The Sand Pebbles (film)

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The Sand Pebbles
The Sand Pebbles film poster.jpg
Theatrical release poster by Howard Terpning
Directed by Robert Wise
Produced by Robert Wise
Written by Robert Woodruff Anderson
Richard McKenna (novel)
Starring Steve McQueen
Richard Attenborough
Richard Crenna
Candice Bergen
Marayat Andriane
Simon Oakland
Charles Knox Robinson III
Music by Jerry Goldsmith
Cinematography Joseph MacDonald
Edited by William Reynolds
Distributed by 20th Century Fox
Release dates
  • December 20, 1966 (1966-12-20)
Running time
Original cut:
182 minutes
Roadshow cut:
196 minutes
Country United States
Language English
Budget $12,110,000[1]
Box office $30,017,647[2]

The Sand Pebbles is a 1966 American period war film directed by Robert Wise. It tells the story of an independent, rebellious U.S. Navy Machinist's Mate, First Class aboard the fictional gunboat USS San Pablo in 1920s China.

The film features Steve McQueen, Richard Attenborough, Richard Crenna, Candice Bergen, Mako, Simon Oakland, Larry Gates, and Marayat Andriane (later known as a writer of erotic fiction under the nom de plume Emmanuelle Arsan). Robert Anderson adapted the screenplay from the 1962 novel of the same name by Richard McKenna.


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 "Sand Pebbles.") It has a labor system—condoned by the officers—wherein coolies (Chinese manual laborers) do the work, leaving the sailors free for combat drills and idle bickering.

Because he personally enjoys taking care of ships' engines, Holman bucks the "coolie" system, overseeing the operation of the power plant himself - antagonizing not only the chief engine room coolie, Chien, but his shipmates as well. Although he becomes close friends with one seasoned, sensitive seaman, Frenchy (Richard Attenborough), most of the other crew members see Holman's attitude as a threat to their cushy arrangement.

Holman discovers a serious defect that the superstitious coolies have not fixed. Holman informs the gunboat's captain, Lieutenant Collins (Richard Crenna), who declines to repair it. Only after the Executive Officer declares an emergency does Collins acquiesce. The chief engine room coolie, Chien, insists on taking Holman's place and is accidentally killed. The chief coolie, Lop-eye Shing, blames Holman. As a replacement for Chien, Holman selects a coolie, Po-Han (Mako), and trains him. In time, the two become friends.

Po-Han is harassed by a sailor named Stawski (Simon Oakland), leading to a boxing match on which the crewmen place bets. Po-Han's victory leads to more friction between Holman and crew members, as well as the chief coolie, who wants to kick Po-Han off the ship, but is foiled by Holman.

An incident involving British gunboats (off screen) leads to Collins ordering the crew not to fire on, or return fire from, the Chinese, to avoid diplomatic incidents as well as to prevent xenophobic propaganda from being utilized against the San Pablo and her crew, especially by the Communists. Po-Han is sent ashore by the chief coolie and is captured. He is tortured by a mob of Chinese in full view of the crew. Collins attempts to buy Po-Han's release, but without success. Po-Han begs for someone to kill him. Holman disobeys orders and ends Po-Han's suffering with a fatal rifle shot.

The San Pablo is stuck in port at Changsha for the winter due to low water levels. It must deal with increasingly hostile crowds surrounding it in numerous smaller boats. Lt. Collins fears a possible mutiny.

Frenchy has saved an educated Chinese woman, Maily (Marayat Andriane), from prostitution by paying her debts. He marries her and regularly swims to shore to visit her, but dies of pneumonia one night. Holman finds Maily sitting by Frenchy's corpse. Kuomintang (Chinese Nationalist Party) militia burst in, beat Holman, and drag Maily away.

The next day, several Chinese demand Holman be turned over to them as the "murderer" of Maily. Holman informs Collins what really happened. When the Chinese demand is rejected, they blockade the San Pablo. The American crew fears for their safety and demand that Holman surrender to the Chinese. Order is not restored until Collins fires a Lewis Gun across the bow of one of the Chinese sampans.

With spring at hand, Lt. Collins decides to try leaving. The San Pablo sails away, but receives radioed orders to return to the coast. Collins decides to evacuate idealistic, anti-imperialist missionary Jameson (Larry Gates) and his school teacher assistant, Shirley Eckert (Candice Bergen), from their remote mission up the Yangtze River. Holman had first met Miss Eckert in Changsha months earlier, and the two felt a romantic attachment that didn't have time to develop. They both attended the secret wedding of "Frenchy" and Maily.

To reach the missionaries, the San Pablo must fight past a boom made up of junks carrying a massive rope blocking the river. A boarding party is sent to cut the rope. Fighting breaks out in which about a dozen sailors and many Chinese are killed. Holman cuts it with an axe while under fire. He kills a Chinese attacker, a friend of Jameson and Eckert, before returning to the San Pablo. The ship then proceeds upriver, leaving smoking wrecks behind.

Collins leads a patrol of three sailors, including Holman, ashore. Jameson resists being rescued. Jameson shows Collins a document claiming that he and Eckert have renounced their U.S. citizenship and are therefore not under Collins's authority or American jurisdiction. Collins orders Holman to forcibly remove Eckert and Jameson, but Holman refuses to obey and announces he is going to stay with them.

