The Sand Pebbles (film)

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The Sand Pebbles
Theatrical release poster
by Howard Terpning
Directed byRobert Wise
Screenplay byRobert Anderson
Based onThe Sand Pebbles
1962 novel
by Richard McKenna
Produced byRobert Wise
CinematographyJoseph MacDonald
Edited byWilliam Reynolds
Music byJerry Goldsmith
Distributed by20th Century Fox
Release date
  • December 20, 1966 (1966-12-20)
Running time
  • 182 minutes (Original release)
  • 196 minutes[1] (Roadshow)
CountryUnited States
  • English
  • Mandarin
Budget$12.1 million[2]
Box office$30 million[3]

The Sand Pebbles is a 1966 American epic war film directed by Robert Wise in Panavision. It tells the story of an independent, rebellious U.S. Navy machinist's mate, first class, aboard the fictional river gunboat USS San Pablo, on Yangtze Patrol in 1920s China.

The film stars Steve McQueen, Richard Attenborough, Richard Crenna and Candice Bergen, and features Mako, Simon Oakland, Larry Gates and Marayat Andriane in supporting roles. 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 during its general release. It became the fourth highest-grossing film of 1966 and was nominated for eight Academy Awards, including Best Lead Actor for Steve McQueen, his only Oscar nomination, and eight Golden Globe Awards, with Attenborough winning the Golden Globe for Best Supporting Actor.


In 1926, during China's Warlord Era, Jake Holman transfers to the Yangtze River Patrol gunboat USS San Pablo as their new engineer. The ship is nicknamed the "Sand Pebble," and its sailors are "Sand Pebbles".

The crew hires unofficial Chinese workers to do most of the work. Holman upsets the balance as he takes responsibility for the operation of the ship's engine but becomes friends with Frenchy, a seasoned sailor.

A problem with the engine causes the death of Chien, the chief Chinese engine worker, due to an issue Holman noticed but the captain declined to fix. Lop-eye Shing, leader of the Chinese workers, blames Holman. The captain tells Holman he needs to find a Chinese replacement. Holman trains Po-Han to understand the work they are doing.

While on shore leave, the sailors spend time at a bar and brothel run by a former sailor. They are transfixed by Maily, the new hostess, but discover that she fetches a high price since she is still a virgin. Frenchy discovers that the price is the debt she needs to pay to get her freedom.

Meanwhile, sailor Stawski conspires with Shing to get Po-Han fired. Holman convinces Stawski to participate in a boxing match: if Stawski wins, he gets the money needed for a night with Maily, but if he loses, Po-Han gets his job back. During the fight, Stawski is subdued. As he is being counted, the alarm sounds for all sailors to return. They embark ahead of a mob: the captain had gotten word of a battle between British warships and a Chinese warlord. This has soured Chinese opinion of foreigners. It has also boiled over into the Chinese Civil War between the Communist Party under Mao Zedong and the Kuomintang under Chiang Kai-shek. The San Pablo must remain neutral while rescuing stranded Americans, including missionary Jameson and Shirley Eckert, his schoolteacher assistant. During the rescue, Shing sends Po-Han ashore, where he is tortured by the mob. Holman violates the captain's orders by shooting Po-Han, putting him out of his misery.

As the ship returns to port, they find that local opinion of them has not improved. Jameson and Eckert continue their mission on shore. At the bordello, Frenchy tries to pay for Maily's freedom, but instead she is put up for auction. Holman tries to help Frenchy pay the higher amount, but a fight breaks out and the three of them make a dash for it. Eventually, Frenchy and Maily have an unofficial marriage in an empty church. Holman and Eckert fall in love, but he thinks it cannot last, as he will likely be shipping out of China soon. The crew is stuck for the winter, waiting for the water levels to rise. The Chinese workers abandon ship, and shore leave is cancelled. Frenchy regularly swims to shore to be with Maily, but the cold winter waters eventually cause his death. Chinese forces kill Maily and frame Holman for her murder. They surround the ship and demand his surrender. The crew also demands he surrender, until the captain fires a gun across the bow of a Chinese ship and calls for the San Pablo to attempt to leave.

