The Sand Pebbles (1966) Poster

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The Definitive McQueen Performance
jhclues7 June 2001
Steve McQueen was known for many things-- action films, fast cars, motorcycles, a charismatic presence (on screen and off), and his true `tough guy' persona. But with this film, another description moves to the top of that list: Actor. Anyone who doubts what a great actor McQueen was need only watch this film, because his performance here as Jake Holman is simply as good as it gets. `The Sand Pebbles, ` directed by Robert Wise, is the story of Holman, a sailor assigned to the U.S. Gunboat, `San Pablo,' stationed on the Yangtze River in China in 1926 (the sailors aboard are known as `sand pebbles'). It's primary function is to patrol the river and thereby establish an American presence in China, a country currently experiencing a period of political unrest and impending upheaval. It's a new assignment for Holman, and it suits him just fine; his job is to keep the ship's engines up and running, and because of the size of the ship, he's the only engineer-- it's just Jake and his engine. And that's the way he likes it. Holman is a loner by nature, and something of an iconoclast. At one point, when he is asked his opinion of American Foreign Policy and their presence in China, he simply says, `I don't mess with it. It's all look-see-pidgin, somethin' for the officers.'

Eventually, however, Holman is nevertheless drawn into the conflict through a series of events that impact him beyond all personal resistance, the most significant being when American lives are threatened throughout China, and Holman and a landing party are sent ashore to protect and escort some missionaries back to the safety of the San Pablo. But at the mission, Holman discovers a way of life, the likes of which he's never known, and for the first time ever, he realizes a sense of belonging. And he likes it. For Holman, however, it may be too late; the political turmoil throughout the country has put the lives of everyone at the mission in peril, including a young missionary named Shirley Eckert (Candice Bergen), with whom Holman has made a connection he simply cannot dispel; for in Shirley, he discerns an innocence and a goodness that compels him, and in which he finds a welcome sense of fulfillment. So what began as a routine mission becomes a salient point in Holman's life, and he is faced with the most important decision he's ever had to make.

This is the one for which McQueen should have won an Oscar. As Holman, he demonstrates an emotional range and depth that runs the gamut from almost boyish naivete to a world weary veteran of life who has seen and heard it all. Utterly convincing, he can say more with a slight incline of his head, a slow blink or shifting of his eyes than most actors could say with reams of dialogue at their disposal. He communicates with so much more than words, and there's meaning in everything he says and does-- he never wastes a line or a single moment. What he does with this role is magnificent; it's the definitive McQueen performance. His Holman is the personification of the loner, and in creating him he delivers something few actors could ever equal: He's tough, convincing and charming-- all at the same time. And he should've taken home The Statue for it.

As Collins, the Captain of the San Pablo, Richard Crenna gives one of his finest performances, as well, and it cemented his transition from television actor to a career on the big screen. After this, there was no going back. His portrayal of the somber, introspective Captain is riveting, and in him you readily perceive Collins' sense of duty and honor, as well as his overwhelming sense of futility and failure. And the urgency with which he grasps his chance for redemption, even in the face of insurmountable odds, is entirely believable as it is consistent with the character he has created.

The superlative supporting cast includes Richard Attenborough (Frenchy), Emmanuelle Arsan (Maily), Mako (Po-han), Larry Gates (Jameson), Charles Robinson (Bordelles), Simon Oakland (Stawski), Ford Rainey (Harris), Joe Turkel (Bronson) and Gavin MacLeod (Crosley). A powerful drama, extremely well crafted and presented by Wise, `The Sand Pebbles' is a great and memorable film that will forever stand as the pinnacle of McQueen's successful career. Jake Holman is a character you will never forget, because there is something of him-- that wistful longing to belong, perhaps-- in all of us. A timeless classic among classics, this is one of the greatest motion pictures of all time, and is by definition, the magic of the movies. I rate this one 10/10.
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Perfect in every respect, "The Sand Pebbles" defines great storytelling.
raymond_chandler30 May 2004
I am watching the DVD of "The Sand Pebbles" for the first time. I originally saw this film as a child, during its theatrical run. Even though I have watched the P&S VHS tape many times, the DVD takes me back to that unforgettable first viewing so many years ago. This film is the definitive example of how pan and scan (laughably called "fullscreen") is nothing less than a desecration of the work of those who make movies. Thank goodness there is finally a faithful transfer of this unforgettable story.

