Xiphos vs The Book to Movie Adaptation: The Sand Pebbles

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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.

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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.

S McQueen 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.

Xiphos

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About Xiphos0311

Sporadic genius but mostly IDGAF.

81 responses to “Xiphos vs The Book to Movie Adaptation: The Sand Pebbles”

  1. Continentalop says :

    I got to read this later (got to run an errand), but why did this pop up after Therewolf’s and Jarv’s reviews? I would have missed seeing this if Barfy didn’t post a link.

  2. tombando says :

    This is a great movie, nice early role for Murphy Brown, Crenna is good, Attenborough, etc. It also has that guy who looks like a cross between Claude Akins and William Conrad, Simon Oakland.

    The Dvd has nice commentaries by Wise, Mako and Crenna not long before they all passed. McQueen makes this go and Xiphos is right, they couldnt make this now.

    Recommended.

    • Xiphos0311 says :

      I need to get the DVD and listen to the commentary that sounds like an interesting way to watch the movie again.

  3. Jarv says :

    Never even heard of this. Sounds really good, I shall definitely look up the book.

    There’s loads of periods of history that I wish some film makers would mine- the Opium wars, for example.

    • Xiphos0311 says :

      surprised you never heard of this it was nominated for several awards and won a bunch. Its very well made.

      • Jarv says :

        Dunno. It just seems to have slipped completely under my radar.

      • Xiphos0311 says :

        I guess that happens

      • Jarv says :

        Funny how it does though, because there’s all sorts of nonsense from that period that I am aware of.

      • Xiphos0311 says :

        I tend to like these slow long movies from the ‘s 60’s so I look for them. Are all of them good nope but they’re usually interesting in some way more so then the ADD fest we get today.

      • Droid says :

        That’s because older movies of this ilk tend to value story over pyrotechnics.

      • Xiphos0311 says :

        that is true Droid.

      • Jarv says :

        It’s a crying fucking shame actually.

      • Xiphos0311 says :

        it really is a shame that a majority of movies now sacrifice story for gimmicks and surface things.

      • Droid says :

        A lot of the bigger films are cobbled together stories based around a series of action set pieces. Very little in the way of character development.

      • Droid says :

        Ebert has said a few times that he things part of the reason is because the bigger films are dubbed for wide and immediate distribution into foreign language markets, so dialogue is limited to easily dubbed short hand, terse statements designed to get to the next scene.

      • Xiphos0311 says :

        Not so sure I totally agree with Ebert’s point since the Sand Pebbles had world wide release and its dialogue heavy, along with dozens of other movies.

      • Droid says :

        He’s referring to films of the last decade or two. That they’ve been getting increasingly simplistic so that it’s easier to sell quickly to foreign markets. And worldwide is where the money is these days.

        I mean, you don’t need to do very much dubbing when a guy spends an hour running through a war torn Chicago and he says about 10 lines of dialogue that include things like “We have to go!” and “OPTIMUS!”.

      • Xiphos0311 says :

        I guess there might be something to that, for the “big” movies but not sure its that simple because there are still many dialogue heavy movies being made. They tend to be rom coms or the like but still they’re being made.

      • Droid says :

        Sure. I’m thinking it’s more the megabudget movies. It’s about maximising your profit potential, and those movies that cost $200m or more tend to risk a lot if they fail. So they play it safe.

        Comedies and rom-coms are on the cheaper end of the scale, and don’t need that immediate “first weekend” to get back a bunch of their money.

      • Droid says :

        Because there are so many movies coming out every week, theatre owners don’t give a shit about letting a film “find an audience”. If not enough people are going to see the film they yank it, and replace it with more screenings of a Transformers type.

      • Jarv says :

        It’s true that, remember the bumming Solomon Kane got so we could have 9 million screens of Alice in Wonderland.

      • Xiphos0311 says :

        I would agree with that

      • Continentalop says :

        Comedies (American ones) actually don’t play well overseas outside of English speaking countries. Of course comedies are cheaper than big sfx movies and can rake in American audiences so studios still love making them.

      • Droid says :

        And they earn big on dvd.

      • koutchboom says :

        Adam SANDLER has finally figured out the non American barrier.

      • Jarv says :

        Why , has he managed to be funny?

      • Xiphos0311 says :

        Sandler was funny in Billy Madison, Happy Gilmore and The Wedding Singer and I would also say The Waterboy had its moments. Other then that yes he sucks.

      • Droid says :

        Even Billy Madison isn’t funny. I thought so at the time but I watched it a few years ago and it’s pretty rubbish. Gilmore and WS are still pretty good.

      • Jarv says :

        I think Madison is fucking annoying actually.

        Gilmore, WS, and bits of the Waterboy are OK. They were a hell of a long time though.

      • koutchboom says :

        No he’s managed to become universally successful. Ever since the Alexander Payne penned I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry his Domestic and Non American Box Office have a pretty even split on the overall box office of his comedies (his drama’s don’t really count). And all of them since then have been successful, only Jack and Jill wasn’t a major hit for him, but it wasn’t a flop. Though the odd thing is pretty much since Anger Management his movies have cost around $80 million, so the investment on returns isn’t that huge. And it seems like most of his movies could be made for around $20 million….so $40 million when you add in Sandman’s cost.

