The Sand Pebbles (1966)

<strong class="MovieTitle">The Sand Pebbles</strong> (1966)

(On Blu Ray, September 2018) It seems remarkable that The Sand Pebbles’ themes and overall attitude would dovetail so neatly with the then-worsening Vietnam War—adapted from a novel written years before and produced throughout 1965–1966, The Sand Pebbles does seem like a commentary on the American adventure in southeast Asia. Taking place aboard a gunboat tasked with patrolling the Yangtze River during the Chinese civil war, the beginning of the film isn’t overly dark but it does take place under a cloud of unease that’s far from the triumphant war movies of the 1960s—our protagonist (Steve MacQueen, in an unusually dramatic performance) makes few friends as he badly integrates with the crew, and many sailors are portrayed in an unusually negative way. Then the film turns into its second half, and things quickly get worse—our hero is accused of the murder of his deceased friend’s wife, with riots leading to a near-mutiny. Then, when tasked with rescuing American expatriates, the ship suffers heavy losses, all to find out that the missionaries are resisting their evacuation. Many people die on the way to the dark and fatalistic ending that suggests that Americans have no place over there. Many sequences are quite good—the near-mutiny alone is a small masterpiece of sustained tension. The Sand Pebbles may not be as exhilarating as many of the WW2 adventures of the time, but it clearly prefigures the much darker approach that war movies would take in the following decade with Vietnam being on everyone’s minds.

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