the accident with the chief engine room coolie, the scene continues to show the repair of the engine.
- After the crew start taking bets on the fight between Po-Han and Stawski, there is a brief scene between Holman and Frenchie.
- Before Jake shows Shirley around Changsha, there is a brief sequence where she explains why no priests will marry Frenchie and Mailly; afterwards there is a conversation between the two in a restaurant.
- Captain Collins' conversation with Ensign Bordelles after they see the men fighting on deck is much longer, with Collins explaining that he has authority only as long as he does not exercise it.
- The battle scene at the river boom is much longer, with the San Pablo taking a direct hit and having to pull out of the fight while the crew put out a fire on deck.
Some other scenes are slightly extended with additional shots or dialogue; the roadshow version also has brief intermission scoring not on the general release version. Sadly, the exit music is not included on the DVD for some reason.
The Blu-ray release - Region A-locked for the US release but Region free for the rest of the world - only includes the general release version, with the missing scenes from the roadshow version presented separately as deleted scenes with no seamless branching option.