By: Oberst Von Berauscht (A Toast) –
Closing out Steve McQueen month is perhaps his most powerful performance. The year is 1926, and the American Government has reached the height of its Colonial power. In China, a number of lightly armed Naval Gunboats patrol the Yangtze river in order to protect American interests in the region. McQueen plays Jake Holman, a Machinist’s Mate transferred to the duty of running the engine on one of these ships. Like most of his fellow sailors Holman has a low opinion of the Chinese. But as the political situation in the region deteriorates, and he clashes with superiors, Holman witnesses acts of cruelty and compassion which force him to re-examine his ingrained biases.
Filmmaker Robert Wise has said that he’d agreed to making The Sound of Music only on the condition that the studio financed this one no-questions asked. And indeed The Sand Pebbles explores territory that would be walking a controversial tight-rope even today. Indeed, this mid 60’s film deals with such weighty themes as rape and racism. Considering that the 60’s also produced Breakfast at Tiffany’s, this is quite an achievement.
Culturally sensitive Hollywood strikes again!
This period piece managed to draw comparison with many modern issues of the time, such as the rapidly escalating war in Vietnam, fairly courageous for a mainstream film of the time. Almost every technical aspect of the ship is run by Chinese Laborers known as Coolies, allowing more sailors to stand up on deck, creating an illusion of a stronger military force. And while the Coolies do keep the ship’s engine running, only when one of them is killed in a freak accident is it revealed how truly expendable they are to the Navy. The sailor’s treatment of the Coolies is used to comment on the subjugation created by Colonial rule.
None of this would have worked if the cast was anything less than excellent. Steve McQueen’s Holman is an incredibly complex character, his love of working with engines contrasts that of his poor relations with the people around him. His only real friends on the ship are Frenchy (Richard Attenborough), who shares his distain for their fellow sailors, and Po-Han (Mako), a coolie he trains as an engineer.
These supporting actors pull their weight and then some. Mako gives the character of Po-Han a great deal of depth. In spite of his minimal education, Po-Han shows incredible bravery and a willingness to learn which earns him the notice of Holman, who takes Po-Han under his wing. Perhaps the most interesting side-character though is Maily, a young Chinese woman whose virginity is put up for sale by the pimp who loans her $200.00. It is perhaps telling that the actress who portrays Maily (Marayat Andriane) was also the writer of sex-novel Emmanuelle.
(Think Fifty Shades of Grey, as written by someone who didn’t fail English.)
This is what an epic Adventure story should be.
Bonus Drinking Game
Take a Drink: when somebody is racist
Take a Drink: each time Richard Crenna gets angry with Steve McQueen
Down a Shot: for fistfighting