Reviews — April 4
To appreciate the war epic “The Sand Pebbles,” one must view it through the prism of two historical periods — the one in which it is set, and the one in which it was released: The action plays out in 1920s China, where Steve McQueen is on a U.S. gunship protecting vaguely defined American “interests.” The movie was released in 1966, just as Vietnam was heating up. Understanding this deepens one’s appreciation of what the filmmakers accomplished.
“The Sand Pebbles” is not so much an anti-war film as it is a remarkably nuanced meditation on issues of racism, militarism and nationalism — and the complex interplay among them. When McQueen comes aboard, he’s what I could call a casual bigot; by the end, he is a changed man, and the film (both versions exceed three hours) takes sufficient time to make his transformation believable. It’s the only role for which he ever received an Oscar nomination.
Nominated for eight Academy Awards (including best picture), “The Sand Pebbles” is fascinating viewing, highlighted by set pieces that are as interesting as they are thrilling. Richard Attenborough (who co-starred with McQueen in “The Great Escape”) is also aboard, along with Richard Crenna (terrific as the ship’s no-nonsense captain) and a 19-year-old Candice Bergen. It took director Robert Wise four years to put this one together, and one can see why; it’s truly epic filmmaking.
“The Sand Pebbles” (1966) Directed by Robert Wise. Starring Steve McQueen, Richard Attenborough, Candice Bergen, Richard Crenna, Emmanuelle Arsan and Mako, who went on to become a prolific television actor in the U.S. There are two versions: a 183-minute theatrical version, and the 196-minute “roadshow” version, which I heartily recommend. Rated PG-13 for violence, some sexual material.
By the time I visited Glastonbury Abbey, on a snowy day in 1982, the English landmark was a cold, crumbling ruin, with just a few partial walls to suggest the nave and cloisters of King Arthur’s day -- and, according to some versions of the legend, his burial place.
In “Grave Goods,” Ariana Franklin brings the famous abbey back to life in all its 12th Century glory. Almost, at least -- as the novel begins, Glastonbury Abbey and the adjacent town have just been burned to the ground, possibly by an arsonist.
The origin of the fire is but one of many mysteries that will be pondered, and perhaps solved, by the novel’s engaging main character, Vesuvia Adelia Rachel Ortese Aguilar.
Adelia is a doctor educated at “the School of Medicine in Salerno, the only place in Christendom that suffered, and trained, women students.” King Henry II believes in her skills, but the average Englishman would never accept her, so she does her diagnosing -- and sleuthing — in the guise of translator for a foreign man.
A woman of science, Adelia considers herself immune to myths and old wive’s tales. Yet even she is affected by the enchantments of Glastonbury -- and this almost costs her dearly.
Franklin is the pen name of Diana Norman, British journalist-turned-novelist who specializes in historical novels. She does a wonderful job breathing life into the period in which “Grave Goods” is set — readers will sweat in the oppressive heat of the kitchen, shiver with fear as they travel the tangled stretch of road between Wells and Glastonbury, smell the stench of the bard who has but one outfit.
She also sheds light on the modernization that occurred during Henry II’s reign. She makes a case for the benefits of changes he made, such as creating a system of jury trials to replace the much bloodier traditional methods of settling disputes. She also points out that Medieval people were dealing with issues, such as clergy sex abuse, which remain very much in the forefront today.
This novel — third in the “Mistress of the Art of Death” series featuring Adelia -- is a nice addition to the collection of stories inspired by King Arthur. Although set in 1176, it’s written in modern language, making it easily accessible to any reader.
“Grave Goods,” by Ariana Franklin, 2009, G.P. Putnum’s Sons.