The Sand Pebbles is an American adventure epic/war film directed and produced by Robert Wise. Based on the 1962 novel of the same title by Richard McKenna, the film tells the story of a U.S. Navy machinist’s mate (played by Steve McQueen) aboard the fictional gunboat USS San Pablo in 1920s China: a country in the throes of anti-Western fervor and civil strife.
In 1953, following a 22-year career in the U.S. Navy as a chief machinist mate, Richard McKenna (1913–1964) undertook a second career as a writer. After dabbling in science fiction, McKenna wrote his only novel: The Sand Pebbles, a 597-page epic about the travails of an American gunboat on China’s Yangtze River in 1926 (McKenna had served on such a gunboat, but a decade later, in 1936). The book proved to be a huge hit: a condensed version was serialized in three issues of the Saturday Evening Post in November 1962; it won the $10,000 1963 Harper Prize Novel, was chosen as a Book-of-the-Month Club selection, and became a national bestseller. Furthermore, McKenna sold the movie rights to United Artists (UA) for $300,000 ($2.4 million in 2017 dollars). Shortly thereafter 20th Century Fox acquired the rights from UA and studio head Darryl F. Zanuck greenlit the project for producer-director Robert Wise in September 1962. The search for suitable filming locations in Asia, script writing, and other pre-production work would keep the project on hold for another three years. Paul Newman was tapped for the lead role of Jake Holman but turned it down. Teen crooner Pat Boone lobbied hard for it but it finally went to Steve McQueen (who was paid $650,000), after he achieved true stardom in John Sturges’ The Great Escape (1963). A former Marine with a rebellious streak and lover of all things mechanical, McQueen was perfectly suited to play a feisty Navy machinist mate. When Julie Christie turned down the role of Shirley Eckert, it went to Candice Bergen (who was just 19). Richard Attenborough (an Englishman playing an American who had appeared with McQueen in The Great Escape), Mako (a Japanese American actor playing a Chinese man), and Richard Crenna (in his first major film role) filled out the rest of the main cast. Pre-production work on The Sand Pebbles included the construction of the movie’s most important and expensive prop: the San Pablo, a 150-foot, steel-hulled gunboat closely modeled on the USS Villalobos (PG-42), an 1898 gunboat captured from Spain during the Spanish-American War and used on Yangtze River patrol from 1903 to 1928. Built in Hong Kong by Vaughn & Yung Engineering Ltd. at a cost of $250,000, the San Pablo was powered by reliable Cummins diesel engines, not a period steam engine liable to break down and cause production delays. The San Pablo emitted black smoke from her smokestack that came from old tires and other rubbish burned in a special compartment on the boat. Jake Holman’s beloved engine—a working 20-ton, 1,000-horsepower, triple expansion steam engine built by Vickers in 1920 and salvaged from a Norwegian whaler in Vancouver, British Columbia—was actually located in an engine room set built on Stage 16 at 20th Century Fox studios in Burbank, not on the San Pablo.
Shooting in mainland China, where the novel was set, was out of the question, so much of The Sand Pebbles was filmed on the Keelung and Tam Sui Rivers at Taipei, on the island of Taiwan. The narrow, crowded streets of Taipei were used for street scenes supposedly taking place in Shanghai, San Pablo’s home port. In the Tamsui district of Taipei, 900 of the 5,000 locals were recruited as extras to storm across the “Changsha Bund” and hurl lighted torches at the San Pablo. Po-Han’s poignant death scene was also filmed in Tamsui. Filming on Taiwan lasted four and a half months (22 November 1965–21 March 1966). The company then moved on to Hong Kong to film the movie’s climactic fight between the San Pablo and 30 Chinese junks blockading it, supposedly on the Chien River in mainland China, but it was actually shot on a narrow inlet in Hong Kong’s Sai Kung district—the massive 1,000-foot bamboo rope that linked the junks together weighed 25 tons. Filming of the battle scene, which took two months, was completed 15 May 1966. The 135-person cast and crew then returned to California to shoot interior scenes at the studio in Burbank and some additional exteriors at Malibu Creek State Park in Calabasas in June and July. The grueling nine-month shoot was finally concluded on 2 August 1966 at the USS Texas, near Houston, where what was supposed to have been the film’s opening scene was shot (i.e., Jake’s departure from an American battleship in Shanghai harbor). Included in a test rough cut, that scene and some other scenes ended up on the cutting room floor in order to trim the film’s running time from 196 minutes down to 182 minutes. Due to production delays, mostly caused by inclement weather but also due to the language barrier in Taiwan, unpredictable tides, etc., the film greatly exceeded its $8 million budget, coming in at $12 million. Steve McQueen was so exhausted that he took a year off to rest.
