The Sand Pebbles (film)
|The Sand Pebbles|
Theatrical release poster by Howard Terpning
|Directed by||Robert Wise|
|Produced by||Robert Wise|
|Written by||Robert Woodruff Anderson
Richard McKenna (novel)
Charles Knox Robinson III
|Music by||Jerry Goldsmith|
|Editing by||William Reynolds|
|Distributed by||Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation|
|Running time||Original cut:
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 aboard the fictional gunboat USS San Pablo in 1920s China.
The Sand Pebbles features Steve McQueen, Richard Attenborough, Richard Crenna, Candice Bergen, Mako, 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.
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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.") Life aboard a gunboat is very different. It has a labor system—condoned by officers—wherein coolies (Chinese manual laborers) do the work, leaving the sailors free for combat drills and idle bickering. The coolie laborers' "rice bowl" (source of income) is derived from doing the work that the sailors would normally do.
Because he personally enjoys taking care of ships' engines, Holman bucks the "coolie" system, overseeing the operation of the power plant himself - thereby antagonizing not only the chief engine-room coolie, Chien, but his ship-mates as well. Holman's "connection" with the engine is conveyed when he personally introduces himself to the apparatus during his first trip to the ship's engine room. Although he becomes close friends with one seasoned and sensitive seaman, Frenchy (Richard Attenborough), most of the other members of the crew see Holman's attitude as a threat to their cushy arrangement, and accuse him of being a Jonah.
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 authorize an engine shutdown for the repair. Only after the Executive Officer observes the same problem and declares an emergency, does Collins acquiesce. The chief engine-room coolie, Chien, after insisting upon taking Holman's place in the dangerous crank pit, is accidentally killed when the jacking gear slips due to its poor condition. The chief coolie, Lop-eye Shing, blames Holman, who maintains that the death was caused by the deceased coolie's own poor work, not by ghosts in the machinery. Holman asks Collins to allow him to run the engine room properly, but is ordered to train a replacement coolie and concentrate on his military duties.
Holman selects another coolie named Po-Han (Mako) as the replacement and invests time training him. In time, the two form a lasting friendship and sense of devotion. Po-Han is harassed by one sailor named Stawski (Simon Oakland), leading to a boxing match on which the crewmen place bets. Po-Han's victory leads to more antagonism 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 (not shown in the film) 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 (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, only yards from shore. With the crew poised to repel boarders, and under intense pressure, Collins attempts to negotiate for Po-Han's release with offers of American money; his efforts prove fruitless. Po-Han begs for someone to kill him while his comrades watch helplessly. Holman disobeys orders his superior's 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 (Emmanuelle Arsan), from prostitution by paying her debts. He marries her and sneaks off the ship regularly, but dies of pneumonia one night. Holman searches for him and finds Maily sitting stunned by Frenchy's corpse. Kuomintang (Chinese Nationalist Party) militia burst in, beat up Holman, and drag Maily away.
Holman returns to the ship. The next day, several Chinese float out to the San Pablo in small boats and demand the "murderer" Holman be turned over to them. Apparently, the Nationalists killed Maily and scapegoated Holman, trying to provoke an incident in addition to further anti-foreigner sentiment. Holman informs Collins 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 Collins's orders. 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 risk an attempt to leave. The San Pablo sails away from the Kuomintang blockade and receives radioed orders to return to the coast. Collins defies these orders and elects 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.
To reach the missionaries, the San Pablo must fight through a boom made up of junks carrying a massive rope blocking the river. The 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 extremely dense boom rope (made of bamboo and hemp) with an axe under fire while other sailors return to the San Pablo. Just before the rope snaps, he is nearly killed by a surviving junk crewman; thankfully, Holman kills his would-be assailant with the axe. It turns out that the man, the leader of a Nationalist student group, was known to Holman as a student of Eckert. The ship then proceeds upriver, leaving the smoking wrecks behind.
Arriving near the mission, Lt. Collins leads a patrol of three sailors, including Holman, ashore. Jameson resists rescue, claiming that it is Collins's actions that have endangered him, not the Chinese. Jameson shows Collins a document claiming that he and Eckert have renounced their US citizenship and are therefore not under the Collins's authority or American jurisdiction whatsoever. Collins tells him the paper will not matter. Collins orders Holman to forcibly remove Eckert and Jameson, but Holman refuses the order and announces his intent to stay at the mission with them. Collins threatens Holman his resistance is desertion (which renders Holman liable to be shot).