  4. Droid says :

    This does sounds interesting. I’ll keep it in mind for either a read or a viewing.

  5. Xiphos0311 says :

    Btw I left a lot of things out of this that are best learned unspoiled.

    Interesting story i learned about the author, the poor bastard, while researching this. He spent like 20+ years in the Navy served in WW2, Korea and Vietnam. gets out starts going to college gets this book and some sci fi stories published and it looks like he’s about to really make it as an author and boom heart attack takes him down.

    • tombando says :

      Wow that’s lousy Xiphos.

      This movie is slow yes but it works. You get to know the characters, setting etc quite well. Plus McQueen is awfully good at the ‘speaking volumes by saying nothing’ bit, not just anyone can do that.

      • Xiphos0311 says :

        yeah I felt bad for McKenna when i read that. 20 years in the Navy get a book published that is lauded and you don’t get to enjoy the fruits of your success.

        Yes I agree the slow developing story allows you to really understand the characters and why they make the choices they do.

  6. Continentalop says :

    I never read the book but I saw the film years ago. One of the few legitimate male tearjerker films.

    But I disagree. This film could be made nowadays. Only it would suck and they’d probably Hollywoodize it.

    • Jarv says :

      It would be horrible now.

      • Droid says :

        There are people that can still make films that combine action and a large scale story and characters we give a damn about. Peter Weir did that with Master and Commander and The Way Back. But the problem is that no one goes to see these expensive films. Or not enough for the bean counters to think more of them are financially viable. When M&S made a $62m profit and TF3 made a $900m profit, what type of films are they going to keep making?

      • Jarv says :

        I’m still genuinely not convinced that the tentpole model is the best, certainly not in the long term

      • Xiphos0311 says :

        I understand that and because of the points you raised that’s why I think Sp would never get made today.

        Didn’t M&C make monster profits on the secondary markets like DVD? I thought I read that somewhere but I could be wrong.

      • Jarv says :

        I’m sure it did.

        This will be a consideration. I’d like to see the difference between what TF made in the cinema and on DVD, I bet you that in comparison to M&C it’s much closer.

      • Xiphos0311 says :

        I don’t Jarv it seems to me like its a viable economic model tent pole and cheap throw away crap like slasher flicks seem to be where the money comes from. Its the middle ranks of movies, both cost and subject wise, that seems to pay the price creatively and economically.

      • Jarv says :

        Ah, but I’m thinking about the music industry and long term. Piracy didn’t kill the music industry, short termism did. What happened was that the labels fell over themselves to throw money at acts that they could market with out trying (EMI paid Robbie Williams some obscene amount of cash, I think it was about $100m), and they overproduced disposable, but controllable “pop” music. The idea being that they’d score massively in the first week after the song/ album was released, and who gives a fuck about Longevity.

        What happened was that these acts did score big. For a while, but the overall sales started to decline. Piracy hurt, but it wasn’t what did the real damage.

        I think the Studios are facing exactly the same problems as the labels did in the early part of the last decade. They’re making exactly the same mistakes, and behaving in exactly the same way.

        History repeats itself, first time as tragedy, second as farce.

      • Droid says :

        The problem is, these movies aren’t really declining. They’re making more money than ever. What these movies are doing is hurting the low-middle budget films. But ultimately it’s audience tastes that drive what type of movies we get. As long as people keep flocking to superhero movies, we’ll be getting them.

      • Jarv says :

        We’re really early in the cycle. It took about 5 years for it to kick in with the music industry. There will be a watershed event (I thought it may be Speed Racer) and the cash will stop coming in. It’ll be slow at first and then accelerate.

      • Droid says :

        Avatar 2 will bomb!

      • Jarv says :

        I’d be surprised, but that would work.

        One of the early outliers was the Maria Carey fiasco at EMI. Nearly bankrupted them. But did they learn? No. Did they fuck.

        The second indicator was that people stopped buying Pop Idol/ X Factor winners releases. The survival time for the average talent show act has plummeted to nothing, and you’ve now got the likes of Fatdele making it big with no help from anyone, other than the internet.

        The Studios really should be looking at the music industry.

      • Continentalop says :

        Middle budgets are pretty much dead. It’s almost back to the old studio days of making A & B pictures.

      • Xiphos0311 says :

        and that’s sad Conti because a lot of my favorite movies were the mid-budget ones that don’t get made anymore.

      • Droid says :

        Movies pretty much in the $50-120m range are getting few and far between.

      • Jarv says :

        Because they’re always the wrong budget for the wrong film. Your Highness, for example, had no business having the budget it had.

        Furthermore, I genuinely believe that a lot of tentpoles waste money like it’s going out of fashion, and should actually be mid-budget.

      • Droid says :

        Conan for example, should never have been $80m. Not when Centurion cost 10 or 12.

