Winter Project: actor Steve McQueen

Here continues an annual series exploring the filmography of a male film legend I know little about. I grew up with those blue eyes and wrinkled face in the setting of my early childhood, but I’ve only seen a couple of his films. This winter, I’ll set to task to read Marshall Terrill‘s biography on Steve McQueen. I’ll revisit his iconic roles, the lesser known, and check out the films you think I shouldn’t miss. Please join me with your thoughts and observations.

Nevada Smith (1966)

Directed by Henry Hathaway and starring: Karl Malden, Brian Keith, Suzanne Pleshette, Arthur Kennedy and Martin Landau. Screenwriter John Michael Hayes adapted the film based on a character from The Carpetbaggers(1961), a novel by Harold Robbins.

Steve McQueen was 36, the wrinkles in his forehead deeply etched, when he played Max Sand, a naive “kid” seeking revenge on the murder of his parents. The tale is a good one where Max establishes a mentor-master relationship with Jonas Cord (Brian Keith) who teaches him how to shoot and attempts to dissuade him from his route as the avenger. Along with his journey, he is loved and assisted by women who get him out of tight fixes like Neesa, (Janet Margolin) an Ojibwe or the cajun girl, Pilar (Suzanne Pleshette), who knows the Louisana swamps better than anyone. McQueen has a gift for picking roles that showcase his life talents such as riding a horse and shooting a gun. He acrobatically leaps up out of his saddle and jumps from fence to fence to sidestep an attacker. McQueen was wiry, dexterous; his complicated childhood as farmer-vagabond-Marine-circus traveler had a silver lining; hard knocks infused a graceful, effortlessness to his future characters. The cinematography of the Nevada mountains to the Louisiana swamps where he is a prisoner of a chain gang adds to the expansiveness of the story. 3.5/5.

The Sand Pebbles (1966)

Directed by Robert Wise and starring: Steve McQueen, Richard Attenborough, Richard Crenna, Candice Bergen, Marayat Andriane, Mako, Charles Robinson, and Simon Oakland.   

Nominated for 8 Academy awards and 8 Globes, including Steve McQueen’s only Oscar nomination, Robert Wise’s pet project took years to bring to fruition, but it was worth the trouble. Clocked at 3 hours long, I split the experience into two days. It is one of the better classics I’ve seen — a great blind spot choice for anyone who wants to watch a highly satisfying film. It’s 1926 China, and the gunboat USS San Pablo (Sailors are nicknamed Sand Pebbles.) cuts through the Yangtze and Xiang River.  It is a love story. It is a historical drama about communists, xenophobia, and international intrigue. It is a sensory treat visually and aurally, with a dramatic Jerry Goldsmith score, engaging sub-plots, and great acting by the entire cast. A youthful Richard Attenborough provided sensitivity and compassion as Frenchy, in love with a Chinese girl named Maily. How was Steve McQueen? His style of acting is minimalism. He appears to stand around a lot doing nothing, saying little, but he creates a type of realism that is surprising. It is hard to keep your eyes off him. He is the core and the actors revolve around him. The tricks he employs to manipulate the audience to keep looking at him is natural and deliberate. I’m trying not to give away spoilers, but in the comment section, feel free to discuss your favorite scenes or thoughts about Steve McQueen. If you haven’t seen The Sand Pebbles, here is a descriptive trailer. 4.5/5. 

60 thoughts on “Winter Project: actor Steve McQueen

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  1. I loved the Sand Pebbles, which is a sadly overlooked film. It’s treatment of the Chinese was rather questionable for modern sensibilities though. Nonetheless, it has exciting moments, and flashes of directorial skill too.

    At the time, I felt like McQueen and Paul Newman were the big male stars of the day, and were played against each other not unlike Johnny Depp and Brad Pitt in modern times. I liked them both, but thought McQueen took the honors when he delivered a perfect performance in ‘Bullitt’. His almost silent acting skill, making something of an art of saying nothing at all, has rarely been equalled.

    I also thought he was great in ‘The Getaway’, ‘Tom Horn’, ‘Hell Is For Heroes’, ‘An Enemy Of The People’, and so many more.
    Best wishes, Pete.

    1. Hi Pete, I haven’t seen Bullitt, but it’s on the list. I’ll look into your choices. Thanks for commenting on Sand Pebbles. I was surprised how engaging it was. In the biography, McQueen was four years younger and it took him 14 years (approximately) to catch up to Paul with regards to status. The Towering Inferno is where they share screen and McQueen has top billing. I don’t know who would win the blue-eyed contest, but it sure linked them, didn’t it?

  2. Two great McQueen features and contrasting genres, Cindy. Dont’ know if you remember, but Alan Ladd portrayed the older, wiser Nevada Smith character in the film adaptation of the Harold Robbins novel, The Sandbaggers.