The same day, they received word of the Nanking Incident. They travel to rescue Jameson and Eckert. The San Pablo must break through a barricade of roped-together junks blocking the river. A team is sent to cut the rope. Fighting breaks out, and twelve U.S. crewmen and many Chinese are killed. Holman chops through the rope while under fire. He kills a Chinese militiaman who attacks him, then recognizes him as a friend of Jameson and Eckert. Once free, the ship continues upriver.

Upon arrival, Jameson and Eckert refuse rescue. Collins orders Holman to remove them, but he declares that he is staying with them. Nationalist soldiers attack, killing Jameson. Collins orders the patrol to take Eckert to the ship and remains behind to provide cover fire. Collins is killed, leaving Holman in command. Before parting, Holman and Eckert declare their love, with Holman promising to follow her. He kills several soldiers but is fatally shot as he is about to rejoin the others. Eckert and the remaining two sailors reach the ship, and the San Pablo sails away.


Former child actor and career naval officer Frank Coghlan Jr. was the technical advisor to the film regarding the U.S. Navy, and made an uncredited appearance as one of the American businessmen stripping Maily.[citation needed]



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 financed by Twentieth Century-Fox, but because its production required extensive location scouting and pre-production work, as well as being affected by a monsoon in Taipei, its producer and director Wise realized that it would be more than a year before principal photography could begin. At the insistence of Fox, 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.[citation needed]


Fox 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 (1898–1899) — but with a greatly reduced draft to allow sailing on the shallow Tam Sui and Keelung Rivers.[4] Although it was supposed to be based on the Villalobos, the replica's final design was closer to that of 1928 river gunboats than that of the Villalobos.[5] A seaworthy vessel that was actually powered by Cummins diesel engines,[6] 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 it as a floating base camp with significant modifications, including removal of its engines and the addition of a helipad.[7] The boat was towed to Singapore and broken up in 1975[8]

Robert Wise's cinematographer from The Sound of Music, Ted McCord, had taken a scouting trip to the Asian locations, but he informed Wise that his heart problems made him not capable enough to shoot the film.[9]


The Sand Pebbles was filmed both in Taiwan and Hong Kong.[10] Its filming, which began on November 22, 1965, in Keelung,[11] was scheduled to take about nine weeks, but it ended up taking seven months.[12] The cast and crew took a break for the Christmas holidays in Tamsui, Taipei.[citation needed]

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 completed in Taiwan, the government of the Republic of China was rumored to have held the passports of several cast members because of unpaid additional taxes.[12] In March 1966, the filming moved to Hong Kong and Shaw Brothers Studio for three months, mainly for scenes in Sai Kung and Tung Chung. In June, production traveled to Hollywood to finish its interior scenes at Fox Studios.[citation needed]

Due to frequent rain and other difficulties in Hong Kong, the filming was halted and nearly abandoned. McQueen had developed an abscessed molar and returned to California because he did not wish to be treated in Hong Kong. By the time he received treatment in Los Angeles, he was very ill and was ordered by his dentist and physician to take an extended period of rest, one that further delayed production for several more weeks.[citation needed]

Some filming took place on the dreadnought-type battleship USS Texas, but these scenes were cut from the final film and have been lost.[citation needed]

Themes and background[edit]

The military life of the San Pablo's crew, the titular "Sand Pebbles", portrays the era's culture 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 U.S. 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 U.S.'s extensive combat involvement in the Vietnam War in reviews published by The New York Times[13] and Life magazine.[14]


It rained the night of the premiere, December 20, 1966, at the Rivoli Theatre in New York City. Afterward, McQueen did not do any film work for about a year due to exhaustion, saying that whatever sins he had committed in his life had been paid for when he made The Sand Pebbles.[15][16] He was not seen on film again until two 1968 films, The Thomas Crown Affair and Bullitt.

