Saturday, December 8, 2012

Films We Like: The Sand Pebbles (1966)

What The Hell Happened

News from the Middle East and South Asia isn't good. Any democratic and inclusive, or pro-Western (not always the same) hopes that the 'Arab Spring' would result in moderate influences in the Arabic and Muslim world has not developed. 

The Syrian civil war has continued, with (as western media reports) 'Islamist' factions associated with Al-Qaeda getting access to shoulder-launched anti-aircraft rockets and other weapons. The struggle appears to be reaching an endgame -- Damascus is ringed by pockets of rebels and its airport is under fire -- but no one knows what kind of nation, post-Assad, Syria will become.

In Egypt, the Islamist-dominated government of Mohammed Morsi is poised to declare marital law in order to protect its domination of Egyptian society, and ensure a draft constitution (primarily written by the Muslim Brotherhood after secular and non-Muslim Egyptians walked out in protest) will be voted on -- in a process to be overseen by the Islamists.

Yesterday, Khaled Mashal, the political leader of Hamas (allied with the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, and to a lesser degree the Iranian-influenced Hezbollah in Lebanon), returned to Gaza and vowed in an outdoor speech to cheering crowds that Hamas would work to remove Israel, completely.

 None of this news (or much of a surprise) to Israel or its current government -- but at least to my mind, Israel hasn't seemed as surrounded by real threats since 1967 as it does today.

And in the background is Shiite Iran, playing what it sees as a long, deep game for dominance of politics in the Islamic world.

This the world; we just live in it -- or as I like to say, I just work here.


The idea of the lives of ordinary people, caught up in a larger drama of political action, crisis or warfare, isn't new as a subject for film.  But thinking about this made me remember a film I haven't seen in a long time, but will pull out tonight.

In 1966, Robert Wise directed The Sand Pebbles, a story of a U.S. Navy gunboat operating on China's Yangtze river in the mid-1920's.  Based on a 1962 novel by American author Richard McKenna, the film had a good cast, script, excellent photography, and a soundtrack by Jerry Goldsmith.

The first large-scale escalation of the Vietnam war took place that year. The movie had been filmed in 1965, so 20th Century Fox (which distributed Sand Pebbles) wouldn't have known that would happen -- but the film was clearly a comment on American military involvement in Asia, and on what happens to ordinary men and women when affected by currents beyond their ability to influence.

McQueen As Jake Holman (DVD Beaver)

The film opens with Jake Holman (Steve McQueen), a Machinist's Mate, taking passage aboard a steamer on his way to join the river gunboat USS San Pablo as its chief engineer.  He was transferred from a battleship, the flagship of the Asiatic Fleet, after some altercation -- Jake, apparently, has a small problem with Navy discipline, and his transfer to a backwater gunboat would make him someone else's problem. Holman is a loner, wary and more than a little cynical, who doesn't expect much from life but tries to do the right thing.

China in 1926 was wracked by civil war between Nationalist forces loyal to Chang Kai-Chek and regional warlords, and the young Chinese Communist party. American military forces were stationed in China to protect business interests; however, a legacy in the aftermath of the First World War was the concept of national self-determination. Unless to protect American citizens, U.S. military forces had to remain strictly neutral.

 Candice Bergen, For Whom I Developed A Deep 
And Abiding Crush From The Time I Saw This Film (DVD Beaver)

On board the steamer, Holman meets a young teacher from Vermont, Shirley Eckart (Candice Bergen, in her first film role) who isn't put off by Jake's initial replies to questions about his life ("Nice American girls don't talk to China sailors"). She's traveling to teach at a mission, China Light, further upriver.

As Holman leaves the steamer, Shirley and Mr. Jameson, the Director of China Light who is escorting her, watch him walk away and climb into a Rickshaw. "I can't help feeling a certain sadness about his life," she says. Jameson replies, "Yes, it would be sad, if he wanted something else," then dismisses both the military and Navy sailors in one brief comment: "As long as they obey orders, the Navy takes care of them. It's a way of life that appeals to a certain kind of man".

 Richard Crenna, Commander Of The Gunbboat USS San Pablo
(Photo: The Indispensable DVD Beaver. Sing 'O Canada'. Right Now.)

The San Pablo is captained by a strict and patriotic Lieutenant (Richard Crenna), who is aware that the gunboats are a political target for Chinese nationalists and communists alike. Its crew are rough sailors who like a life in the 'China Navy', treated like masters by Chinese servants, whom they constantly refer to as "slope-heads" (the cast playing the crew included Joe Turkel, Simon Oakland, Barney Phillips and Gavin McLeod).

