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Lord Richard Attenborough was a titan of the British film industry, with a career that spanned over six decades. Indeed, if he knew how many people only knew of him through Jurassic Park, he would probably be disappointed. Attenborough’s crowning achievement was making his dream of bringing Mahatma Gandhi’s life to the big screen come true, but before that, he was already an established star in front of the camera.
By the late 1940s, Attenborough was already an established star in his native Britain. But he really became known to American audiences when he appeared in 1963’s The Great Escape, a thrilling World War II POW film that paired him with Steve McQueen. In that film, although their goals were the same - escape the prison - they often clashed, disagreeing with how to go about it.
Three years alter, Attenborough and McQueen teamed up again for Robert Wise’s new action epic, The Sand Pebbles, the director’s follow-up to The Sound of Music. Based on the novel by Richard McKenna, The Sand Pebbles focuses on an obscure part of history (for Westerners) between the two World Wars in China. The country is torn apart by the ongoing civil war and natives are not happy that Western boats are patrolling their rivers.
McQueen is our eyes and ears to this part of history as Jake Holman, an engineer assigned by the Navy to the USS San Pablo. While the captain of the gunboat is never happy with Holman from the moment he steps aboard, he does find one friend - Frenchy, played by Attenborough. It’s a very different role from The Great Escape, as Frenchy is actually more of a romantic character. His own story runs parallel to Holman’s, as he falls in love with an educated Chinese woman stuck working as a prostitute. Holman ends up marrying her and swims off secretly at night to be with her.
While I still have many more Attenborough films left to see, this is one of his great performances. That he was not nominated for an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor is one of the great crimes in cinema history. He gives the audience a sense of hope that, even when everyone else around you hates what you stand for, you can still find a friend. McQueen is the audience in The Sand Pebbles and Attenborough is our friend. He gives McQueen’s character something to really fight for in the final act of this incredible epic.
The Sand Pebbles, a name that refers to the nickname the men on the San Pablo gave themselves, is a 1960s relic, running exactly three hours and including an overture and intermission. But it is still a film classic. Not only does it feature McQueen’s best performance (it was the only time he was nominated for an Oscar), but Attenborough gives one of his best as well.
Attenborough may be remembered best for directing Gandhi or appearing in Jurassic Park, but his roles as a younger man are definitely just as important, if not more so.