Even when I was a kid watching THE GREAT ESCAPE (1963) and didn't know what cool was, I knew Steve McQueen was cool. Wearing a bomber jacket, throwing a baseball against the wall in his cell, or stealing a motorcycle and having Germans chase him through the Bavarian countryside, McQueen leaps from the screen as Hilts the Cooler King in THE GREAT ESCAPE, exuding coolness from every pore of his celluloid face. I wanted to see as many Steve McQueen movies as I could after watching THE GREAT ESCAPE but in reality, I hadn't seen that many until recently. BULLITT (1968) and THE GETAWAY (1972) are two of my other favorite McQueen films. In middle school, I recall they showed one of McQueen's first features, the horror film THE BLOB (1958) on a 16mm projector after school. But whenever I talk about Steve McQueen with friends, someone always brings up THE SAND PEBBLES as their favorite McQueen film.
Naturally, having bragged what a huge Steve McQueen fan I am, I have to admit I had never seen THE SAND PEBBLES (1966) until now. In films like THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN (1960) or THE GREAT ESCAPE, McQueen had been a part of an ensemble cast but in THE SAND PEBBLES, he is the star. Most would agree that THE SAND PEBBLES is one of McQueen's best performances. Directed by Robert Wise (WEST SIDE STORY, THE SOUND OF MUSIC), THE SAND PEBBLES is an epic film, Wise's attempt to make a David Lean type story like LAWRENCE OF ARABIA (1962) or DR. ZHIVAGO (1965). Like Lean's epic films, THE SAND PEBBLES is set during a period of war in a foreign country, this time civil war in 1926 China.
Based on the novel by Richard McKenna and adapted to the screen by Robert Anderson, THE SAND PEBBLES is the nickname the sailors call their gunboat the U.S.S. San Pablo. The San Pablo is patrolling the tributaries of the Yangtze River looking out for U.S. interests as Chinese warlords and revolutionaries battle for the independence of China. Navy Senior Engineer Jake Holman (Steve McQueen) arrives in Shanghai to join the San Pablo. Jake catches a boat going up river where he meets an American missionary Jameson (Larry Gates) and a young, naïve American school teacher Shirley Eckert (Candice Bergen) who don't care for America's military presence in China.
Jake hooks up with his new gunship and crewmates including Frenchy Burgoyne (Richard Attenborough) who will become his best friend. Jake reports to Captain Collins (Richard Crenna) and Ensign Bordelles (Charles Robinson). Collins mentions to Bordelles that Jake has had seven transfers in nine years with the Navy. Chinese coolies perform most of the work on the gunboat instead of the crew, drawing Jake's ire. When Jake tries to fix a ball bearing in the engine room, the bilge coolie Chien (Tommy Lee) jumps in to help. Chien's injured and later dies. Jake trains a new bilge coolie Po-Han (Mako) and they become friends.
On liberty, the crew hang out a Mama Chunk's (Beulah Quo) bar. Frenchy falls in love with a young hostess Maily (Marayat Andriane) but the sadistic Stawski (Simon Oakland) wants her too. Jake bets Stawski that Po-Han could beat him in a fight. If Po wins, Jake and Frenchy will use the money they win gambling on the fight to buy Maily her freedom from her pimp Victor Shu (James Hong). Po wins the fight but the men are called back to the ship as Chinese tensions toward foreigners increases. The San Pablo run into Jameson and Shirley about to head up river to their mission China Light but they remain steadfast that they're not in danger. Chinese revolutionaries grab Po-Han and torture him in front of the crew. Against orders, Jake grabs a rifle and kills Po-Han to put him out of his misery. This act solidifies the rift between Jake and most of the crew including Captain Collins.
The San Pablo remains on the water as every port greets them with demonstrators with GO HOME signs. All shore leave is cancelled. Collins asks Jake to transfer after the Po-Han incident. Frenchy sneaks off the boat to visit Maily in town during a cold spell. Jake goes to bring Frenchy back but finds he's dead from pneumonia and Maily pregnant with Frenchy's child. The Chinese try to arrest Jake but he escapes. However, the Chinese frame Jake for Maily's murder (she was killed by the warlords). The Chinese army wants Jake but Collins won't give Jake up, despite the crew's near mutiny to hand Jake over. An incident at Nat King with many American deaths gives Collins a cause to take the San Pablo up river to bring back Jameson and Shirley from China Light. The gunboat breaks through a Chinese blockade of junk boats but not before lives are lost between the Navy crew and Chinese revolutionaries in hand to hand combat. Jake, Collins, and two other crew members go on land to try to rescue Jameson and Shirley in the tense finale.
The gunboat's nickname THE SAND PEBBLES is a good metaphor for the film's story. The San Pablo is like a sand pebble, caught in the turbulent maelstrom of political and historical change as revolutionaries and warlords try to wrestle China free from outside influences like the United States. The gunship is tossed and buffeted symbolically as it tries to protect U.S. interests while avoiding international incidents. The tide of change isn't only on land but on the gunboat. The status quo of Chinese coolies performing most of the manual duties on board is turned upside down when Jake arrives. The tension on the ship between Jake and the San Pablo crew equates to the unrest between the U.S. and China.
