Once upon a time, directly after Latin class, a certain John asked a certain Kathy to see a movie called The Sand Pebbles. Sadly, Kathy, a member of the marching band, was unavailable because of a football game on the night in question. John did not ask Kathy out again for about seven years, during which they both graduated from college and lived in different places and got jobs and Kathy took a lot more Latin classes. Finally, about ten years after that first invitation, John and Kathy got married.
When we began dating for real, I reminded John of that long-ago request for a date. He didn’t remember it, but he remembered (being John) the movie and remembered taking another girl at our high school instead of me. Now, after almost fifty years of not seeing The Sand Pebbles, I borrowed the movie from the library.
It’s a long movie. I watched all of its three hours through my high-school eyes at the same time as my present-day, married-to-a-film-buff eyes. It had that epic look of certain prestige movies of the time—vistas of sea and Chinese landscapes, Panavision, long takes. Nominated for eight Academy Awards, the script tackles issues like imperialism, racism, and religion. Steve McQueen plays a sailor in the 1920s on an American gunboat in China. He’s a rebel and iconoclast. Love interest Candice Bergen, nineteen years old to McQueen’s thirty-six, is an idealistic missionary.
I kept thinking that though the movie’s trying hard to be liberal, trying hard to say the right things, it’s racist and sexist in spite of itself, in today’s terms. Both the Chinese characters and women are subsidiary and one-dimensional. It’s a world created and dominated by white men. They’re pretty well-intentioned white men—i.e., the writers and directors and producers—but after fifty years, history and diversity have passed them by.
I tried to imagine how it would have felt to see this movie on a date. Sitting next to a boy! My high-school sensibility was shocked! An appealing young Chinese woman is auctioned off to the highest American bidder in a bar, until a very young, lovesick Richard Attenborough snatches her away to protect her. A few scenes later, after some months have passed, we learn she is pregnant. I was a pretty sheltered adolescent, and I would have felt squirmy during these adult-themed scenes, tame as they are today.
In a twist, though, the movie is more violent than I usually see now. I think I was more inured to violence back then, getting my weekly ration on Bonanza, Gunsmoke, The Rifleman, and the rest.
What would have happened if I had skipped that football game, aside from being thrown out of the band? Would John and I have enjoyed each other’s company and become a high-school item? Would we have dated for awhile and then broken up, bitter and broken-hearted? Or would I have “bored” him, like some of the girls he dated in high school?
At the time, I felt sad, because boys (let’s just say) were not falling over themselves asking me out on dates when I was in high school. I liked John Ewing and would have gone out with him if he had asked again. In fact, I asked him to a dance the following year, and he turned me down. Years had to pass for the Fates to bring us together. And here we are now in 2016, and what are we doing? We’re going to movies together.