Nationalist soldiers, infuriated by the battle at the river boom, arrive and attack the mission. They immediately kill Jameson, despite his attempt to assure the Chinese he has no sympathy with the San Pablo rescue mission. Collins takes a Browning Automatic Rifle (BAR), orders the patrol to return to the ship with Eckert, and remains behind to provide covering fire. Collins is killed, ironically leaving the normally rebellious Holman in command of the rescue mission. Holman and Miss Eckert have a tearful parting, and both acknowledge their love for each other. Miss Eckert only leaves with the 2 sailors after Holman assures her he will be along shortly after protecting their escape. Holman is left alone in the dark mission school. In the ensuing and protracted shootout, Holman kills several soldiers before he himself is fatally shot just as he starts to escape and join the others. His last words to himself before dying are "I was home..what happened..what the hell happened?", summing up the futility of the mission of the San Pablo and his own life cut short.

Eckert and the two remaining sailors reach the ship, and the San Pablo sails away.



For years, Robert Wise had wanted to make The Sand Pebbles, but the film companies were reluctant to finance it. The Sand Pebbles was eventually paid for, but because its production required extensive location scouting and pre-production work, as well as being due to monsoons in Taipei, its producer and director Robert Wise realized that it would be over a year before principal photography could begin. At the insistence of the film company, Wise agreed to direct a "fill-in" project, The Sound of Music, a film that became one of the most popular and acclaimed films of the 1960s.

The film company spent $250,000 building a replica gunboat named the San Pablo, based on the USS Villalobos—a former Spanish Navy gunboat that was seized by the U.S. Navy in the Philippine Islands during the Spanish–American War (1898–99)—but with a greatly reduced draft to allow sailing on the shallow Tam Sui and Keelung rivers.[3] A seaworthy vessel that was actually powered by Cummins diesel engines,[4] the San Pablo made the voyage from Hong Kong to Taiwan and back under her own power during shooting of The Sand Pebbles. After filming was completed, the San Pablo was sold to the DeLong Timber Company and renamed the Nola D, then later sold to Seiscom Delta Exploration Co., who used her as a floating base camp with significant modifications including removal of her engines and the addition of a helipad.[5]

The Sand Pebbles was filmed both in Taiwan and in Hong Kong. Its filming, which began on November 22, 1965, at Keelung, was scheduled to take about nine weeks, but it ended up taking seven months. The cast and crew took a break for the Christmas holidays at Tamsui, Taipei.

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 the filming was finally finished in Taiwan, the government of the Republic of China held several members of the crew, including McQueen and his family, supposedly "hostage" by keeping their passports because of unpaid additional taxes. In March 1966, the filming finally moved to the Shaw Brothers studios in Hong Kong for three months, and then in June it traveled to Hollywood, California, to finish its interior scenes at the Fox Studios.

Due to frequent rain and other difficulties in Hong Kong, the filming was nearly abandoned. When he returned to Los Angeles, McQueen fell ill because he had an abscessed molar. He had not wanted to see a dentist until he returned to California. His dentist and physician ordered him to take an extended period of rest—one that halted production again for weeks.

Fittingly it rained the night of the premiere, December 20, 1966, at the Rivoli Theatre in New York City. Afterwards, McQueen did not do any film work for about a year due to exhaustion, saying that whatever sins that he had committed in his life had been paid for when he made The Sand Pebbles.[6][7] The performance did earn McQueen the only Academy Award nomination of his career. He was not seen on film again until two movies of 1968, The Thomas Crown Affair and Bullitt (which included his fellow The Sand Pebbles actor Simon Oakland as Bullitt's boss).

Themes and background[edit]

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 1962 novel pre-dated extensive US activity in Vietnam and was not based on any historic incidents, by the December 1966 release of the film it was seen as an explicit statement on the US's extensive combat involvement in the Vietnam War in reviews published by the New York Times.[8] and Life magazine.[9]

Historical accuracy[edit]

  • 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 by Chinese Communists and by the killing of the "China Martyrs of 1900".
  • The brake sound effect from this film was used in the first three seasons of Thomas & Friends for the engine's brakes. The only Season 3 episode to use the sound effect was "Oliver Owns Up".

Critical reception[edit]

The film was met with critical acclaim. The film has a score of 88% with a certified "Fresh" rating on Rotten Tomatoes based on 19 reviews and scored an 89% audience approval rating.[10]

Academy Awards[edit]


Additional footage[edit]

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.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Solomon, Aubrey. Twentieth Century Fox: A Corporate and Financial History (The Scarecrow Filmmakers Series). Lanham, Maryland: Scarecrow Press, 1989. ISBN 978-0-8108-4244-1. p254
  2. ^ "The Sand Pebbles, Box Office Information". The Numbers. Retrieved April 16, 2012. 
  3. ^
  4. ^
  5. ^
  6. ^ Kurcfeld, Michael, (2007). – Documentary: The Making of "The Sand Pebbles". – Stonehenge Media
  7. ^ McQueen Toffel, Neile, (1986). – Excerpt: My Husband, My Friend. – (c/o The Sand Pebbles). – New York, New York: Atheneum. – ISBN 0-689-11637-3
  8. ^ NY Times, movie review of Dec 21, 1966
  9. ^ Life magazine review, Jan 6 1967
  10. ^ "The Sand Pebbles". Rotten Tomatoes. Retrieved March 21, 2014. 
  11. ^ "The 39th Academy Awards (1967) Nominees and Winners". Retrieved 2011-08-24. 
  12. ^ "NY Times: The Sand Pebbles". NY Times. Retrieved December 27, 2008. 

External links[edit]