    1. I don’t remember personally, but I read that. I’m learning so much. Alan Ladd. I’ve only seen ‘Shane’ and unfortunately it didn’t do much for me. I’ll keep an eye out for ‘The Sandbaggers’ on the telly. Thank you for commenting, Michael.

    1. Hi John. ‘Papillion’ is one of my favorite all time films. I am looking forward to sharing why soon. I haven’t heard of ‘The Getaway’ so will look for that. I have been reading about his daredevil antics on and off the screen. Thanks for the link!

  3. Wow, it’s been quite a while since I’ve seen a McQueen movie, but even with my swiss-cheese memory I seem to recall that Nevada Smith was loosely based on Howard Hughes and a sequel of sorts to the Carpetbaggers? Set me straight, Cindy.

    1. Howdy partner. Here you go:
      The Carpetbaggers is a 1964 American film directed by Edward Dmytryk, based upon the best-selling novel of the same name by Harold Robbins, and starring George Peppard as Jonas Cord, a character based loosely on Howard Hughes, and Alan Ladd in his last role as Nevada Smith, a former western gunslinger …
      I can’t see how it’s loosely related to Howard Hughes. Maybe someone else can enlighten ME 🙂

  4. Not a big fan of Steve McQueen. I find him a bit cold, distant. I’ve read that McQueen wasn’t comfortable being an actor. He thought that acting was “a job for sissies”! Anyhow, McQueen was very competitive with Paul Newman — a one-sided competition, I must add — but I find Newman much more interesting (you can clearly see the differences in Towering Inferno). That being said, he was a good actor. I think Papillon (1973) contains his best performance. He is also great in the war epic The Sand Pebbles (1966) and the small-scale drama Junior Bonner (1972). Unfortunately, he is better known for films in which he did have to act much: The Magnificent Seven (1960), The Great Escape (1963), The Thomas Crown Affair (1968), etc.

    1. Welcome, Eric. I am enjoying the biography which confirms your thoughts about McQueen and his acting style. Paul Newman was by far the better actor and man in my book. Junior Bonner I will add to the list. I haven’t seen him in The Thomas Crown Affair, so will slip that one in. The Getaway is next — director Sam Peckinpah is an unusual artist, I wonder if I will like the film. Thanks for your comments!

      1. Sam Peckinpah seems to be an acquired taste. The Thomas Crown Affair is a fun piece of stylish fluff. BTW, I think Junior Bonner was McQueen’s favorite movie — it’s a terrific little film. Anyhow, I’d love to know what made him tick. He was a difficult, complex man in real life, but I don’t know much about him.

  5. Junior Bonner is a lovely film and a nice time capsule of Prescott Arizona and the Frontier Days Rodeo. Steve has some very touching scenes with has co-stars, most notably Ida Lupino and Robert Preston. I don’t think I’ve ever seen him more in character.

  6. Awesome post. Sand Pebbles is a bit under-appreciated in my opinion. As for McQueen, I’ve seen most of his ‘big stuff’ but I’ve always felt behind on a lot of his earlier films. I really should see more of those movies.

    1. Thank you Keith for commenting. Sand Pebbles really held me interested throughout which is an amazing feat for a 3 hour film. McQueen had a lot to bounce off of–Pon, the coolie he trained and “saved” from a tortuous death; Frenchy who was determined to live for love; Candice Bergen who was the delicate, fresh-faced teacher; the bullies on the boat, etc. These were two I’d never seen. I watched Bullitt last night. Great chase scenes with his Cobra. Anyway, that’s forthcoming.

  7. For some reason in my youth, I knew the brooding man was not a good person to fall for. Steven McQueen ended up playing a character in the Getaway who appalled my girlfriend’s and me as teens. We never looked back at his older works. I am glad you found something in his performances to redeem him, Cindy. Paul and Robert were always my favorites and Warren ended up being one of the good guys despite his Clyde performance. We were true movie aficiados and one of our trio did make it into acting through Juilliard and married a concert pianist in the making. Another distant neighborhood friend made it into both Everybody Loves Raymond and does an impeccable job as the mom in the Middle. My acting camp days were so fun that it is part of my “being.” 🙂 Happy new year of beautiful beginnings!

    1. You’re friends with Patricia Heaton? That’s amazing! What a perfect Mom she was, agreed. Thank you for commenting, Robyn. ‘The Getaway’ is on the list. According to the biography, McQueen was quite the player. Hedonistic. Manipulating. Driven. Blue-eyes aside, I don’t find him all that sexy. So-what, right? I’m concentrating on his acting style and discovering there is very little difference with Steve on screen and Steve firescreen. I appreciate his adrenaline appetite for cars and motorcycles.

  8. Interesting choices – I’m intrigued and would like to check both of these out. I’m afraid the only McQueen films I’ve seen are the big ones (which I’m sure you know…and most have been mentioned in the comments already). He’s one of my favourite movie stars, so I really should check out more of the outliers! A very cool individual.

