The year is 1926, just before one of the many Chinese revolutions. Jake Holman (Steve McQueen) is a ship’s engineer who has been transferred to a small run-down gunship named the San Pablo, or the Sand Pebble to her crew. Aboard the Pebble, Holman causes tension amongst the already tight-knit yet divided crew, which doesn’t help when the Chinese public attempt to instigate a war with the US.
It took me quite a while to get to this film. I had the LoveFilm disc for over two weeks before it made its way into the DVD player, and even then it was watched in two sections, something I really don’t like doing with films. The main reason for this is the length of this film, just two minutes over three hours long, which is not a block of time I often find readily available to myself. However, a Sunday arose when two 90+ minute gaps arose in my schedule, so off I went on my 1920s war journey. The other obstacle I had to overcome was this film being described as an epic. Now, in my experience, the term “epic” is synonymous with “padded” or “unnecessarily overlong.” Some long films are great – Magnolia, The Great Escape, The Green Mile – and these are very rarely described as epics, they are simply brilliant films. Occasionally there are exceptions – The Good, The Bad and The Ugly is both long and epic in scope, yet remains tightly plotted and a joy to behold – but these are few and far between, so I prepared myself for large amounts of time spent waiting around for something to happen.
It turns out that this film is essentially about just that – waiting around for something to happen. The San Pablo is a gunship with nobody to fight. Their role in existence is to be ready and able when the call comes, and to keep everything in working condition in the meantime. This would probably seem a worthwhile life if the call came often and regularly, but here there are times when you think it may never come. Fortunately, there are enough diversions to keep the mind occupied whilst we wait for the climax that does, eventually, get here.
The focus is on McQueen’s Holman. The crew of his new engine room are entirely Chinese (or ‘coolies’ as the rest of the crew insist upon calling them). Holman doesn’t think much of their “monkey see, monkey do” way of working on the engine, and soon runs foul of Chien (Tommy Lee, no not that one), the chief engineer. Holman finds himself an engineer with nothing to work upon, more a mechanic than anything else (no offense to mechanics, but we engineers are better than you). One of Holman’s story arcs involves this relationship between him and the Chinese crewmen softening, especially when he takes one under his wing (Mako) and attempts to teach him how to run an engine room properly, by actually thinking about what he is doing, how it works and how one thing affects another. Obviously this is one of the areas of the films that I took to the most, given its relation to my chosen profession, and the scene involving the fixing of a broken engine was one of the highlights, even if the outcome was entirely predictable.
Alongside Holman there is also Richard Attenborough’s Frenchy, one of the more sensitive shipmates, whose job seems to entail showing Holman around and introducing him to the rest of the crew, and then doing pretty much nothing of any use for the rest of the film. He does however get a key sub-plot involving his obsession with Maily (Emmanuelle Arsan), a virginal dancer at the local whorehouse whose deflowering costs $200, as does her freedom. Frenchy sets about attempting to raise the money to free his love, before a rival crewman raises the same amount but with a far less wholesome intent. This culminates in a couple of difficult to watch scenes, one involving a bare knuckle bet-upon fight, and the other a bidding war, with Maily being stripped against her will with every increasing bet. It’s also worth pointing out that the whorehouse is run by none other than Big Trouble in Little China‘s James Hong, and the captain of the San Pablo is Colonel Trautman himself, Richard Crenna.
The role of Jake Holman is the only one that Steve McQueen ever received an Oscar nomination for, along with seven other academy award nominations The Sand Pebbles received, including Best Picture and Best Supporting Actor for Mako. I’m not surprised to find that it didn’t win anything, even if the only other picture up for anything that year that I’ve seen or even heard of is Alfie, but I am surprised to see McQueen nominated. His performance here isn’t much different than anything else he’s done, there’s just more of it given the running time and his central focus.
The plot threads start to fray a bit towards the end of the film, and some sections feel a bit rushed, which is very unusual for a DVD that includes an intermission (I love it when they do that), however the climax is wonderful, a few brilliantly rewarding bouts of action that make up for the relative tedium up to that point. The scale of much of the film is truly epic too, with hundreds of extras milling about their daily lives in ports or during parades, something which you rarely see in today’s CG cinema. I could have just done with it all being a little shorter, but then, as I said, this is a film about waiting, so it makes sense that that’s what it puts us through.
Choose film 7/10