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The Sand Pebbles a 1966 film directed by Robert Wise, is a period war story of an independent, rebellious U.S. Navy Machinist Mate sailor aboard the USS San Pablo gunboat on "show the flag" river patrols in 1920s Chinamarker.

The Sand Pebbles features Steve McQueen, Richard Attenborough, Richard Crenna, Candice Bergen and Mako. Emmanuelle Arsan, later known as a writer of erotic fiction, is credited under the name of Marayat Andriane. Robert Anderson adapted the screenplay from the novel The Sand Pebbles (1962), by Richard McKenna.

Themes and background

The military life of the San Pablo's crew, the titular sand pebbles, portrays the era's racism and colonialism on a small scale, through the sailors' relations with the coolies who run their gunboat and the bargirls who serve them off-duty, as well as on a large scale, with the West's gunboat diplomacy domination of China.

Although the novel pre-dated extensive participation and was not based on any historic incidents, the film was nonetheless seen as an explicit statement on the US's involvement in the Vietnam War in reviews published by the New York Times and Life magazine.


In 1926, Machinist's Mate 1st Class Jake Holman (Steve McQueen) transfers from the Asiatic Fleet flagship to the Yangtze River Patrol gunboat USS San Pablo (the ship is nicknamed the "Sand Pebble" and its sailors refer to themselves as the "Sand Pebbles"). However, life aboard a gunboat is very different from that on a flagship. The gunboat has a labor system — condoned by the officers — wherein coolies do all of the manual work, leaving the sailors free for combat drills and idle bickering. Because he likes to work taking care of the ship's engines, Holman bucks the system. Although he becomes close friends with one seasoned and sensitive seaman, Frenchy (Richard Attenborough), most of the other crewmen see Holman as a Jonah. Holman's desire to work on the engines also antagonizes the ship's coolie laborers whose "rice bowl" (source of income) is derived from doing the work that the sailors would normally do.

Shortly after coming aboard, Holman discovers a serious defect in the ship's engine that the coolies have not fixed. Holman informs the Captain, who declines to authorize an engine shutdown for the repair; however, after the Executive Officer observes the same problem, the Captain agrees to the repair. During the repair, the chief engine room coolie is killed in an accident when the jacking gear slips due to its poor condition. The chief coolie of the ship blames Holman for the death. When questioned, Holman explains to the captain that the death was caused by the deceased coolie's own poor work. Holman blames the ship's system of untrained coolie labor for the death. He asks the Captain to allow him to run the engine room properly, without the use of coolies. Instead, the Captain orders Holman to train a replacement coolie and then concentrate on his military duties.

Holman selects Po-han (Mako) as the replacement to lead the engine room coolies, and invests time training him. As he does so the two form a friendship. Po-Han is harassed by one sailor (Simon Oakland), leading to a fistfight on which the crewmen place bets. Po-Han's victory leads to more antagonism between Holman, some crewmembers, and the chief coolie (who wants to kick Po-Han off the ship, but is foiled by Holman).

An incident involving British gunboats (not shown) leads to the Captain ordering the crew not to fire or return fire from Chinese, to avoid diplomatic incidents. Shortly after these orders are issued, Po-Han is sent ashore by the chief coolie (with the apparent intent of getting him killed). Po-han is captured and tortured by a mob of Chinese in full view of the crew on the ship, only yards from shore. With the crew poised to repel boarders, and under intense pressure, the Captain attempts to negotiate for Po-Han's release; his efforts are fruitless. Po-Han begs for someone to kill him, and Holman disobeys orders and ends Po-Han's suffering with a fatal rifle shot.

The San Pablo is stuck in port for the winter and must deal with increasingly hostile crowds surrounding it in numerous smaller boats. This greatly strains the morale of the ship, and the captain fears possible mutiny. Frenchy had saved a Chinese woman, Maily (Emmanuelle Arsan), from prostitution by paying her debts. He marries her and sneaks off the ship regularly during the long winter to visit, but he dies of pneumonia during the night. The next day, during a regular trip to the U.S. consulate, Holman makes a side trip to Maily's resident to find Frenchy. Immediately, as Holman learns of Frenchy's death with Maily sitting stunned, Kuomintang nationalists burst in, beat up Holman, and drag Maily away. Holman returns to the ship. The next day, Chinese float out to the ship and demand the "murderer" Holman be turned over to them. Apparently, the nationalists killed Maily and blamed Holman, trying to provoke an incident. Holman informs the Captain what really happened. When the Chinese demand for Holman is refused, they blockade the San Pablo. The American crew fears for their safety and demand that Holman surrender to the Chinese against the Captain's orders. Order is restored when the captain fires across the bow of one of the Chinese junks.

With spring at hand, the Captain decides to risk an attempt to leave, fearing remaining any longer.The San Pablo sails away from the Kuomintang blockade and receives radioed orders to return to the coast. The Captain defies these orders and elects to evacuate idealistic missionary Jameson (Larry Gates) and his school teacher assistant Shirley Eckert (Candice Bergen) from their remote mission up the Yangtze Rivermarker.

