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Jake Holman get orders to ship out on the USS San Pablo, a US gunboat patrolling the Xiang River in China. It’s 1926 and there is heavy political turmoil in the country. Things aboard the San Pablo aren’t what Holman is used to. The running of the ship is left to the Chinese coolies. Jake is a machinist and runs his engine his way. Jake, not playing the game, disrupts the vibe of the ship and brings resentment his way. He just want to run his engine and put in his time.
The San Pablo goes through the motions on the river, keeping up the American presence. The crew live for shore leave and hit their favorite bar/brothel every chance they get. Along the way Jake meets a young teacher, Shirley who is heading up the river with a missionary to the China Light Mission. Jake and Shirley’s meeting is brief.
The political tension starts to boil over and the San Pablo is ordered back to port. Lieutenant Collins makes a decision to head up to China Light to evacuate the Americans at the mission. They fight their way up river. Collins and three men including Jake go ashore to the mission. It’s Jake’s chance to be re united with Shirley.
CB was into this film from the opening scene to the end. The story, the feel, the performances, it’s all there. Robert Wise does a great job. He had a lot to work with and manages to keep it focused and on target. It’s beautifully shot by Joseph Macdonald. You feel like you are in that time and place. Lots of authenticity. Great scenes just keep coming. Jake teaching Pohan how the engine works. Pohan fighting Ski. The ending at China Light is a beautiful piece of film-making. All the elements come together to nail the tension. Fantastic!
Richard Attenborough, Mako, Richard Crenna and the supporting cast bring the characters to life. Candice Bergen as Shirley brings a quiet, reserved performance. CB loved her work and her character. Her relationship with Jake is very subtle and truthful. Loved these two together. Steve McQueen gives one of his best performances. If ever an actor could get away with being economical and still have so much inner life going on it’s Steve. His work is outstanding. McQueen even breaks down in a scene. I guess he was feeling it.
Sand Pebbles is not short so load up on popcorn and refreshments and ship out on the San Pablo. Great flick!
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