|The Sand Pebbles|
Theatrical release poster
by Howard Terpning
|Directed by||Robert Wise|
|Produced by||Robert Wise|
|Written by||Robert Woodruff Anderson|
|Based on||The Sand Pebbles|
by Richard McKenna
|Music by||Jerry Goldsmith|
|Edited by||William Reynolds|
|Distributed by||20th Century Fox|
|Box office||$30 million|
The Sand Pebbles is a 1966 American 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 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. 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.
The officers have hired coolies to do most of the work, leaving the sailors free for military drills. Because he is senior engineer, and runs the engineering department on the ship, Holman is responsible for the operation and maintenance of the ship's engine, which until his arrival had been solely the responsibility of the Chinese hands, under the direction of the chief engine room 'coolie', Chien (Tommy Lee). Chien resents his 'intrusion' as an insult to his authority and status. Holman also earns the antipathy of most of his fellow sailors, but does become close friends with one seasoned, sensitive petty officer, Frenchy (Richard Attenborough).
Holman 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 (Richard Crenna), who refuses to stop for repairs. Only after the executive officer declares that there is a mechanical emergency does Collins, who is prepossessed by fantasies of a purely military order, acquiesce. Chien persuades Holman, who wishes to make the repair himself, to allow him to step in and fix it. Understanding Chien's honour has been offended, Holman lets him take over and Chien is accidentally killed. The chief coolie, Lop-eye Shing (Henry Wang), blames Holman, believing that the "ghost in the machine" killed Chien. As a replacement for Chien, Holman selects Po-Han (Mako), and trains him. In time, the two become friends.
Po-Han is harassed by a large, heavy-drinking, bullying sailor named Stawski (Simon Oakland), leading to a boxing match on which the crewmen place bets. Holman is in the corner of his friend Po-Han, who, despite being badly beaten up by Stawski, 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 that might provide fuel for xenophobic propaganda, especially by the Communists. Lop-eye Shing sends Po-Han ashore: he is the only member of the coolie crew who has established a friendship with Holman, and Po-Han is predictably chased down the beach, captured, and tortured by a mob of Chinese in lingchi 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 torture 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 (Marayat Andriane), from prostitution by paying her debts. He marries her and regularly swims ashore 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 and her unborn baby. When the demand is rejected, the Chinese blockade the gunboat. The crew fear 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'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 (Larry Gates) and his school-teacher assistant, Shirley Eckert (Candice Bergen), from their remote China Light Mission. Holman had met Eckert in Hangkow 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 break through 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 is forced to kill with an axe used to cut the hawser when a young Chinese guard attacks him, only realizing after he has struck the blow that the youth is a Christian nationalist 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 US citizenship. Collins orders Holman to forcibly remove Eckert and Jameson, but Holman declares he is going to stay with them. Nationalist soldiers suddenly attack the mission. They kill Jameson, despite his attempt to explain his statelessness. Collins orders the patrol to return to the ship with Eckert, and remains behind to provide covering fire. Collins is killed, leaving the normally rebellious Holman in command. Holman and Eckert have a tearful parting, finally making clear their love for each other. 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 pre-production work, as well as being monsoon-affected in Taipei, its producer and director Wise realised 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 US 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., which 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 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 completed 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 moved to Hong Kong for three months, mainly for scenes in Sai Kung and Tung Chung, and then, in June, it travelled 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.
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, and Life magazine.
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. The performance earned McQueen the only Academy Award nomination of his career. He was not seen on film again until two 1968 films, The Thomas Crown Affair and Bullitt (which included his fellow Sand Pebbles actor Simon Oakland as Bullitt's boss).
The film is recognised by American Film Institute in these lists:
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.