Once aboard, Holman gets involved in the ship's Navy and Chinese pecking order. After the accidental death of the ship's chief engine room 'coolie', Jake is ordered to teach another Chinese engine room worker to replace him. Reluctantly ("You can't teach them slope-heads anything"), he chooses Po-Han (played by the Chinese-American actor, Mako) as his new chief. Others in the crew are not happy with Holman's choice.

 Holman Teaches Po-Han (Mako) How To Manage The San Pablo's Engines

After receiving word of a fight between British soldiers and Chinese nationalists, the American government orders its nationals evacuated from central China. The San Pablo makes a run upriver, to evacuate China Light and take Shirley and Jameson with them.

While tied up near the mission, Po-Han -- sent ashore by the 'Boss Coolie' on the ship, is captured by a cadre of communists, and while the San Pablo crew looks on, publicly torture him.

He screams for someone to shoot him; even Bergen, watching from the ship, looks up at Holman -- can't you do anything to help? Jake moves to do it, but Crenna immediately says no -- they are under orders not to fire on any Chinese, which could easily blow up into an 'incident'; he orders the crew not to shoot. "Well, somebody oughta shoot something!" Jake spits back.

The commander offers to pay for the man's life, but the communists refuse. Finally, Jake takes a rifle from another crewman's hands and fires, then throws the weapon into the Yangtze.

Later that night, Shirley finds Jake alone on deck. She asks who Po-Han was; "So you became a teacher, too; that's good", she says, then reaches out and puts a hand on his arm -- a gesture of support, sympathy -- but Jake, who lives in a completely different world than a schoolteacher from Vermont, only looks at her and walks away.

In port, with leave, Jake and Shirley spend time with each other; she finally gets him to talk about himself. They become friends, and (without either of them realizing it openly) more than that.

Holman's only real friend on board, "Frenchie" Burgoyne (Richard Attenborough, who had played opposite McQueen two yeas before in 1964's The Great Escape), had fallen in love with a Chinese girl, Mei-Li, and tells Jake he wants to marry her (There's more to this part of the story line, but you ought to see the film).

Holman, the realist, disagrees -- in the Nineteen-Twenties, mixed-race liasons were next to impossible. They couldn't be married in America, and certainly not in China. Despite that, Frenchie and Mei-Li hold an impromptu, unofficial marriage ceremony in a small christian church, and ask McQueen and Bergen to act as witnesses.
  Frenchie (Richard Attenborough) And Mei-Li (Marayat Andriane) Exchange Vows

When they finish pledging themselves to each other in font of a framed print of the Ten Commandments in Chinese, Frenchie, still holding hands with Mei-Li, turns to Jake and says, "Put your hand on ours -- for luck?"

It's a moving scene; Holman, the tough, wise kid from the wrong side of the tracks in Utah, who joined the Navy to stay out of reform school, is short on words but long on sincerity; "I wish ya all the luck; and hope it all goes smooth and easy for ya," he tells them.

Watching them walk away, Shirley says they seem very much in love. Jake doesn't believe Frenchie and Mei-Li's life together has much of a chance. When Shirley steps closer, he kisses her gently, then holds her and says things won't work for them, either -- "'Cause you're goin' back to China Light soon, and I'm goin' back to the Fleet."

Bergen tells him there's an alternative: Come back to China Light. He could operate the new machinery arrived from the United States; she would teach, and they could make a life together. But Holman says, "You know how hard they look for deserters, Shirley? And what they do with them when they catch 'em?"

Shirley persists. "It's good up there, Jake. we could make a good life... you could be a kind of engineering missionary." But Holman shakes his head, tries to make a joke ("I told ya not to talk to sailors, didn't I?") and smooth the moment over. A few days later, he watches her wave to him as she stands on the boat taking Jameson and herself back upriver.

The ship is anchored in harbor, surrounded by small boats flying the nationalist Chinese flag; water in the channel out to the Yangtze is too low to allow them to move. Once a week, a single American sailor will be allowed to travel to the American consulate for reports, orders and mail. Otherwise the ship remains stationary in port.

One night, as the winter drags on, Frenchie deserts by swimming ashore through freezing water to get to Mei-Li, and falls ill. When Holman is picked for courier duty in rotation, he goes looking for Blackie and finds his friend dead, with Mei-Li -- now pregnant with Blackie's child -- sitting beside his body. Mei-Li is despairing; she has nowhere to go.