    1. Hi Stu. One of your favorite actors, huh? That’s great. I’m having fun matching up his life in the biography with the films. There’s so many I’ve never seen, or like ‘The Great Escape’ I saw when I was way to young to understand what was up. Of the two featured here, go with ‘Sand Pebbles’.

      1. One of my favourites of the era for sure, and I’ve never made a list but he is probably one of my favourites of all time. It’s movie star charisma over everything else but he does it very very well.

    1. Hi Kim! You are in a big crowd. I’m just learning about it him. On Halloween I watched ‘The Blob’ again after seeing it when I was a little girl. What a fun treat. There’s more to come; please come back :).

  9. Never heard of The Sandbaggers. I think he meant the novel, The Carpetbaggers, that was a huge success for Harold Robbins, based loosely on Howard Hughes. The story of Nevada Smith was a ‘novel’ within the novel, Carpetbaggers. It was the best part of the book. It was suppose to be based on the old western star, Ken Maynard, who Hughes helped out in Hollywood. The problem is like most of Maynard’s stories about growing up, it is just a lot of B.S.. One thing Maynard had in common with McQueen was the fact that both were disliked by anyone who had to work with them.

  10. Steve McQueen. Wow. I haven’t thought of him in years. The Sand Peebles was a movie that I found fascinating — the story, the setting. Seen on wide screen in a giant movie theater it was awesome.

    I had to go to IMDB to refresh my memory of his films. The films that remembered most fondly were the following:

    Papillon
    The Getaway
    The Reivers
    Bullitt
    The Sand Pebbles
    The Cincinnati Kid
    Soldier in the Rain
    The War Lover
    The Magnificent Seven

    Just as it was with The Sand Peebles</em, the movies listed above had what I found to be fascinating stories that Steve McQueen brought to life in a way no one could have done.

    Of this list, my least favorite is The Magnificent Seven. I don’t know why.

    1. Your list is a fine bunch, Allen. I’ve seen a few on it; most readers recommend ‘The Getaway’, that one I’ll have to watch. Certainly The Cincinnati Kid. I thank you for your opinion today! The Sand Pebbles. I am envious you saw it on the big screen. How much better than my television screen.

  11. I read The Carpetbaggers, some years ago. Pretty good story line, but not among my favourites!!
    The Sand Pebbles sounds really interesting!! Sounds like a really good epic.
    Pity Xenophobia, still pretty much exists, in the 21st century.
    Nice trailer!!

  12. I knew little of Steve McQueen too, Cindy. I did watch his film The Getaway as an intro to his work but I hated that film. The Sand Pebbles sounds interesting but 3 hours long? Hmmm, we shall see 🙂

  13. Ah this will be a good project. I too know far too little about one of the coolest men to ever grace the screens. In fact that comment right there I’m pretty sure is the result of having that idea foisted upon me for all the years I’ve been here building my own movie-based blog. Before all of this I probably couldn’t even tell a friend what Steve McQueen looked like! Ignorance sometimes is not bliss. At all. It’s embarrassing! 🙂

    1. Hi Tom. I am right there with you. As a girl, everyone seemed infatuated with Steve McQueen and John Wayne. I watched one of his movies the other week and realized I wanted to know more. Everyone has blindspots, my friend.

  14. Hi, Cindy:

    You picked two very good and distinctive films from Mr. McQueen’s body of work.

    ‘Nevada Smith’ is one of those kinds of revenge westerns that just need to sit back and let happen. As he and Brian Keith’s Jonas Cord cross paths. And the elder becomes the instructor, mentor and Father Figure to the anxious youngster. Teaching him patience before parting ways and McQueen seeks his pound(s) of flesh. Exceptional supporting cast work. Especially Karl Malden and Martin Landau.

    While ‘The Sand Pebble’ is a nicely constructed, heavily detailed and believable slice of early 20th Century “Gunboat Diplomacy”. With McQueen learning everything needed beforehand. To perform as a competent and confident Machinist Mate in charge of the USS San Pablo’s engine room. Willing to break some traditions in regards as to who does what. While slowly falling in love with the Minister’s daughter in creating one of most subtle Anti War films of the late 1960s!

    1. Welcome, Kevin. Yes, I agree with all that you say and I’m glad you concur. The biography I’m reading has a lot of interesting details regarding the backstories. I have a new post coming next week. I hope you come back soon. 🙂

      1. Excellent. Well you’re in the 60s and he passed in 1980. The Getaway, Papillion, Bullitt. You don’t hear a lot about him doing romantic films or comedies? Were there? Have you done a post about The Great Escape and The Magnificent Seven or is that to come?

        1. McQueen did a military comedy called Soldier in the Rain with Jackie Gleason and Tuesday Weld. It was released in 1963 in the wake of The Great Escape. I caught it on television many years ago but can’t remember much about it.
          He also did a couple of romantic films in that period, Love with the Proper Stranger opposite the divine Natalie Wood and Baby the Rain Must Fall with Lee Remick.

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