      • Jarv says :

        Exactly. Great case in point. Conan had a cast of almost unknowns, and yet cost $80m.

        On fucking what, precisely? Some shite CGI.

        Which is irritating to say the least and a complete waste of the cash.

      • Droid says :

        And you could probably cut 30 million from the budget if you get rid of the two worst scenes, the sand people and the snake monster thing.

      • Jarv says :

        Absolutely. That snake thing scene was so completely and utterly pointless and aggravating. And another way you can save money with that is not animate the mask. What the fuck was the point of that?

      • Jarv says :

        I’ll give you a good example: The new Dark Knight Film.

        Granted, there does need to be a relatively high budget, but surely it’s cheaper to do a lot of the stuff in it practically than splurge a load on CGI.

        The flip side of that, of course, is something like Rise, Which came in at a comparatively cheap $93m, needed every fucking penny and the whole thing clearly ended up on screen.

      • Continentalop says :

        Tell me about it Xi. Would French Connection, Taxi Driver, LA Confidential or Five Easy Pieces be made today? Maybe, but they would be much less likely to be green lit and for some of them they’d be forced to shoot on a micro budget.

      • Continentalop says :

        The entire way film’s budgets work is fucked up. You going to make a film for $40 million, you cast a $20 million actor in the lead and now the budget isn’t $60 million, it’s $80-100 million.

      • Jarv says :

        Absolutely, and for what?

        It’s insane.

      • Xiphos0311 says :

        I think this relentless flogging of super hero flicks will be the watershed moment, at least I hope they will be.

      • Jarv says :

        One of the major ones needs to bomb, and bomb hard. I suspect it could well by Snyder’s Man of Stool.

      • Jarv says :

        Another candidate, actually, is The Avengers. Which has the potential to kill all the Marvel films in one hit.

      • Jarv says :

        On this, I’m outta here.

        Ciao, bitches.

        GIANT PIG part 2 is back tomorrow.

      • Continentalop says :

        Btw jarv’s comparison of movies and the music industry made me think of another comparison: the auto industry.

        The Big Three got wrapped up just making SUVs and trucks because that was were the money was, and would lose money on cheaper cars. But when the market changed & no one wanted the gas guzzlers they were fucked.

        I wonder if there is a bailout in Hollywood’s future?

      • Xiphos0311 says :

        with the amount of cash Hollywood pays off to Barry and the Democrats I’m sure thy would look for one.

      • Continentalop says :

        I don’t even think Obama and the Dems would come to our rescue. They’d realize how it’d look and how unpopular it’d be. Obama’s too prudent for that.

        Besides, even without Hollywood CA is a Blue state. No need to win us over.

      • Xiphos0311 says :

        gotta keep the tributes flowing and as it is right now one of the few things keeping Cali afloat is movies and television.

    • Xiphos0311 says :

      those assholes would tun it in to a 88 minute lame as fuck action flick starring one of those charisma black holes like Sam Worthington or Channing Tatum completely missing the point of the book and the original movie.

      • Continentalop says :

        Speaking of M&C, if they made it 10-years ago they could have gotten Crowe. He’d work, but he’s the only actor I can think of who could’ve pulled it off (too fat and old now).

      • Xiphos0311 says :

        actually a chunky Crowe fits the character in the book he’s sort of fat.

  7. Continentalop says :


    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.

    I actually would love to write a script about the Shanghai Munincipal Police in the 20s, based on Willaim Fairbairn and Eric Sykes experiences (of Fairbairn-Sykes Knife fame). Gangsters, Communist, Nationalist, Shanghailanders, Japanese spies, Russian exiles, etc. It was a powder keg of intrigue and crime, with supposedly a shit load of street fighting, kidnappings, revolutionary activity and violence going on hence why Fairbairn developed Defendu) and where many modern police tactics were invented.

    • Xiphos0311 says :

      there are some great stories to tell from that era. the Municipal Police is one the 4th Marines in Shanghai and the 16th US Infantry in Tiensing(sp) you could amalgamate stories into epic films.

      • tombando says :

        Or just make it whole hog: the Chang Kai Shek movie, directed by Peter Weir and written by people w/ IQs higher than Harold’s.

      • Xiphos0311 says :

        I would like to see a Chang Kai Shek movie set in the time of Mao’s Long March.I think that would be interesting and do the movie movie in china with Chinese actors speaking in Chinese. That is if the ChiComs will let them do it. If not flip them the bird and do it in Taiwan if possible.

  8. ThereWolf says :

    This is annoying. I’ve had several opportunities over the years to watch ‘The Sand Pebbles’ but never did. Y’know, I thought I knew all of Steve McQueen’s films – I didn’t know he was in this one. So, there’s double the reason to see it now. That DVD sounds good – I’ll get over to Lovefilm…

    I don’t mind how long the film is, I like sinking into an epic – as long as the running time is used wisely, and it sounds like it is.

    Nice one, Xi.

    • Xiphos0311 says :

      Wolf lucky bastard you get experience the movie for the first time I’m jealous. I’m sure you’ll sink right into it since there is not a wasted minute on screen.

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