Fascinating Boredom on the Yangtze
The Sand Pebbles
With Steve McQueen
When all is said and done the thing for which we will probably most gratefully remember Andy Warhol will not be a painting or an underground movie, but an extremely useful concept in esthetics. Someone asked him one time for an opinion of one of Edward Albee's many lesser works, and he replied that he found it long and boring but that was all right with him because "I like long, boring things."
All of us do, on occasion, and I found myself recalling Warhol's Law recently as I allowed myself to go limp and be absorbed slowly, ever so slowly, into the system of a movie called The Sand Pebbles. It is much, much too long. It is boring in a way that only a film full of stock characters involved in stock emotional situations can be. And it is utterly fascinating.
It is based on Richard McKenna's best-selling novel of the same name, and it tells you more than you could possibly wish to know ahout life on a U.S. gunboat patrolling the upper reaches of the Yangtze River during the 1920s. Now a gunboat doing such duty is nothing more than a floating garrison, and garrison life is traditionally subject to a special kind of psychological anguish--that of healthy males confined to a small space under discipline and chafing for a piece of the action they know is going on just outside their walls. It is precisely the quarrelsome, half-mad mood of men in this insufferable situation that Director Robert Wise and Screenwriter Robert Anderson perfectly capture in their film, and which is one of the qualities that gives their long, boring thing its singular value. Were it any shorter, it would simply not have made its point.
The film's other important virtue is its uniqueness of setting and the apparent authenticity with which Wise has recaptured the look and feel of an exotic clime in an almost forgotten time. At first you couldn't be less interested, but then you realize that though gunboat diplomacy now- adays goes by fancier names, the tradition of serving the flag largely by showing it in distant places, and the strain such activity imposes on the military temperament, is a subject still worth examining in one of its classic historical contexts: the U.S. really once had such a strange "China Navy" in operation.
It also makes you realize that in all essentially absurd situations the enemy of sanity is passion. Those sailors survive who accept the duty for what it is, never question its usefulness and occupy themselves with boozing and brawling and whoring. Those who look up and either question the necessity, of what they are doing or find someone or something to love outside the system are lost. Such a one is Steve McQueen, a veritable Jonah to his messmates because of the troubles he causes by loving a woman, a couple of friends, even the ship's engine (which he is in charge of) not wisely but too well. Richard Attenborough, his closest friend, also dies for love, and his commanding officer, Richard Crenna, is driven mad through overconscientious concern for duty.
Their story is punctuated, just often enough, by bursts of action directed with a deft and bloody hand. These have their symbolic uses. The gunboat sailors are political innocents, but they get killed - by bandits, by street mobs, by revolutionary irregulars, even by government forces - just as if they really were foreign devils. There is a sadness, a loneliness in their pointless deaths that matches and illuminates the boredom they suffered and that will surely return to plague the survivors. Technically, The Sand Pebbles is a clumsy and lumbering film, but it has a way of haunting the corners of your mind, as historical footnotes are sometimes wont to do.
Richard Schickel - January 6, 1967
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