The Sand Pebbles (1966)




Director: Robert Wise.

Cast:  Steve McQueen (Jake Holman), Richard Attenborough (Frenchy Burgoyne), Richard Crenna (Captain Collins), Candice Bergen (Shirley Eckert), Mako (Po-han), Emmanuelle Arsan (Maily),  Larry Gates (Jameson), Charles Robinson (Ensign Bordelles),  Simon Oakland (Stawski),  Gavin MacLeod (Crosley),  Ford Rainey (Harris), Joe Turkel (Bronson), Joe Di Reda (Shanahan), Richard Loo (Major Chin), Barney Phillips (Chief Petty Officer Franks).

1926 China; an American gun boat, Chiang Kai-shek against the warlords and the move toward civil war


Good movie.  1926 Shanghai, China.  China is beset by warlords and is now trying to unite through Revolution.   Jake Holman is heading for the gunboat San Pablo.  He is a very restless fellow, having served at seven posts in nine years in the US Navy.  He talks with Shirley Eckert heading out to be a teacher for the missionaries at China Light.  He mentions to her that "nice girls don't talk to Chinese sailors" meaning American navy personnel in China. 

The US gunboats are a local joke, partly because they were inherited from Spain following the Spanish-American War.  Jake will be in charge of the engines of the gunboat.  Almost immediately after coming onboard, he spots trouble in the engine; there is a bad bearing that could cause a blow-out in the steam engine.  Jake tells the captain about it, but the Captain says that they haven't had any problems with the engines so far.  Not long afterward, the senior Chinese coolie working in the engine room is killed in an accident involving the faulty engine.  The captain and the Chinese coolies blame Holman for the death.

The sailors like to hang out in their favorite bar in town.  The sailor named Ski wants the new prostitute Maily in the worst way and despite her protestations that she is not a prostitute but a hostess, he tries to force her into the act.  Frenchy intervenes and saves Maily, who is very grateful to Frenchy.  She explains that she needs $200 to gain her freedom from the local Chinese big-shot. 

Jake teaches Po-Han, a bilge coolie, about the steam engine in order for Po-Han to replace the now deceased senior coolie in the engine room.   Jake figures out a way to make the $200.  He arranges a boxing match between Po-Han and Ski.  Po-Han wins the fight and Jake has the money. 

The gunboat's whistle calls the men into the ship.  The captain has found out that a battle has occurred involving two British ships with 200 dead Chinese and 150 dead Brits.  The communists have subsequently claimed that the British killed 2,000 innocent Chinese.  Furthermore, Chiang Kai-shek is leading an army north to wipe out the war lords.  The Americans are not to fire back if provoked; they must remain neutral in the developing Chinese civil war.  All Americans are to be evacuated from central China. 

The immediate mission of the gunboat is to rescue the missionaries at China Light.  The missionary Jameson is not supposed to leave the mission because a Chinese court has sentenced him to death for having opium  poppies growing on his land (even though he knew nothing of the poppies).  Jameson wants to appeal the sentence by traveling to another town, so he and Shirley agree to go with the gunboat since it is heading their way anyway. 

The militant Chinese catch Po-Han on shore and start to torture him to death.  Against a direct order, Jake shoots Po-Han to save him from further pain.  The Captain says he wants to transfer Jake off the ship as soon as possible. 

Frenchy marries Maily and Jake kisses Shirley.  Nationalist Chinese Army major Chin plants some opium on board the gunboat and then blames the local opium trade on the Americans.  The gunboat is soon under siege.  Since the water in the river is so low, they will have to wait until spring to leave the area.   There is no shore leave. 

Frenchy sneaks out and swims ashore in order to see Maily, who is now pregnant.  Frenchy receives a bad chill from his adventure and soon dies.  When Frenchy does not turn up, Jake takes the opportunity provided to him by a mission to a message to find Maily and Frenchy.  He finds Maily with her husband's corpse.  While there he and Maily are jumped by four militant Chinese.  Jake gets away, but Maily is kidnapped.

The Chinese now show up blaming Holman for the death of Maily.  The sailors try to get Holman to surrender himself to the Chinese and stage a mini-mutiny when the Captain gives them an order to fire the machine guns near the Chinese.  The Captain fires one of the machine guns himself and the mutiny passes.  The Captain considers committing suicide, but decides against it when he hears the news that the Nationalist troops have taken Nanking; the Chinese are killing the American treaty people; the British and American ships are shelling the city; and the marines have landed in Shanghai.  The immediate mission of the gunboat is to return once again to China Light and remove the missionaries and staff from harm. 

But Jameson does not want to leave.  He tells the Captain that we are "stateless persons" now.  The Captain tries to explain that this is now war and that his new status will not protect him from regular Chinese troops.  And sure enough, when the Chinese troops arrive they shoot and kill Jameson when he approaches them to "explain" the situation. 

The Captain tells Shirley to take the backway out of the missionary compound and go with the handful of sailors back to the gunboat.  The Captain decides he will stay and fight, but he is soon killed.  Jakes decides to take over from the Captain and he also is soon killed. 

Steve McQueen was always great at portraying the reluctant anti-hero hero and he is perfect for the role of Jake.  Richard Attenborough is also very good as Jake's buddy Frenchy.  It's a rather long movie but it never lags.

Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D.


Historical Background:


The Panay incident.

1937 (summer)  --  the Japanese invaded China.

1937 (December)  --  Japanese forces moved into the city of Nanking (now Nanjing).

1937 (December 11)  --  the Panay evacuated the remaining Americans from Nanking.  The boat now held five officers, fifty-four enlisted men, four U.S. embassy staff and ten civilians.

1937 (December 12)  -- US gunboat Panay on the Yangtze River was picked out by Japanese naval planes and sunk. Three men were killed, and forty-three sailors and five civilians were wounded.  War was averted because the Japanese said they had made a mistake and paid an indemnity. (That's too bad for the millions of people who could have been saved by an earlier USA intervention against Japanese imperialism and the oncoming World War II.)                          Dr. Patrick L. Cooney.


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