The argument is interrupted by Nationalist soldiers who attack the mission and kill Jameson with paper in hand as he approaches them pleading for his life. Collins takes a Browning Automatic Rifle (BAR), orders the patrol to return to the ship with Miss Eckert, and remains behind to provide covering fire. As the patrol leaves, Collins is killed, ironically leaving the normally rebellious Holman in command. Holman returns and recovers the rifle. He orders the remaining two sailors to leave with Eckert and takes Collins's place to cover the escape. In the ensuing shootout Holman kills several soldiers before he himself is fatally shot in the chest just before he can rejoin the others. His final words are, "I was home… What happened? What the hell happened?!"
Eckert and the two remaining sailors are shown successfully escaping to the ship, and the San Pablo is shown cruising off to apparent safety.
- Steve McQueen as Machinist's Mate 1st Class Jake Holman
- Richard Attenborough as Machinist's Mate 2nd Class Frenchy Burgoyne
- Richard Crenna as Captain Collins
- Candice Bergen as Shirley Eckert
- Marayat Andriane as Maily
- Mako as Po-han
- Charles Robinson as Ensign Bordelles
- Larry Gates as Jameson
- Simon Oakland as Machinist's Mate Stawski
- Ford Rainey as Harris
- Joe Turkel as Bronson
- Gavin MacLeod as Crosley
- Joe Di Reda as Red Dog Shanahan
- Richard Loo as Major Chin
- Barney Phillips as Chief Petty Officer Franks
- Gus Trikonis as Restorff
- Shepherd Sanders as Perna
- James Jeter as Boatswain's Mate 2nd Class Farren
- Tom Middleton as Pharmacist's Mate Jennings
- Paul Chun as Cho-jen (credited as Paul Chinpae)
- Tommy Lee as Chien
- Beulah Quo as Mama Chunk
- James Hong as Victor Shu
- Henry Wang as Lop-eye Sheng (uncredited)
- Adam Cheng
- Former child actor and career naval officer Frank Coghlan Jr. was the technical advisor to the film regarding the U.S. Navy, and appeared as one of the American businessmen stripping Maily.
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. A seaworthy vessel that was actually powered by Cummins diesel engines, 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.
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 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, Mr. 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, Steve 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. 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 
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. and Life magazine.
The Sand Pebbles was nominated for eight Academy Awards, but failed to win any: Best Picture for Robert Wise, Best Actor for Steve McQueen, Best Supporting Actor for Mako, Best Art Direction/Set Decoration-Color, Best Cinematography-Color, Best Film Editing, Best Sound (James Corcoran) and Best Original Music Score for Jerry Goldsmith.
Historical accuracy 
- From the First Opium War to the founding of the People's Republic of China, Western gunboats patrolled the Yangtze River to enforce trading privileges and extraterritorial rights that imperial powers acquired through unequal treaties. The gunboats enabled Western powers to assert influence over political developments in China. In the Panay incident of 1937, an American gunboat on the Yangtze River was shelled by invading Japanese forces. In the Yangtze Incident of 1949, several small Royal Navy ships were shelled by artillery batteries of the Chinese 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 of the book and film has very little artillery on deck: a 3-inch/23-caliber gun forward, a 1-pounder rapid fire gun astern and two Lewis machine guns (six in the novel). The sailors' small arms are M1903 Springfield rifles, bayonets, BARs and .45 caliber M1911 pistols carried by the officers and Chief Petty Officers who also carry swords and cutlasses. The book mentions the use of riot guns by the crew and a box of hand grenades 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 by Chinese Communists 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.
See also 
- 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
- "The Sand Pebbles, Box Office Information". The Numbers. Retrieved April 16, 2012.
- Kurcfeld, Michael, (2007). – Documentary: The Making of "The Sand Pebbles". – Stonehenge Media
- McQueen Toffel, Neile, (1986). – Excerpt: My Husband, My Friend. – (c/o The Sand Pebbles). – New York, New York: Atheneum. – ISBN 0-689-11637-3
- NY Times, movie review of Dec 21, 1966
- Life magazine review, Jan 6 1967 http://www.thesandpebbles.com/life/life_mag.htm
- "The 39th Academy Awards (1967) Nominees and Winners". oscars.org. Retrieved 2011-08-24.
- "NY Times: The Sand Pebbles". NY Times. Retrieved December 27, 2008.
- Website devoted exclusively to The Sand Pebbles
- The Sand Pebbles (1966) at the Internet Movie Database
- The Sand Pebbles at AllRovi
- The Sand Pebbles at the TCM Movie Database
- Review – 1967, from the Movie Review Query Engine
- Review, by TV Guide
- USSPanay.org Webpage about the evacuation of Nanking and the Panay Incident