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SAND PEBBLES, THE (director: Robert Wise; screenwriters: Robert Anderson/from the novel by Richard McKenna; cinematographer: Joseph MacDonald; editor: William Reynolds; music: Jerry Goldsmith; cast: Steve McQueen (Jake Holman), Richard Attenborough (Frenchy), Richard Crenna (Lieut. Collins), Candice Bergen (Shirley Eckert), Marayat Andriane (Maily), Mako (Po-Han), Larry Gates (Mr. Jameson), Simon Oakland (Stawski), Joseph Turkel (Bronson), Ford Rainey (Harris), Gavin MacLeod (Crosley), Joseph di Reda (Shanahan); Runtime: 191; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Robert Wise; 20th Century-Fox; 1966)
“The drama wavers between being compelling and reaching too far for greater historical significance, that it loses its bearings.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Steve McQueen deservedly received his only Oscar nomination for Best Actor, in this epic war drama, for his heartfelt performance as the anti-hero. The Sand Pebbles is based on the novel by Richard McKenna and the screenplay is by Robert Anderson. Director Robert Wise (“West Side Story”/”The Hindenburg”/”Star!”) sets it in 1926 in China, and mingles a true political tale about the civil war (between the Nationalist followers of Chiang Kai-shek and the communists to unify the country from foreign influences) with a personal tale about the crew aboard a US gunboat, the USS San Pablo, patrolling China’s Yangtze River to protect American interests. It’s a handsome production with great visuals, but at over three hours it wears out its welcome as it becomes increasingly plodding. Wise introduces parallels in this conflict with the Vietnam War, as a stale anti-war message ensues that comes across as murky and misplaced.

Jake Holman (Steve McQueen) is an apolitical machinist with nine years experience, who is the newest member of the USS San Pablo crew. This is Jake’s seventh ship, as he regularly transfers because he just wants to be left alone with his engines and when on big ships there are too many others telling him what to do. The crew on this small boat call themselves the “sand pebbles.” Loner Jake turns off many in the crew by his independent spirit and by treating the Chinese coolies who work aboard the ship as equals. Jake hires a worker in the engine room named Po-Han (Mako), whom he treats as an apprentice while the other Chinese coolies are treated as inferiors.

Jake befriends Frenchy (Richard Attenborough). He’s in love with an English-educated Chinese girl, Maily (Marayat Andriane), who has been sold into enforced prostitution. Later, wanting to marry her, Frenchy buys Maily’s freedom and takes her as his common-law wife because they cannot legally marry.

Lieut. Collins (Richard Crenna) is the stern and stubborn gunboat captain, a young lieutenant who lacks practical experience but acts with valor. When the civil war starts, the San Pablo is ordered to protect American civilians in the area but not to get involved in the fracas. Included among those rescued, who do not want to be rescued, are do-gooder anti-imperialist Mr. Jameson (Larry Gates), a missionary, and Shirley Eckert (Candice Bergen), an innocent attractive schoolteacher whom Jake will show a romantic interest in but not enough to make him forget his engines–his true love.

In an attempt to draw the San Pablo’s fire, the Chinese capture Po-han and torture him by slicing his chest with a knife. When Po-han’s screams become unbearable, Jake shoots him. While the San Pablo remains out at sea under siege in a display of anti-Americanism by the war lords, Frenchy swims ashore nights to be with his woman. The icy waters bring on a pneumonia and he dies. When Jake visits the mourning widow, the Chinese beat him and put Maily to death. They accuse Jake of murdering his friend and demand that his ship hand him over for trial. These trying international events will lead to further tragedy for Jake and the crew.

The Sand Pebbles shows how the Americans meddle in affairs they don’t understand and act arrogantly to the Chinese, whom they regularly call “slopeheads” and treat as an “inferior” race. The cynical McQueen character reflects the distrust of authority that’s felt by many young Americans toward their government for getting the country involved in the civil war in Vietnam. The drama wavers between being compelling and reaching too far for greater historical significance, that it loses its bearings.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”