The Sand Pebbles (1966)
September 19, 2021 3:41 PM - Subscribe

In 1926, a U.S. Naval engineer gets assigned to a gunboat in war-torn China.

Jake Holman (Steve McQueen) served in the fleet on large ships. But he wanted an engine of his own, so he transferred to one of the gunboats of the Yangtze River Patrol. Assigned to USS San Pablo, commanded by Lieutenant Collins (Richard Crenna). Holman learns soon after his arrival that Collins runs his ship his own way as it patrols the tributaries of the Yangtze, protecting American lives and property as China's warlords continue to fight each other for dominance.

General comments:
There's a lot going on in this film. There are the sailors, there are the Chinese who live onboard the ship, there are the Chinese who hate the Westerners and the collaborators who work for them. There are missionaries from the United States who have idealistically declared themselves to be stateless and work to help the Chinese.

The movie is based on a work of fiction written by an actual Yangtze Patrol sailor. But coming out in 1966, people saw obvious parallels with Vietnam. Even more can be drawn today with United States' foreign adventures. The movie also has things to say about colonialism and racism, though the message is somewhat muddled by the relationships between the characters and how they are depicted.

Interesting trivia from Wiki:
For years Robert Wise had wanted to make The Sand Pebbles, but the film companies were reluctant to finance it. The Sand Pebbles was eventually paid for, but because its production required extensive location scouting and pre-production work, as well as being monsoon-affected in Taipei, its producer and director Wise realised that it would be over a year before principal photography could begin. At the insistence of the film company, Wise agreed to direct a "fill-in" project, The Sound of Music, a film that became one of the most popular and acclaimed films of the 1960s.
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I've seen this movie many times. It's not exactly a favorite, but it is one that is important as my mom says that I was named for the main character. I enjoy it as a period piece. As cool as Steve McQueen is, I find the commander played by Richard Crenna to be a more engrossing character. I would want to know more about his interior life and why he does what he does. Though it's never spelled out, he is shown as being rather perceptive about what goes on on the ship and I always am intrigued by that.
posted by Fukiyama (3 comments total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
This is one of my favorite movies. I discovered it during my training in the Naval Nuclear Power Program and I found the scenes teaching about the steam engine particularly relatable. It works as a story about imperialism, a parable about Vietnam, and a series of vignettes about being a sailor. Getting in trouble on shore leave, seeing your buddy falling in love with the locals, friction in the chain of command, training your replacement, and doing your best in the situations you've been dealt are all pretty universal experiences in the Navy.
posted by Mr.Encyclopedia at 6:09 AM on September 20, 2021

The Sand Pebbles is a movie I know very well from having watched it a few times a year for years back in my teens. Looking back on it now, I still think fondly of its characters, situations, and settings. But overall, I think TSP is a confused movie. And I chalk that up to Hollywood. I can't remember if the book ends the same way as the movie (yes, I read the book; I was that devoted to the movie). But I do remember that in the book, the Steve McQueen character has a realization that colors the character and everything that's happening. Steve McQueen's character in the movie does not have that same realization. I suspect that was a Hollywood decision because they needed the Jake-Shirley love story intact for the slam-bang finale. The end result is that the overall movie is a little uneven in tone. But its still a movie I have fond memories of and need to watch again soon.
posted by Stuka at 7:51 AM on September 20, 2021

I like the movie.

The book is also an enjoyable read.
posted by KaizenSoze at 4:07 AM on September 21, 2021 [1 favorite]

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