Xiphos vs The Book to Movie Adaptation: The Sand Pebbles
I’m sure this review is going to come as shock to most readers since it deals with the United States Navy and I am on record often and vigorously shitting on the Navy but The Sand Pebbles is such a great movie and book that for the purposes of this post the Navy gets a pass sort of.
If you are unaware of The Sand Pebbles let me enlighten you right quick. The movie is based on Richard McKenna’s 1962 novel of the same title. The story takes place during the Kuomintang (the Chinese national government under Chiang kai-Shek) Nationalist Northern Expedition of 1925-1927. The purpose of the Kuomintang’s assault was to make itself the paramount power in China and to do that it had to crush the warlords especially in the north of China. What it did in reality is inflame the population against the Kuomingtang and push a significant amount of the population into the clutches of the communist. Mao Zedong masterfully exploited the Northern expedition and gained a serious political and man power advantage over the Chiang kai-Shek and the Kuomintang government.
In the middle of this explosive political environment were members of the various western nation’s armed forces that had been stationed in China after the Boxer Rebellion theoretically to keep the peace. In reality they were there to safe guard western governments and business exploitation of China’s markets and resources. One of the units stationed on the Yangtze River was a US Navy Spanish American war era gun boat called the USS San Pablo affectionately called the Sand Pebble by the sailors stationed aboard her. Life as a sailor for the Yangtze river patrol was quite different then serving on a line ship for the US Navy. The biggest difference is that coolies (Chinese laborers) did virtually all the day to day work on the ship leaving the sailors to focus on battle drills and drinking.
A quick historical side note. I’ve read about and spoken with interwar year veterans of China deployments and man the stories they tell. You lived like a king on the crappy pay of soldier, sailor or Marine. Custom made uniforms for dirt cheap, feasts every day for like one dollar US, all the slant eyed pussy (and white and brown for that matter) that you could handle for pennies. In short it sounded like heaven until you heard the other stories. The interwar years were hugely violent in China and that was before the Japanese came and made it worse. The only good thing to come out of it was that the Army, Navy and Marine Corps refined their intelligence activity, learned what Japan was capable of first hand and gained plenty of experience in what is now called “special operations” which would pay off in a few years in WW2. If there is a motivated young film maker out there you might want to take a run a developing a movie set in China in the interwar years. The stories basically tell themselves and they are huge and heroic and interesting, just a thought.
Into this semi idyllic world of the Sand Pebbles is thrown the exact wrong person, Machinist Mate’s 1st Class Jake Holman a man who doesn’t like much except for his beloved engines. Holman was thrown off the Pacific fleet flagship for being to much of an individual and was dumped on the the Sand Pebble as punishment although Holman doesn’t see it like that. Holman is the quintessential loner. He would rather spend his time working on engines, which he has a natural affinity for, than dealing with most people. Holman truly doesn’t care about the other sailors or coolies except for Machinist’s Mate 2nd Class Frenchy Burgoyne and a coolie named Po-han, who is like Holman in that he has a natural affinity for machinery but no training. Holman sets out to rectify that deficiency thus causing a lot of problems for the caste system of the Sand Pebble. Holman’s actions alienate both the sailors of the Sand Pebbles and the lead coolie on board. The sailors see their cushy life is in jeopardy by Holman and the coolies see their rice bowl getting threatened. This all leads to some tragic results for members of the Sand Pebbles. Throw in a civil war, combat and natives feeling exploited by westerners and you have a heady stew cooking in the book. If you get a chance I highly recommend the Sand Pebbles. It’s a great read and drips with a sense of authenticity since the writer was a Yanghtze sailor in the 30’s.
The 1966 movie version of the Sand Pebbles is my favorite kind of movie. It’s an immersive, slow developing experience and it’s the kind of epic film making that Hollywood use to do so well back in the 60’s and 70’s. It’s a movie you fall into and never want to leave it. The writing, the acting, the direction, the score, all of it is hypnotic and of high quality. Don’t let the long run time dissuade you from seeing it. The Sand Pebbles clocks in at 196 minutes but those minutes do justice to the book since it allows the movie to go places a modern ADD inflicted 80 minute movie can’t or won’t go. The movie version of the Sand Pebbles is just about one of the best adaptations of a book into a movie there is. They lost very little from the book nor did they change much nor did they have to.
The acting in the movie was absolutely killer and the cast was well chosen. The reason the cast is so great is that it is made up of actors that looked like real people and can act and you buy them as sailors, soldiers, revolutionaries, missionaries or coolies. If this movie was made today there is no way it would work since virtually all actors today are worthless, spineless, weak and lack any sort of life experience. Instead of getting the perfect Jake Holman in Steve McQueen we would probably get that blank cypher Jake Gyllenhaal or that poofster from Drive, Ryan Gosling. Instead of Sir Richard Attenborough as Frenchy we would probably get Ashton Kutcher or even worse Jonah Hill who is looking like Richard Nixon more and more every day. How the hell do you find the right replacements for Richard Crenna, Mako, James Hong, Candice Bergen, Simon Oakland and everybody else in this fine cast? You can’t. Those sort of actors don’t exist anymore. You can’t get a good and believable performance out the unformed sodden lumps that are actors today because they all lack any life experience and come off as fake in virtually everything they are in unless it’s about being a suburban douchetard.
The other great choice that director Richard Wiseman made was to film the movie in China and Taiwan. You can fake places like LA, NYC, London or many other places in the world but China, geographically, is hard to reproduce elsewhere and its cities are virtually impossible. I don’t know if anybody else here has had a chance to go to China. I have, Hong Kong specifically. I was there not long after the UK handed control of Hong Kong back to the ChiComs and let me tell you, there is no city that can double for it. By filming in China it gave the movie yet another level of realism to ladle over the movie like a fine sauce.
Final thoughts: do I think that the book to movie adaptation of The Sand Pebbles was successful? I would think by now that it’s obvious I do. I truly miss the slow deliberately paced movies of yesterday. Movies today are like McDonald’s, they are slightly sickening but fill a void. The Sand Pebbles is like a fine meal with great wine and a stellar dessert. It’s more than just food, it is nourishment for the soul. The book fills that same need from a literary stand point. If you have not seen or read The Sand Pebbles I envy you. I wish I could enjoy both again for the first time.