Critical reception[edit]

The film was acclaimed by a wide array of critics. The film has an 89% rating on Rotten Tomatoes based on 18 reviews.[17]

Bosley Crowther of The New York Times called it "a beautifully mounted film" with "a curiously turgid and uneven attempt to generate a war romance". Crowther thought, "It is not as historical romance that it is likely to grab the audience, but as a weird sort of hint of what has happened and is happening in Vietnam."[13]

Arthur D. Murphy of Variety declared it "a handsome production, boasting some excellent characterizations. Steve McQueen delivers an outstanding performance."[18]

Philip K. Scheuer of the Los Angeles Times called it "adventure on the grand scale, of a kind on which the British have too long enjoyed an exclusive monopoly. 'The Sand Pebbles' earns a place up there beside 'The Bridge on the River Kwai,' 'Lawrence of Arabia,' 'Doctor Zhivago,' et al ... Too, the parallel with 1966 and Vietnam could hardly be more timely."[19]

Richard L. Coe of The Washington Post called the film "a strong story with highly unusual backgrounds, a character perfectly suited to Steve McQueen and an engrossing drive that falters only because three hours is a bit much."[20]

The Monthly Film Bulletin wrote, "History, of course, never really repeats itself in the way script-writers would like it to, and the parallel between China in 1926 and Vietnam today is distinctly dubious. But this striking of attitudes is the film's undoing, since it seriously undermines the narrative by presenting the characters as little more than pawns in a didactic chess game. And in any case, the script never decides which side of the political fence it wants to sit on."[21]

Brendan Gill of The New Yorker wrote that McQueen "works hard and well" in his role but described Robert Wise's direction as "molasses-in-January".[22]

Box office[edit]

According to Fox records, the film needed to earn $21,200,000 in rentals to break even, and by December 1970, made $20,600,000.[23] In September 1970, the studio recorded a loss of $895,000 on the movie.[24]


The performance earned Steve McQueen the only Academy Award nomination of his career.

Award Category Nominee(s) Result
Academy Awards[25][26] Best Picture Robert Wise Nominated
Best Actor Steve McQueen Nominated
Best Supporting Actor Mako Nominated
Best Art Direction – Color Art Direction: Boris Leven;
Set Decoration: Walter M. Scott, John Sturtevant and William Kiernan
Best Cinematography – Color Joseph MacDonald Nominated
Best Film Editing William Reynolds Nominated
Best Original Music Score Jerry Goldsmith Nominated
Best Sound James Corcoran Nominated
American Cinema Editors Awards Best Edited Feature Film William Reynolds Nominated
Directors Guild of America Awards Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Motion Pictures Robert Wise Nominated
Golden Globe Awards Best Motion Picture – Drama Nominated
Best Actor in a Motion Picture – Drama Steve McQueen Nominated
Best Supporting Actor – Motion Picture Richard Attenborough Won
Mako Nominated
Best Director – Motion Picture Robert Wise Nominated
Best Screenplay – Motion Picture Robert Anderson Nominated
Best Music, Original Score – Motion Picture Jerry Goldsmith Nominated
Most Promising Newcomer – Female Candice Bergen Nominated
Laurel Awards Top Drama Nominated
Top Male Dramatic Performance Steve McQueen Nominated
Top Male Supporting Performance Richard Crenna Nominated
Motion Picture Sound Editors Awards Best Sound Editing – Dialogue James Corcoran Won
Writers Guild of America Awards Best Written American Drama Robert Anderson Nominated

The film is recognised by American Film Institute in these lists:

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 Theatre. 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. ^ "THE SAND PEBBLES (A)". British Board of Film Classification. February 24, 1967. Archived from the original on December 24, 2015. Retrieved December 23, 2015.
  2. ^ 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
  3. ^ "The Sand Pebbles, Box Office Information". The Numbers. Archived from the original on July 28, 2013. Retrieved April 16, 2012.
  4. ^ "Steve McQueen - The Sand Pebbles". Archived from the original on February 20, 2015. Retrieved June 14, 2015.
  5. ^ "USS San Pablo from the Sand Pebbles". Crispin Garcia. Archived from the original on January 1, 2007. Retrieved May 16, 2023.
  6. ^ "Jim Fritz - Recollections of The Sand Pebbles (1966)". Archived from the original on May 22, 2016. Retrieved June 14, 2015.
  7. ^ "The Demise of the San Pablo - The Sand Pebbles". Archived from the original on June 26, 2015. Retrieved June 14, 2015.
  8. ^ "The Demise of the San Pablo - The Sand Pebbles". Retrieved April 25, 2022.
  9. ^ Santopietro, Tom The Sound of Music Story Bantam Press; 1st edition 1 May 2015
  10. ^ Headland, Andrew Jr. (July 25, 2022). "From the archives, 1966: Variety's the Spice of Candy's Life". Stars and Stripes. Retrieved January 29, 2024.
  11. ^ "AFI Catalog of Feature Films: The Sand Pebbles". AFI. December 20, 1966. Retrieved January 29, 2024.
  12. ^ a b Espinal, Megan (February 22, 2013). "The Sand Pebbles (1966)". The Saturday Evening Post. Retrieved January 29, 2024.
  13. ^ a b Crowther, Bosley (December 21, 1966). "Screen: 'The Sand Pebbles' Begins Its Run at Rivoli". Archived April 18, 2019, at the Wayback Machine The New York Times. 48.
  14. ^ Schickel, Richard (January 6, 1967). "Life magazine review of The Sand Pebbles". Archived from the original on June 23, 2009. Retrieved February 1, 2018.
  15. ^ Kurcfeld, Michael, (2007). – Documentary: The Making of "The Sand Pebbles". – Stonehenge Media
  16. ^ McQueen Toffel, Neile, (1986). – Excerpt: My Husband, My Friend Archived May 15, 2008, at the Wayback Machine. – (c/o The Sand Pebbles). – New York, New York: Atheneum. – ISBN 0-689-11637-3
  17. ^ "The Sand Pebbles". Rotten Tomatoes. Los Angeles, CA: Fandango. Archived from the original on May 23, 2019. Retrieved April 1, 2021.
  18. ^ "Film Reviews: The Sand Pebbles". Variety. December 21, 1966. 6.
  19. ^ Scheuer, Philip K. (December 25, 1966). "Gold Found in 'Sand Pebbles'". Los Angeles Times. Calendar, p. 1.
  20. ^ Coe, Richard L. (January 26, 1967). "'Sand Pebbles' At the Ontario". The Washington Post. F14.
  21. ^ "The Sand Pebbles". The Monthly Film Bulletin. 34 (401): 91. June 1967.
  22. ^ Gill, Brendan (December 31, 1966). "The Current Cinema". The New Yorker. 62.
  23. ^ Silverman, Stephen M (1988). The Fox that got away : the last days of the Zanuck dynasty at Twentieth Century-Fox. L. Stuart. p. 325. ISBN 9780818404856.
  24. ^ Silverman, Stephen M (1988). The Fox that got away : the last days of the Zanuck dynasty at Twentieth Century-Fox. L. Stuart. p. 259. ISBN 9780818404856.
  25. ^ "The 39th Academy Awards (1967) Nominees and Winners". Archived from the original on November 10, 2014. Retrieved August 24, 2011.
  26. ^ "The Sand Pebbles". Movies & TV Dept. The New York Times. 2012. Archived from the original on October 18, 2012. Retrieved December 27, 2008.
  27. ^ "AFI's 100 Years of Film Scores Nominees" (PDF). Archived (PDF) from the original on July 6, 2011. Retrieved August 6, 2016.

External links[edit]