Sunday, June 3, 2012

CRACKER? The Sand Pebbles

       “The Sand Pebbles” is a movie directed by Robert Wise (“Run Silent, Run Deep”) that came out in 1966. It is based on the novel by Richard McKenna. It is set in China in 1926 during the civil war between Jiang’s Nationalists and Mao’s Communists. The area around Shanghai is “ravaged by corrupt warlords”. The title refers to the USS San Pablo which is an American gunboat on the Yangtse River.

         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.

         Holman befriends a coolie trainee named Po-Han (Mako) and a veteran crewman called Frenchy (Richard Attenborough). When Jiang decides to crack down on the warlords. Shanghai is roiled and the anti-American feelings explode. The captain of the San Pablo is under orders to remain neutral and protect American civilians. In lieu of this, they take on board a missionary named Jameson and the school teacher Shirley Eckert (Candice Bergen) who happens to be the love interest of Holman. Po-Hun is caught ashore and is being tortured in sight of the San Pablo when Holman disobeys orders to put him out of his misery with a well-placed gunshot.

        The gunboat delivers its charges to Changchow (stop giggling) where the city is also in ferment. Unbelievably, the captain allows shore leave! Frenchy meets and marries a Chinese prostitute named Mai Ling and then proceeds to die of pneumonia from his AWOL swim trips to visit his wife. Mai Ling is kidnapped and murdered by Kuomintang (Jiang’s government) thugs. The gunboat is surrounded by Chinese junks. They demand Holman be turned over for the “murder” of Mai Ling. At this point the Jonah label is in concrete so the crew is cool with turning over Holman and mutinies when the captain refuses. The crew backs down when the captain suddenly grows a pair.

the fight at the boom
          At this point the captain decides to violate orders and risk the entire crew by sailing upriver to rescue Jameson and Eckert. Why the mutinous crew goes along with this suicide mission is unclear (perhaps they hope to avoid the yardarm for mutiny). The gunboat has to overcome a Chinese boom of junks blocking the river. An exciting battle ensues, but it’s been a long slog getting to some action.

Holman, Eckert, and the captain
          When the San Pablo reaches the mission, the captain leads a shore party to find Jameson and Eckert. Being a stereotypical missionary, Jameson refuses to leave. He’s a pacifist and plus he has a paper officially renouncing his American citizenship. Surely the Chinese will respect his document. Right?

        “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


  1. Despite its faults (the main being its much too long) this is a very good movie. Its a great example of transfering a book almost directly to the screen. Which is its major fault: too much story. The whole Richard Attenborough love subplot, while tragic, could have been jetisoned easily. The story about McQueen's character and his adventures on the ship are plenty. I love how he is a drifter and prefers working on engines rather then fighting. Theres a great moment in the book (I think it may be in the movie, been awhile) where he arrives at the ship in the early morning and says "Hello, ship." Hoping he's finally found a home. This is a good example of a well acted character growth movie. The love angle with Bergan is awkward and nearly nonexistent, but I think McQueen played it that way. Loners dont fall in love much. Another good moment is the set piece battle of breaking the water baracade. Its almost like its filmed in realtime, slow and methodical. When McQueen bayonettes the other soldier the look on his face sums up his character, his acting and the movie really. The one-man-stand at the end is excellent and unique. As a McQueen fan that is his shining moment other then saying "We deal in lead, mister" in Magnificant Seven. McQueen was very disappointed when he didnt win for this movie (he should have IMO, a very dedicated, thought out performance) and never really reached for the stars again. Similar to Burt Reynolds when he was not nominated along with Bergen (again) and Clayburgh in Starting Over. Basically: Nuts to you Academy! I've always thought Bergen is the weak link in Sand Pebbles. You can tell she is just learning to act and while her character is sweet it has no depth. McQueen is way to strong for her. I would say out of the three recent crackers this one is strongest, though its set in a little known war. Again I love the movie poster which is old school. Good likenesses of the actors and a colorful montage of the events. Painted posters were so much better. A good review. Dont forget to try the book someday. As I remember its told from Holman's POV and is dense but good. Sand Pebbles is in that small subgenre of "Reluctant War Hero" movies. McQueen made quite a few of those!

    1. Great comments. Thank you for adding so much!

      As far as the last four Crackers, I would put Where Eagles Dare and Hope and Glory ahead of this and probably The Last Samurai as well. All are good movies, though.

      If the movie follows the book so closely, I see no reason to read it, but thanks for the recommendation.

    2. @Jayraven05 - you made a good point about when McQueen first comes on the gunboat in the book and he says "Hello Ship."

      Since I have not read the book I am not disputing, but I do know in the movie McQueen's character says, "Hello Engine" as he is standing down in the engine room looking over the engine.

    3. I think your best point is about McQueen's character as a loner and how he played that out in his affection for the Candice Bergen character. The radiation ship seems shallow but why would a loaner know what to do?

  2. I can see that this isn't bad at all but the length is a huge turn off. I like Candice Bergen. Odd, I thought that Yul Brynner is in it, judging from the poster.
    Not sure why ChangChow is funny?

    1. Bergen is not in teh movie much and as Jay points out, it is not one of her better performances.

      Changchow sounds like a word you would make up if you were pretending to speak Chinese. As in the sentence "Changchow ringding mao."

  3. On the book: its long also, but about the length of your average nonfiction history book. 500 some pages. The thing thats cool is that the author treats the ship itself as almost a living character. Which of course is how Holman sees it. Here are the first two lines of the book which are very memorable:
    "Hello ship," Jake Holman said under his breath.
    The ship was asleep and did not hear him.
    Nicely done to get a reader into a book.
    What I dont recall is if the book ended the same as the movie with Holman's last stand. That looks like a Hollywood idea. I will have to check on that.
    Its interesting to note that though he dies first in the movie Mako long outlived McQueen in real life and he was even the voice of Aku in Samurai Jack (watch out!)

  4. One last Pebbles note: this will blow your mind. I went exploring and there is actually a very cool, comprehensive website covering this movie. Some fan or fans have collected together alot of press/photos/script etc. for its 45th anniversary last year. Even press books that you can read. Amazing. its at
    Who knew?
    Oh and i looked up the book to refresh my 51 year old memory and Holman bites the big one in the book too.

  5. Changchow is actually a bad American prounciation of the real Chinese city the movie was set in Changsha, Mao grew up near there and was a teacher there before he rose to fame. I have visited it twice, a nice city. The real name of the city is seen on cargi on docks in some scences.

  6. This is one of my two favourite movies of all time, the other being Zulu with Stanley Baker and Michael Caine. How this movie with so many Oscar nominations and not win a single one is mind blowing.


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