The character of Jake Holman played by Steve McQueen in THE SAND PEBBLES represents the biblical character Jonah. According to sailors' superstition, a "Jonah" was a person or crew member on board a ship who brought bad luck or was a jinx. After Jake joins the San Pablo, two coolies will die indirectly because of him. Captain Collins points this out to Jake after Po-Han's death. The crew senses Jake's a 'Jonah' as well for the run of bad luck since he transferred to their ship. There's another connection to the Jonah story with Jake. In the Book of Jonah, Jonah is thrown overboard after he's blamed for a terrible storm while at sea. Jonah is swallowed by a whale and the sea calms down. In THE SAND PEBBLES finale, Jake leaves the ship to help rescue Jameson and Shirley. He stays back to hold off the Chinese army while Crosley (Gavin McLeod) and Bronson (Joe Turkel) take Shirley back to the ship. Like Jonah, Jake's sacrifice ultimately saves the ship and crew.
Steve McQueen played cool like nobody's business but like Paul Newman, he was also drawn to anti-authority characters like Jake Holman in THE SAND PEBBLES. Jake's good at his job as a senior engineer for the San Pablo's engine room but he would prefer to give the orders rather than take them. Jake isn't part of the status quo. He'd rather give himself a shave but gives in to the crew's caste system that makes the coolies perform those menial jobs. He tries to be one of the guys but he doesn't conform for long. He clashes with Stanski and eventually Captain Collins. Jake's rebellious, following his own code. There's a reason he's transferred seven times in nine years in the Navy.
Steve McQueen's only Academy Award nomination for Best Actor would be for his performance as Jake Holman in THE SAND PEBBLES and it's very deserved. McQueen digs deep to reveal new layers and emotions as Jake that McQueen fans and critics had never seen. I've been watching several McQueen movies this month including BULLITT, THE GETAWAY, and PAPILLION (1973). He's great in all of them but in THE SAND PEBBLES, Jake is a tragic character that we had not seen McQueen portray before. It's almost too dark but director Wise tosses in enough scenes with Candice Bergen as semi-love interest Shirley for Jake to balance the dramatic tone of most of the film.
Richard Crenna's Captain Collins is another complex character in THE SAND PEBBLES. Frustrated with his inability to act decisively in the name of diplomacy and fearful that his protection of Jake could lead to mutiny, Collins is inwardly weak until he realizes he could become a patriotic martyr by rescuing the missionaries. Crenna would have a long career in movies and television with credits including BODY HEAT (1981) and RAMBO: FIRST BLOOD (1982).
I would not say this is one of Richard Attenborough's best roles as Frenchy Burgoyne, Jake's best friend. I didn't feel Frenchy was developed enough as a character. Attenborough and McQueen also appeared in THE GREAT ESCAPE together. THE SAND PEBBLES was Candice Bergen's second film. As the innocent school teacher Shirley Eckert, Bergen has some nice scenes with McQueen to balance out the drama. Bergen, the daughter of famed ventriloquist Edgar Bergen, would have a nice run of films in the 60's and 70's before moving to television and starring in her own TV show MURPHY BROWN (1988-98). Attenborough would direct Bergen in his 1982 film GANDHI.
THE SAND PEBBLES would be Marayat Andriane who plays Maily only feature film under that name. She would change it to Emmanuelle Arsan and become the inspiration for the soft core R-rated EMMANUELLE films that played in questionable theaters and late night cable channels in the 70's and 80's. Simon Oakland, a favorite of director Robert Wise, supplies the villainy as Stanski, Jake's nemesis on the gunboat. Oakland also appeared in Wise's WEST SIDE STORY. He would end up playing Steve McQueen's police supervisor in BULLITT. And look for Gavin McLeod as Crosley, another San Pablo crew member. Surprisingly, McLeod also co-starred in the WWII adventure film KELLY'S HEROES (1970) which is a far cry from his more lovable roles in TV's THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW and THE LOVE BOAT in the 70s and 80s.
Director Robert Wise was no stranger to big films, filling the screen wonderfully with dancing street gangs in WEST SIDE STORY (1958) and the singing Von Trapp family in the Alps in THE SOUND OF MUSIC (1965). THE SAND PEBBLES was his first attempt at the epic genre. Wise was dipping into David Lean territory with this historical drama. Although there aren't any iconic widescreen shots that etch forever in our brains like LAWRENCE OF ARABIA'S desert sunrise or THE BRIDGE OVER THE RIVER KWAI'S jungle bridge collapsing, Wise and Director of Photography Joseph McDonald photography plenty of broad vistas of the San Pablo chugging up and down the Yangtze River (with Taiwan and Hong Kong filling in for China). The shots of THE SAND PEBBLE'S gunboat reminded me of another gunboat on a river in a different Asian conflict, the Vietnam War, in 1979's APOCALYPSE NOW. Wise excelled in other genres besides musicals and the epic such as science fiction (1951's THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL), horror (1963's THE HAUNTING), and even the disaster film (1975's THE HINDENBURG). But THE SAND PEBBLES would be Wise's last big hit.
It's hard to believe that Steve McQueen was only 50 years old when he passed away. Fifty used to seem old to me but since I just turned 51 a few months ago, I now have the knowledge that 50 is just the half way point with plenty of life ahead. But McQueen's passing at the relatively early age of 50 is so sad and a loss for movie fans. THE SAND PEBBLES is McQueen's most dramatic and complex role and he deserved his Academy Award Nomination for Best Actor in 1967 (losing out to Paul Scofield for A MAN FOR ALL SEASONS). THE SAND PEBBLES is another example of the fine work that Steve McQueen did in his relatively brief career in the movie business. Thankfully, his legacy and coolness lives on through his films.