It was a very special opening night of The Film Society of Lincoln Center's week-long tribute to the films and career of Steve McQueen. Fox provided a stunning, newly restored 35mm print of director Robert Wise's 1966 epic The Sand Pebbles, which garnered McQueen his only Oscar nomination. Experiencing the film on the big screen with a superb sound system proved to be a wonderful experience - because if you haven't seen The Sand Pebbles in a theater, you haven't seen it at all. The evening kicked off with an introduction by Candice Bergen, who related that she was a rather nervous 19 year-old in the largely all-male company of heavyweights. She recalled how filming on Taiwan for many months was an arduous - and simultaneously boring - experience. In 1965, the island was largely devoid of any modern conveniences and newspapers and telephones were almost impossible to find. While the men had each other to pal around with, Bergen was largely left on her own - except for times when McQueen would take her on impromptu, wild motorcycle rides. She said the iconic star would often zip off on his cycle, causing director Wise to worry whether he would ever see him again. She said that it was more pleasurable filming back at the Fox Ranch in California, where the massive set for the China Light mission was constructed for the climactic sequence. She said she still remains impressed by the work of the production design team. Ms. Bergen also said that director Wise was very politically-oriented and that the film was an intentional metaphor for the on-going Vietnam conflict.
Ms. Bergen laced her comments with humor, recalling how the men in the cast and crew would pass the time going to a strip club where they would watch in amazement as someone called The Banana Woman would perform. She stopped short of going into graphic detail, but said the woman did sexual acts with a banana that would have seemed to be impossible. She laughingly said that she still regrets not catching her show. Ms. Bergen, who is as stunning in person as she is on-screen, was joined for the event by members of the McQueen family including his former wife Neile, his son Chad and a number of grandchildren. There were other prominent colleagues and friends of McQueen in the audience including David Foster, producer of The Getaway and Norman Jewison, who directed McQueen in The Thomas Crown Affair. (Both men are hosting screenings of the respective films as part of the festival.) As Ms. Bergen sat in front of me, it was rather interesting to see her facial expressions as she watched her first scenes on screen with Steve McQueen. You could tell there was genuine sentiment in re-living the moments.
As for the merits of the film itself, it is curiously rarely mentioned by prominent critics in any dissertation of the great films of the 1960s. What is clear, however, is that the movie-going public has far more regard for the film's legacy. It is brilliant on every level, with even the most minor role superbly and convincingly played. This time around I was more aware of just how impressive Richard Crenna is as the stern Capt. Collins. Prior to this film, Crenna was primarily known for being second banana to Walter Brennan in the TV sitcom The Real McCoys. Thus, his superb performance in this film helped launch him on a successful career on the big screen. I remain entranced by Jerry Goldsmith's score, certainly one of the greatest in the annals of movie history. As for McQueen, the film affords him one of the few multi-dimensional characters he ever played. His performance represents the finest work of his distinguished career. In all, The Sand Pebbles remains a true masterpiece of filmmaking - and one of Robert Wise's crowning career achievements. If you don't have the opportunity to see the film on the big screen, the next best thing is Fox's deluxe DVD of the restored print- plus deleted scenes. (Read our review of it here)
(The McQueen festival continues with screenings hosted by Norman Jewison, David Foster, Robert Vaughn and Peter Yates. For details, click here) Visit the film's tribute web site at www.thesandpebbles.com