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
Based on The Sand Pebbles
1962 novel 
by Richard McKenna
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 DeLuxe Color period war film in Panavision 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.

The Sand Pebbles was a critical and commercial success at its general release. It was nominated for eight Academy Awards and eight Golden Globe Awards, with Attenborough winning the Golden Globe for Best Supporting Actor.


In 1926, Machinist's Mate First Class Jake Holman transfers to the Yangtze River Patrol gunboat USS San Pablo. The ship is nicknamed the "Sand Pebble" and its sailors "Sand Pebbles".

The officers have hired coolies to do most of the work, leaving the sailors free for drills and idle bickering. Because he takes an interest in mechanical work, Holman involves himself directly in the operation and maintenance of the ship's engine. As a result, the chief engine room coolie, Chien, is insulted. Holman also earns the antipathy of most of his fellow sailors. He does become close friends with one seasoned, sensitive seaman, Frenchy.

Holman eventually discovers a serious problem with a crank bearing that the superstitious coolies, believing the engine is haunted, have not fixed. Holman informs the captain, Lieutenant Collins, who declines to repair it. Only after the executive officer declares an emergency does the angry Collins acquiesce. Chien insists on taking Holman's place to make the repair and is accidentally killed. The chief coolie, Lop-eye Shing, blames Holman, believing that the "ghost in the machine" killed Chien. As a replacement for Chien, Holman selects Po-Han, and trains him. In time, the two become friends.

Po-Han is harassed by a large, heavy-drinking, bullying sailor named Stawski, leading to a boxing match on which the crewmen place bets. Holman is in the corner of his friend Po-Han, who ends up winning. His victory leads to more friction between Holman and the rest of the crew.

An (off screen) incident involving British gunboats leads to Collins ordering the crew not to fire on, or return fire from, the Chinese, to avoid a diplomatic incident or providing fuel for xenophobic propaganda, especially by the Communists. The boat is quickly prepared and disembarks. As revenge for the death of Chien and what he viewed as Holman's usurpation of his power, Lop-eye Shing had sent Po-Han ashore, where he is chased down the beach, captured, and 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 rifle shot.

The San Pablo is moored on the Xiang River at Changsha, due to low water levels, during the winter of 1926-27. It must deal with increasingly hostile crowds surrounding it in numerous smaller boats. Lt. Collins also fears a possible mutiny.

Frenchy has saved an educated Chinese woman, Maily, from prostitution by paying her debts. He marries her and regularly swims to shore to visit her, but he 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 and her unborn baby. When the demand is rejected, the Chinese blockade the gunboat. The crew fears for their safety and demands 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's arrival, Collins orders preparations to restart their river patrols, but soon receives word of the Nanking Incident, with orders to return to the Yangtze River and the coast. On his own, he chooses to disobey orders and decides to first travel upstream of Dongting Lake to evacuate idealistic, anti-imperialist missionary Jameson and his school-teacher assistant, Shirley Eckert, from their remote mission up the Yangtze. Holman had met Eckert in Changsha months earlier, and the two had romantic feelings for each other that did not have time to develop.

To reach the missionaries, the San Pablo must fight past a boom made up of junks carrying a massive bamboo 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 the rope while under fire. He kills a Chinese attacker, a friend of Jameson and Eckert. The ship then proceeds upriver.

Collins leads three sailors, including Holman, ashore. Jameson resists being rescued, claiming that Eckert and he have renounced their U.S. citizenship. Collins orders Holman to forcibly remove Eckert and Jameson, but Holman declares he is going to stay with them, but Nationalist soldiers suddenly attack the mission. They kill Jameson, despite his attempt to assure them he has no sympathy with the San Pablo rescue mission. Collins 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. Holman and Eckert have a tearful parting. Eckert only leaves after Holman assures her he will be along shortly. Holman kills several soldiers before he himself is fatally shot just when he is about to rejoin the others. His last bewildered words are: "I was home...what happened...what the hell happened?" Eckert and the 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 preproduction 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., which 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 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 15-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 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 antedated 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]

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 14 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. ^ "Steve McQueen - The Sand Pebbles". Retrieved June 14, 2015. 
  4. ^ "Jim Fritz - Recollections of The Sand Pebbles (1966)". Retrieved June 14, 2015. 
  5. ^ "The Demise of the San Pablo - The Sand Pebbles". Retrieved June 14, 2015. 
  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]