(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.
(On Cable TV, June 2017) There’s no denying that watching a 1960 western nearly sixty years later is not as immersive an experience as it was back then—our standards for what we consider naturalistic cinema have changed a lot, and the genre conventions of westerns have evolved accordingly. Many of the actors of the time are now dead, and a few live on as legends. This being said, The Magnificent Seven remains an interesting movie today largely because it was a superlative experience back then. The lavish production values still impress today, and the unusual script (avowedly based on Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai) remains intriguing today. But more than that, the movie stars such acting superstars as Yul Brynner (cool and terrific, even with his hat on), Steve MacQueen (playing up his rebellious persona) and assorted notables such as Charles Bronson, Robert Vaughn and James Coburn in smaller roles. From a story perspective, the film isn’t particularly complex—there’s a long and relatively enjoyable first half in which the band of seven is gradually assembled, followed by a first and then a second showdown with the gang holding a village hostage. It’s not much, but it’s enough to get to the essence of the tough-guy western that this is meant to be. Brynner is nothing short of spectacular in the lead role, with MacQueen providing a good foil for him. Even today, The Magnificent Seven can be watched with some interest—although there are more than a few lulls here and there.