Tony Mastroianni Review Collection

"Sand Pebbles" Too Long but Packs Dramatic Punch

Cleveland Press February 22, 1967

When it comes to adapting long novels to the screen, "Sand Pebbles" comes off better than did last week's "Hawaii."

But it also suffers from the same fault, one of excessive length. There is a curious insistence lately on bludgeoning an audience into submission with, the sheer weight of a movie.

"Sand Pebbles," however, has virtues that some other lengthy epics have lacked. Screen writer Robert Anderson has pulled together a fairly cohesive story from the myriad of details, characters and subplots that formed Richard McKenna's best-selling novel.

HE HAS TELESCOPED, cut and combined without doing undue injury to the original. But he could have done more. In building up the romance between the sailor (Steve McQueen) and the missionary teacher (Candice Bergen) he has allowed the story to bog down in excessively talky stretches.

The movie was produced and directed by Robert Wise who made "Sound of Music" and "West Side Story." One of the movie's strengths is Wise's use of authentic locales. In this case he has filmed his story of American gunboat diplomacy in China in 1926 in Taiwan and Hong Kong.

No story-book scenes are these. The waters are muddy, the people are ragged and dirty, the buildings are crowded, smoky hovels. An air of realism so sturdy pervades the screen that it almost gives off an odor.

"SAND PEBBLES" is a story told at two levels. There is the personal one of McQueen, a machinist's mate in the Navy -- an anti-hero, a non-conformist who gets along with machinery but not men. He gropes to understand the larger scene of which he is a part, seems forever stunned that he should be a part of it.

Then there is the larger one that tells of American involvement in other nations, of conflicts that start -- or seem to start -- with the protection of American nationals and which spreads into hopeless and fruitless wars.

This is the China of 1926 and the struggle that involved Chiang Kai-shek, feudal warlords and Communists.

There are obvious comparisons to be made to the contemporary scene. The movie raises many questions, answers none, winds up with sheer melodrama rather than a solution.

This is McQueen's best work so far. He is every inch a loner, a mixture of rugged individualism with little boy wonder. He carries off the part in a way that turns it into a dimensional character. And this is in spite of some deadly dialog he and co-actors are forced to utter.

More and more McQueen is emerging as a sturdy screen personality, an actor with the sort of singularly individual appeal that marked a Bogart or a Gable.

RICHARD CRENNA is a tight-lipped and overwhelmed Navy officer. Richard Attenborough has eliminated most of his English accent to play an American sailor in a sub-plot involving an unhappy romance with a Chinese girl.

The total effect of "Sand Pebbles" is uneven though gripping most of the way. It has too many elements as it tries to explain how Americans take on too many problems at one time. Which seems to have been the main problem with those who made "Sand Pebbles."