The Sand Pebbles
Richard Crenna

Wise originally wanted Paul Newman to play the part of Holman, a Navy machinist more at ease with engines than with people, but Newman turned it down. Wise thought Steve McQueen might be right for the part, but the studio didn't think he was a big enough draw. By the time production began months later, McQueen had already experienced success in both THE GREAT ESCAPE and LOVE WITH THE PROPER STRANGER. With this new status, the studio was now convinced that he could carry the
Steve McQueen

Steve McQueen

picture. And carry it he did—his stellar performance earned him an Academy Award nomination.

The main element that attracted Wise to this story, about an American gunboat patrolling the Yangtze River in China in 1926, was a theme that reflected the political climate of the mid-1960s. "I was showing that the American military might displayed around the world had been unpopular for many years, that the phrase 'Yankee Go Home!' was not just something that came out of post-World War II, but had been in existence the whole century...PEBBLES came along just at the time when we were starting to get into Vietnam....For me, the message of the film was to make that point, that Vietnam should be seen in this historical context."*

The location shoot, in Taiwan and Hong Kong, proved to be the longest and most strenuous of Wise's career. It was Steve McQueen's roughest film as well, stating that "anything I ever did wrong, I paid for in Taiwan."*

Synopsis In 1926, as strong feelings of nationalism are sweeping through China and the followers of Chiang Kai-shek, as well as the war lords and communists, are demanding that all foreigners leave Chinese soil, the U. S. gunboat San Pablo is patroling the Yangtze River. The newest member of the crew, who call themselves "sand pebbles," is Jake Holman, a machinist Poster with 8 years previous Navy duty. Although Jake's independent nature is regarded with suspicion by most of the men, he wins the friendship of Frenchy, a sailor in love with an English-educated Chinese girl, Maily, who has been sold into enforced prostitution. When Chiang Kai-shek moves against the feudal war lords, the United States decides to treat the upheaval as a civil war, and the San Pablo is ordered to confine its function to protection of American civilians in the area. Included among them are Mr. Jameson, a missionary, and Shirley Eckert, a schoolteacher whom Jake met earlier. In an attempt to draw the San Pablo's fire, the Chinese capture Jake's coolie assistant, Po-han, and torture him by slashing his chest with a knife. Unable to bear his friend's agonized screams, Jake grabs a gun and puts a bullet into Po-han's head. Later, Frenchy buys Maily's freedom and takes her as his common-law wife because they cannot legally marry. While the San Pablo is forced to remain in a state of siege, Frenchy swims ashore each night to visit his pregnant wife. But the icy waters precipitate pneumonia and he dies in Maily's room. When Jake visits the bereaved woman, the Chinese beat him and put Maily to death. They then brand Jake as the murderer and demand that the San Pablo hand him over for trial. The crew agrees that Jake should be tried, and when Captain Collins refuses the demand and orders the crew to fire on the Chinese the men nearly mutiny. The captain takes advantage of the rising tide and moves his ship into deep water. When word arrives that full-scale fighting has led to the landing of U. S. Marines in Shanghai, Captain Collins decides to give his humiliated ship and disgraced crew a chance for glory by heading for Jameson's mission and a rescue attempt. After a bloody fight, the San Pablo breaks through a Chinese blockade and reaches the mission. But Jameson and Shirley declare themselves stateless and rebuke the captain for interfering in China's affairs. Jake wants to desert, but neutrality is no longer possible. Nationalist troops, incensed by the San Pablo's defiance of the blockade, storm the mission and kill both Jameson and Collins. Pushed into making a last stand, Jake orders the other crew members to take Shirley to safety while he covers their getaway. But he is killed by a Chinese bullet. As he dies, he cries "I was home. ... What the hell happened?"

From the AFI Catalog of Feature Films

Wise Facts
  • The San Pablo cost $250,000 to build; at the time, it was the most expensive prop ever constructed for a movie. Oddly, Steve McQueen was paid the same amount (plus points); still it was quite a step-up from the $50/day salary he made for SOMEBODY UP THERE LIKES ME.
  • Wise created the odd credit of "Diversions: Irving Schwartz" in honor of actors Gavin "Love Boat" McLeod and Joe di Reda who kept the crew's spirits up during the arduous location shoot.
  • Credits: 155 min. Argyle Enterprises; Solar Productions; A Robert Wise Production; Distributed by: 20th Century-Fox/Argyle/Solar;  Directed by: Robert Wise;  Produced by: Robert Wise;  Screenplay by: Robert W. Anderson;  Edited by: William Reynolds;  Director of Photography: Joseph MacDonald;  Music by: Jerry Goldsmith;  Production Design by: Boris Leven;  Sound by: Murray Spivack;  Costumes by: Renie;  Make-up by: Ben Nye;  Hair by: Margaret Donovan;  Diversions by: Irving Schwartz; .
    Richard Crenna Cast  Steve McQueen (Jake Holman), Richard Attenborough (Frenchy Burgoyne), Richard Crenna (Captain Collins), Candice Bergen (Shirley Eckert), Marayat Andriane (Maily), Mako (Po-han), Larry Gates (Jameson), Charles Robinson (Ensign Bordelles), Simon Oakland (Stawski), Ford Rainey (Harris), Joseph Turkel (Bronson), Gavin MacLeod (Crosley), Joseph Di Reda (Shanahan), Richard Loo (Major Chin), Barney Phillips (Chief Franks), Gus Trikonis (Restorff), Shepherd Sanders (Perna), James Jeter (Farren), Tom Middleton (Jennings), Paul Chinpae (Cho-jen), Tommy Lee (Chien), Beulah Quo (Mama Chunk), James Hong (Victor Shu), Stephen Jahn (Haythorn), Alan Hopkins (Wilsey), Steve Ferry (Lamb), Ted Fish (CPO Wellbeck), Loren Janes (Coleman), Glenn Wilder (Waldron), Henry Wang (Lop-eye Shing), Ben Wright (Englishman), Walter Reed (Bidder), and Gil Perkins (Customer)

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    1. AFI Seminar, MAY 1975 2.The Films of Steve McQueen, p.129

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