In 1926, Machinist’s Mate 1st Class Jake Holman (Steve McQueen) transfers to the Yangtze River Patrol gunboat USS San Pablo (nicknamed the “Sand Pebble” and its sailors are dubbed “Sand Pebbles”). The officers have hired coolies to do most of the routine work, leaving the sailors free for military drills or just lounging about. An industrious individualist and avid mechanic, Holman takes over the operation and maintenance of the ship’s engine—inadvertently insulting the chief engine room coolie, Chien (Tommy Lee) in the process. Holman also alienates most of his fellow sailors, who are lazy, but he does become close friends with a watertender named Frenchy Burgoyne (Richard Attenborough). Holman discovers a serious problem with a crank bearing on the boat’s engine and informs the captain, Lt. Collins (Richard Crenna), but Collins refuses to have it repaired until his executive officer declares an emergency. Chien asks to complete the repair and is accidentally crushed to death when a jack slips. The chief coolie, Lop-eye Shing (Henry Wang), blames Holman, believing that a “ghost in the machine” killed Chien. Holman selects Po-Han (Mako) as a replacement for Chien, and the two men soon become friends. Po-Han is harassed by “Ski” Stawski (Simon Oakland), a brutish sailor, and the two box while the rest of the crew places bets on the outcome. Po-Han wins the fight, creating greater friction between Holman and the other crew members. Lt. Collins orders the crew to refrain from any hostilities with the Chinese, as they don’t want to add fuel to the propaganda fire. The boat embarks, but Po-Han is sent ashore to avenge Chien’s death. Po-Han is run down, taken captive, and tortured by Chinese peasants while the crew watches from the boat. The Chinese refuse to release Po-Han, and Collins shoots him to relieve his suffering. The San Pablo moors on the Xiang River due to low water levels, and Lt. Collins begins to fear a mutiny. Frenchy dies from pneumonia after too many swims ashore to visit his new wife Maily (Emmanuelle Arsan). Kuomintang (Chinese Nationalist Party) army soldiers locate Holman as he tries to comfort Maily, beat him, and drag the grieving woman away. The next day, the Chinese claim that Holman has “murdered” Maily and her unborn baby and demand that he is turned in as a criminal. The crew worries for their safety and asks Homan to surrender, but then Collins shocks the Chinese with a gunshot to their boat, and Holman is left alone. In the spring, Collins begins river patrols anew, but is then ordered back to the Yangtze River. Before heading to his new post, Collins steams upstream to rescue Jameson (Larry Gates), an idealistic missionary and his schoolteacher assistant, Shirley Eckert (Candice Bergen), from their remote China Light Mission. After a good deal of fighting between the sailors and the Chinese near Dongting Lake, Collins leads three sailors, including Holman, ashore. Jameson does not want to be rescued, claiming that Eckert and he have renounced their U.S. citizenship and are committed to their post. Collins orders Holman to evacuate Eckert and Jameson, but just as Holman declares that he is going to stay with them, Jameson is suddenly killed by Nationalist soldiers in a surprise attack. Collins is killed trying to provide cover for Holman, leaving him in command. He tearfully parts from Eckert and is then fatally wounded right as he goes to join the others on his boat. His last bewildered words are: “I was home [free] … what happened … what the hell happened?” as the San Pablo sails away.
Four years in the works, The Sand Pebbles finally premiered on 20 December 1966. Proving a hit at the box office, the film grossed $30 million ($226.4 million in 2017 dollars). It received seven Oscar nominations, eight Golden Globe nominations, and one win (a Golden Globe for Richard Attenborough as Best Supporting Actor). Reviews were, however, mixed. Philip K. Scheuer called it “a stirring movie … adventure on the grand scale” (Scheuer, 1966). Richard Schickel found The Sand Pebbles to be “a clumsy and lumbering film, but it has a way of haunting the corners of your mind, as historical footnotes are sometimes wont to do” (Schickel, 1967). Many reviewers complained about the film’s sheer length; at 3 hours it was judged too long to be consistently engaging.
Reel History Versus Real History
Having served in the China River Patrol in 1936, novelist Richard McKenna brought a good deal of authenticity to The Sand Pebbles in his rendition of daily life on an American gunboat plying the waters of the Yangtze River in pre-revolutionary China. The novel is set between June 1925 and June 1926, whereas the film is set in 1926–1927, but both settings encompass a particularly volatile moment in China’s modern history: a time when the country was a powder keg, seething with anti-imperialist ardor and internecine political conflict. During the setting of the novel, the Kuomintang (KMT or Nationalist Party of China) was in the throes of a power vacuum following the death of its founder, Sun Yat-sen, in March 1925. On 5 June 1926 Chiang Kai-shek was named commander-in-chief of the National Revolutionary Army (NRA). Five weeks later he finally launched Sun’s long-delayed Northern Expedition, aimed at conquering the northern warlords and uniting China under the KMT. Chiang disapproved of Sun Yat-sen’s alliance with the Soviet Union and the Communist Party of China (CPC) but he still needed Soviet aid, so he could not break up the alliance at that time. The film shifts the novel’s temporal framework forward about a year and distills and streamlines McKenna’s fictional saga, but still manages to capture the politically explosive political climate, an uneasy time for gunboats of foreign powers on the Yangtze, with their very presence stirring intense resentment among Chinese nationalists and communists sick and tired of “gunboat diplomacy,” that is, thinly disguised imperialist intervention. The culminating attack on the USS San Pablo may have been inspired by the so-called “USS Panay incident” (12 December 1937), when Japanese forces invading China bombed, strafed, and sank a U.S. gunboat on the Yangtze River, killing 3 and wounding 43, a sinking that caused a diplomatic rift between the United States and Japan and presaged Pearl Harbor. The plot element involving the killing of missionary Jameson at China Light Mission may have been inspired by the killing of American Christian missionaries John and Betty Stam (8 December 1934) by Chinese communists during the Chinese Civil War. Another possible antecedent: the “China Martyrs of 1900”: hundreds of American and European Christian missionaries and converts who were killed during the Boxer Rebellion (1899–1901). One final note: a number of film critics erroneously assumed that The Sand Pebbles was meant to be an implicit critique of American intervention in Southeast Asia—the Vietnam War was in full swing when the film came out at the end of 1966—but that was never Richard McKenna’s intention when he published the book in 1962, or the intention of the filmmakers four years later.