Monday, August 24, 2009

1966 - The Sand Pebbles

Yesterday, my sweet beloved and I hopped on the Long Island Rail Road to visit some friends. Along our way, we passed a station frighteningly named Locust Manor before we disembarked at the pleasantly named Valley Stream to transfer to another service. Whilst waiting for the next train, we were treated to several recorded announcements reminding us to be train smart. Nothing unusual about that. Announcements of that nature are certainly commonplace. Except these ones all began with the sentence, "Hi, I'm Steve Guttenberg." And it was indeed the voice of Sgt. Mahoney himself that proceeded to warn us of the possible death trap that is the gap between the platform and the train.

Now, despite the fact that I have enjoyed several of Mr. Guttenberg's films, he does seem to hold the reputation of maintaining a less than illustrious career. So, I am left to ponder why he chose to lend his vocal talents to a series of public transport messages. Surely, even he does not believe that stressing the importance of keeping one's belongings in sight at all times is somehow a renowned and sought-after role.

But maybe I've got it all wrong. Perhaps he's genuinely passionate about train safety... Yes, that's probably it.

And now, to round out the first round of Matt vs. the Academy, the final nominee for Best Picture of 1966 is...

The Sand Pebbles
Robert Wise
Robert Anderson
(based on the novel by Richard McKenna)
Steve McQueen, Richard Attenborough, Richard Crenna, Candice Bergen, Mako
Academy Awards:
8 nominations
0 wins

If you're interested in Chinese politics in the early twentieth century, then The Sand Pebbles will be right up your alley. Or maybe not. I can't vouch for its historical accuracy. Nonetheless, the political themes serve only as a background to what is quite a suspenseful and gripping story. Jake Holman is an engineer in the Navy and he's just been transferred to the San Pablo (called the Sand Pebble by its crew), a gunboat patrolling the Yangtze River, protecting US citizens. The ship's captain allows a few non-standard practices, including the employment of Chinese men below deck to do all the manual labour, thereby freeing up the crew's time for other activities. Jake likes to run the engine room himself, however, so he quickly creates enemies amongst the crew, who prefer the status quo.

From the music over the opening credits, you know that The Sand Pebbles is going to be serious. Chinese politics serious. There's plenty of back and forth bantering about the state of affairs in the region, and undoubtedly, the ship's unwelcome presence on the river is supposed to mirror the US Forces' presence in Vietnam (a hot topic at the time the film was released). Fortunately, the heavy-handed political discussions make way for several truly eyes-glued-to-the-screen sequences. And I mean several. But then, at three hours long, there's plenty of room for that.

Steve McQueen as Jake is the king of brooding (as evidenced in this picture), and the ramblings he constructs in an attempt to communicate with one of the Chinese labourers are a wonderful thing to witness. Richard Attenborough costars as Jake's only friend on the ship, who falls for a local Chinese girl and vows to rescue her from forced prostitution. The rest of the cast is like a who's who of pop culture. Murphy Brown star Candice Bergen appears as the missionary's assistant that Jake falls for. Rambo's Richard Crenna is the ship's stubborn captain. And speaking of ship captains, The Love Boat's Captain Stubing, otherwise known as Gavin McLeod, is a member of the ship's crew. And for the keen-eyed, Chinese crime boss Victor Shu is played by James Hong, who, despite having a great many credits, is immortalised with the lines, "five, ten minutes" from the Chinese Restaurant episode of Seinfeld. Hmm, I think that gives you a small indication of the way my brain works.

An interesting point to note is that director Robert Wise had spent years trying to bring The Sand Pebbles to the screen. As he waited for pre-production to be completed, the studio convinced him to make another film in the meantime. So he casually helmed The Sound of Music and won an Oscar for it.

So, that concludes the first round of nominees. Well, almost. In the next post, I will deliver my first verdict on which of 1966's Best Picture nominees is my favourite. Will it match the Academy's choice? ... Yes. But now I've gone and ruined the surprise...

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