The Sand Potatoes

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China demands an epic. The country has size, majesty, mystery, history. Not to mention the Great Wall, the Long March, the Hundred Flowers and the Great Leap Forward. (China also had a great marketing department.) A movie about China ought to be long, lush, cruel and beautiful -- all good and marketable qualities. So why did Hollywood make so few of them?

Spielberg did give us Empire of the Sun, and Bertolucci made The Last Emperor. But these fall just a little short because they are movies from the inside out; they understand. The excitement of China comes from the puzzlement, from the head-scratching wonder of an outsider to whom China is a great blood-oiled machine with no rules.

It must be like that for Bill Clinton; it was certainly that way for Steve McQueen in The Sand Pebbles. Enter 1926 China at the start of the Communist-Nationalist civil war with McQueen (whose sailor-suited Jake Holman may or may not have inspired the Village People to record "In the Navy") getting an appreciative look from a missionary's daughter as he boards his Yankee gunboat. Leave it, three hours and and a lot of great scenery later, with the perfect throat-wrenching closer: "What the hell happened?"

In between, you get a pensive McQueen proving that he could really act and a young and fanatical Richard Crenna proving why he could have been a contender but wound up second banana to Stallone in the Rambo canon. (And, disappointingly, Candice Bergen as the love interest, to whose acting the cheap-shot term "wooden" truly does apply.) A bit of a plodder, but plenty of powerful stuff. The short happy life of Po-hang, a year before Cool Hand Luke, will tear your heart out.

You'll have to go to The Inn of the Sixth Happiness to find a decent heroine. Ingrid Bergman is no Candice Bergen, which is a wonderful thing for this quite touching movie. The tough and saintly Bergman runs an inn, befriends rebels, saves children and dodges Japanese bullets as gruff Curt Jurgens tags along and wins her heart. A romance with guts -- and Ingrid in one of her most endearing roles.

China's grand and often bloody history is what big films are made for. Unfortunately, confrontation is the last thing President Clinton is looking for this week -- so don't expect this visit to raise David Lean from the dead. Unless someone remakes Farewell, My Concubine.