Jake comforts Mei-Li, who tells him she'll be all right, that he should return to his ship, and Holman a makes a snap decision: He'll desert. "I'm through with all that. Come up to China Light with me... It's gonna be all different up there," he tells her. "It's just gonna be everybody, all together."

Suddenly, several men break into the tiny apartment, see Frenchie's corpse, and drag Mei-Li out of the room; Jake tries to keep them from taking her but the assailants throw Mei-Ling from a window. Jake manages to make it back to the San Pablo with a split lip, but loses his sailor's cap in the process.

As Jake, battered and hatless, steps into the launch to return to the San Pablo, a sailor waiting for him uses a phrase that is one recurring theme in the film: "What the hell happened?", usually spoken when something unexpected occurs, some act triggered by the larger political struggle in China -- meaning, I don't understand; the world isn't supposed to work this way. "Don't say nothin' about this on the ship," Jake replies.

The day after his return, more boats appear around the San Pablo with signs saying, "Give Up Murderer Holman!" -- accusing him of Mei-Li's death. The Commander asks Jake what it means; he explains Frenchie's death and Mei-Li's murder; the Chinese must have gotten his name from the label in his lost cap.

The commander tells Jake he has just created a major incident, but that he has no intention of giving him up to Chinese authorities. The boats around the San Pablo remain as a blockade -- which the ship can't run without creating another 'incident'.

The crew tries to force the captain to turn Holman over (In a memorable scene, Oakley and others stage a near-mutiny, chanting "Holman, Come Down!"), but Crenna stands firm. Hoping there's enough water in the harbor channel, he orders the ship to make way, and Jake returns to the engine room -- with the ship's XO handing him a sidearm.

Then, a radio message comes in -- nationalist troops have attacked Americans in Nanking; American Marines have landed. Crenna tells Holman and his officers the San Pablo will  go upriver and rescue the missionaries at China Light. The gunboat fights its way upriver through a series of linked sampans stretched across the mouth of the river; among the defenders killed are some of the mission (and Bergen)'s students.

When a shore party, led by Crenna, arrives that same night at the mission, saying they have to leave, Jameson tells the sailors he and Bergen have "renounced nationality itself", declaring themselves stateless persons. Crenna says the nationalist Chinese won't care; Bergen will be raped, and they'll both be shot.

When the commander says the shore party will remove the Jameson and Shirley, McQueen says flatly he isn't going. "Do you know what this is? Desertion in the face of the enemy," Crenna says. McQueen doesn't even blink: "I got no enemies. Shove off, Cap'n."

Then, one of the students appears, and tells Jameson that the rest were killed by the gunboat attack; Jameson is shocked, saddened and angry at once. "Now they're coming for me," he says. "Because of you. Damn your flag; damn all flags! It's too late in the world for flags!"

The nationalists suddenly arrive; Jameson walks forward, calling out in English and Chinese, waving his declaration of neutrality at them; he is shot dead.

The sailors return fire; the commander tells the detail that he will keep firing, making it seem they're all still in the mission, while the rest of them leave by a rear exit. He miscalculates and is killed. Picking up the BAR, Holman tells the other sailors that he will keep shooting, while they get Bergen to safety. Jake gambles on being lucky, holding the attackers off and slipping away in the dark.

He nearly makes it -- but in making a last run for the rear exit, he is fatally shot. Propped up against a crate of the mission's machinery, Jake says, "I was home... What happened? What the hell happened?" -- and is shot again. The final scene shows Bergen and the other sailors heading to the river and the launch, which will take them to the San Pablo.

McQueen received a Best Actor nomination for the 1966 Oscars -- the only Oscar nomination he ever received; I was surprised to learn that -- in a year which saw nominations for Michael Caine (Alfie), Paul Schofield (Man For All Seasons), Alan Arkin (The Russians are Coming...) and Richard Burton (Who's Afraid Of Virginia Wolf?). Mako, who played Po-Han, was nominated for Best Supporting Actor. Unfortunately, Sand Pebbles did not win a single Oscar.

I'm not about to make predictions on what will happen over the next decade, let alone the next year, except to say that we are going to have to learn to live with higher and higher levels of uncertainty.

More and more, people may be asked to take sides, to show proof of their fealty to official values or to political or religious organizations. What The Hell Happened may be the question more and more people carry with them, no matter how it gets expressed.

We have a choice in how we respond to our future -- as individuals, as members of a community and culture. Instead of sharing anxiety and fear, we may find more community than we realize. And, like Jake, we can try to do the right thing, remembering we may have to act courageously to hold on to the people and things we love.

1 comment:

  1. Well, THAT was a lot of verbiage, wasn't it? Not gonna do that again...


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