To reach the missionaries, the San Pablo has to fight through a boom made up of junks carrying a rope blocking the river. As the gunboat approaches the boom, the junks begin firing; San Pablo returns their fire and boards one of the junks. Close-range fighting results in the deaths of several sailors and Chinese. Holman heroically cuts the boom with an axe under fire while the other sailors return to the San Pablo. While doing so, he is attacked by a Chinese man and kills him with the axe. It turns out that the man was the leader of the Nationalist student group taught by Eckert. The ship then proceeds upriver, leaving the smoking wrecks behind.

Arriving at the mission, the Captain leads a three-man patrol, including Holman, ashore to rescue the missionaries. Jameson resists rescue, claiming that it is the Captain's actions that have endangered him, not the Chinese. Jameson shows the Captain a document claiming that he and Eckert have renounced their US citizenship and are therefore not under the Captain's authority. The Captain tells him the paper will not matter. While they argue the point, nationalist soldiers attack the mission and kill Jameson. The Captain takes the BAR, orders the patrol to return to the ship with Miss Eckert, and remains behind to provide covering fire. As the patrol leaves, the Captain is killed, ironically leaving the normally rebellious Holman in command. As Holman covers the others' escape, he is fatally shot. His final words are, "I was home... What happened? What the hell happened?!"

Eckert and the two remaining sailors are briefly shown escaping to the ship, as a result of the Captain and Holman covering them. Finally, the San Pablo is shown cruising off to apparent safety.


For years, Robert Wise had wanted to make the film, but the studio was reluctant to finance it. It was eventually funded, but because production required extensive location scouting and pre-production work, director Wise realized it would at least be a year before filming could begin. At studio insistence, Wise agreed to a filler project, The Sound of Music, which became one of the most popular and critically-acclaimed movies of the 1960s.

The producers spent US$250,000 on building a prop gunboat based on the USS Villalobos a former Spanish ship seized by the US Navy in the Philippine Islandsmarker during the Spanish-American War that became a US Navy gunboat.

The Sand Pebbles was filmed in both Taiwanmarker and Hong Kongmarker. Filming, which began November 22, 1965, at Keelungmarker, was scheduled to take nine weeks but ended up taking seven months. The cast and crew took a break for the Christmas holiday at Tamsui, Taipeimarker. At one point a fifteen-foot camera boat capsized on the Keelung River, setting back the schedule because the soundboard was ruined when it sank. When filming was finally completed in Taiwan, the Taiwanese government held several members of the crew, including McQueen and his family, "hostage" by keeping their passports because of unpaid additional taxes. In March 1966, the production finally moved to Hong Kong for three months and then in June traveled to Hollywood to finish filming interior scenes at Fox Studios. Due to frequent rain and other difficulties, filming was almost abandoned. When he returned to Los Angelesmarker, McQueen was sick and had an abscessed molar; he had not wanted to see a doctor until he got back to the United States. The doctor ordered an enforced rest that halted production again.

It rained the night of the premiere, December 20, 1966, at the Rivoli Theatre in New York Citymarker. Afterwards, Steve McQueen did no film work for a year due to exhaustion, saying that whatever sins he had committed were paid for when he made The Sand Pebbles.


The Sand Pebbles was nominated for several Academy Awards: Best Actor in a Leading Role (Steve McQueen), Best Actor in a Supporting Role (Mako), Best Art Direction-Set Decoration, Color (Boris Leven, Walter M. Scott, John Sturtevant, William Kiernan), Best Cinematography, Color, Best Film Editing, Best Music, Original Music Score (Jerry Goldsmith) , Best Picture and Best Sound.

Historical accuracy

  • Although Westerners and Chinese fought at the Taku Fortsmarker in 1858–1860, the only large battles between Westerners and Asians on the Yangtze Rivermarker were the 1937 Panay incident, between the Americans and the Japanese, not the Chinese, and the 1949 Yangtze Incident, between several small Royal Navy ships and Chinese artillery batteries of the People's Liberation Army. The attack on the gunboat USS Panay is often cited as the inspiration for some elements in McKenna's plot. McKenna served in the China River Patrol in 1936.

  • Despite its naval designation as a "river gunboat", the San Pablo's only artillery is a 3-inch/23-caliber deck gun and 1-pounder rapid fire gun astern; its only machine guns are two Lewis Guns and a BAR. The sailors' small arms are M1903 Springfield rifles, bayonets, and .45 caliber M1911 pistols carried by the officers and Chief Petty Officers. The book mentions the use of riot gun by the crew but they do not appear in the film.

  • The plot element of the killing of missionary Jameson at China Light Mission may have been inspired by the 1934 killing of American Christian missionaries John and Betty Stam and by the killing of the "China Martyrs of 1900".

Additional footage

After more than 40 years, 20th Century Fox found fourteen minutes of footage that had been cut from the film's initial roadshow version shown at New York's Rivoli Theater. The restored version has been released on DVD. The sequences are spread throughout the film and add texture to the story, though they do not alter it in any significant way.



  1. NY Times, movie review of Dec 21, 1966
  2. Life magazine review, Jan 6 1967
  4. Kurcfeld, Michael, (2007). - Documentary: The Making of "The Sand Pebbles". - Stonehenge Media
  5. McQueen Toffel, Neile, (1986). - Excerpt: My Husband, My Friend. - (c/o The Sand Pebbles). - New York, New York: Atheneum. - ISBN 0689116373

See also

External links


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