The routine on the fondly called Sand Pebbles is rocked by the arrival of a new Machinist’s Mate named Holman (Steve McQueen). He has a feel for machines and immediately empathizes with the one that powers the gunboat. Unfortunately the engines are being run by Chinese coolies in what is called the “rice bowl” system. The Chinese do all the grunt woork and the crew does the occasional drill and consistent bellyaching. Holman butts heads with the old Chinaman named Chin who runs the engine room. When a coolie dies in an accident due to the faulty machinery, the other coolies blame Holman and the white crew begins to view him as a Jonah (sailor slang for bad luck personified). The captain (Richard Crenna) refuses to let Holman take control of the engine room. He has grown lax like the crew.
|the fight at the boom|
|Holman, Eckert, and the captain|
“The Sand Pebbles” does not purport to be a true story, but it does ring some bells. During this period of Chinese history, there were Western gunboats patrolling the Yangtse to protect Western interests and civilians and presumably to remind the Chinese of their inferiority to Europeans and Americans. The attitude of the crew accurately reflects the racism of that time. This depiction of gunboat diplomacy caused some reviewers to erroneously assume the movie was meant to comment on Vietnam. The chaotic nature of Chinese politics is also well-portrayed. Not only did you have the Nationalists versus the Communists, but you had the Nationalists versus the warlords. See what I mean about the puzzling decision to grant shore leave?
Although there was no USS San Pablo, it is vaguely reminiscent of the USS Panay. The Panay was a gunboat that was sunk by Japanese aircraft on the Yangtse in 1937. It was protecting American civilians and interests in Nanking and was mistaken for being Chinese. Supposedly. Jameson and Eckert could be stretched to represent John and Elisabeth Stam. They were missionaries who were martyred in 1934.
A lot of effort went into the movie. It was filmed in Hong Kong and Taiwan. The San Pablo was built for the movie. It was a replica of a Spanish-American War gunboat. The production was fraught with problems and a nine week shoot lasted seven months. McQueen’s health was so impacted that he took a year to recover from the experience.
The movie was well-received and was a hit. It garnered eight Academy Award nominations, but won none. The nominations were for Best Picture (losing in a very weak year to “A Man For All Seasons” which also defeated the way overrated “The Russians Are Coming…”), Best Actor (McQueen’s only nod), Best Supporting Actor (Mako), Director, Cinematography, Editing, Sound, Original Score (Jerry Goldsmith).
The movie is long at 182 minutes (there is an extended cut that adds fourteen minutes). Parts of it are slow moving. There is a fight between Po-Han and a big Pollack (Simon Oakland) that seems to go on forever. The set pieces are excellent, however. The acting is stellar. The cinematography is note-worthy and the score enhances the action. The plot is poignant. This is not a feel good movie. The death of Po-Han is particularly heart-wrenching. The main characters are not two-dimensional. They have their flaws. This is particularly apparent in Holman and the captain. Holman is basically an anti-hero. You’ve seen his type in many war movies. Most recently for me, Corsey in “Go Tell the Spartans”. The captain is fascinating because it is debatable whether he is a good leader or not. He seems unmotivated at first, but when forced to lead he is firm.
In conclusion, “The Sand Pebbles” is a worthy effort. I have nothing against long movies, but it does drag at times. Some scenes are powerful and I have to say that although I had not seen the movie in decades, I clearly remembered those scenes. It is not good enough to make the Best 100, however.
Rating – 7/10