I love movies, some much more than others. Even in the films that I love the most, the ones I consider "the best", I can always find flaws or weaknesses. I can not find a single thing to criticize in "The Sand Pebbles". The cinematography, as many others have noted, is exceptional. The detail of the sets, the ship, the costumes, the panoramic vistas, all are very convincing. As Crenna points out in the DVD commentary, there is no visual trickery, everything on the screen is real and three-dimensional. I have not read the source novel, and I am woefully ignorant of the political realities in China in this period, although I understand that the book was based on real incidents. The fact is, the story told here is compelling, and it does not matter to me how true to history it is, the world depicted in "The Sand Pebbles" is real and believable. Robert Anderson's script provides sufficient grounding in the political events to keep the audience engaged, without becoming all awkward exposition or political treatise. Of course, the characters express certain strong views, and therein the conflict arises.

Robert Wise is a first-rank director ("West Side Story", "The Haunting", "The Sound of Music"), and his work here is superlative. This film is a blend of epic-scale scenes and intimate, poignant moments of emotional realism. The camera placement, the use of extras and props, the blocking of the actors, the use of natural light, the tracking shots of the boat, all are in service of the story. Wise lets that story breathe and the characters emerge, and the result is a three-hour movie. How ironic that the main criticism leveled at "The Sand Pebbles" is that it is "slow" and "boring". Excuse me, but this is called "character development", and it sets compelling moviemaking apart from the mediocre variety. The pacing is what draws you in to this world, where the actors can give their characters life and create empathy in the audience. I can only feel sadness for the modern, ADD-afflicted viewer who is trained to respond to manipulative tricks, and can not appreciate a realistic depiction of human behavior.

Much has been said in these comments about the acting, and I agree with those who feel McQueen and Crenna stand out. The character of the captain could have been a rigid cliche, but Crenna gives us a person, a man to whom duty and service is everything, yet who is keenly aware of the needs and temperament of his crew, and who yearns to leave his mark in history. As for McQueen...his physical presence dominates the film. His understated style is perfect for Holman, a man who only wants to be left alone to do his work, and yet who will fight against injustices done to others. His facial expressions, especially in his eyes, allow us to share his thoughts and feelings throughout the movie.

The most memorable element in "The Sand Pebbles" for me is the musical score by Jerry Goldsmith. Alternately stirring and heartrending, it complements each scene absolutely brilliantly, and is the most evocative score of any motion picture I have ever seen. Unfortunately, the 1966 Oscar went to "Born Free", a mediocre picture whose title song was a hugely popular hit.

I feel privileged that I was able to see "The Sand Pebbles" in a theatre, where it is meant to be seen. This DVD version finally does justice to what I regard as an unparalleled achievement in filmmaking. There are other films that I have a stronger attachment to for various reasons, but none of them hit a home run in every department the way that "The Sand Pebbles" does.

"Water belong dead stim -all same dead stim"
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The Sand Pebbles - a powerful and human anti-war film
fernies11 October 2000
`The Sand Pebbles' has been one of my favourite films since I first saw it on television in 1976. The widescreen version does justice not just to the sweeping panoramas of the quite breathtaking Chinese scenery, but also to the sweeping events and themes of the story. It is in every way a `big' film, dealing with political and military intervention (clear parallels with Vietnam at the time of release), nationalism, racism, and the horrors of war. Yet for all its heavy themes, it is most successful in the depiction of its very human characters. These characters are not just the means of conveying the `messages' of the film, or fodder for the gripping and well-staged action scenes. They are individuals in their own right, involved in something far greater than their own destinies. Some are unpleasant and ignorant while others are honourable but lost in the sea of historic events surrounding them. Some, like Jake Holman (Steve McQueen), demand sympathy and respect as they struggle to come to terms with their personal challenges brought to the fore by these historically significant and politically dangerous events.

Inevitably there are slow and confusing passages as the political implications are expounded, but these are more than compensated for by our emotional engagement as we become involved in the stories of the people caught up in the political fall-out. Robert Wise's direction is strong and emotionally charged, complemented perfectly by Jerry Goldsmith's wonderfully haunting and ominous music. Steve McQueen gives what was probably the performance of his career (receiving his only Academy Award nomination), and he is supported by a wonderful cast including Richard Attenborough, Richard Crenna, Candice Bergen (aged just 19), and especially Mako. But it is really McQueen's film. His very presence lifts scenes and he manages to convey authenticity and gain the sympathy of the viewer with consummate ease. Apparently misunderstood by some critics on its release, it is a powerful and intrinsically human anti-war film. It is not a happy film, but it is totally absorbing and thought provoking.
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Steve McQueen's best performance.
jckruize18 October 2001
Steve McQueen felt an affinity for this role like few others in his career.

In this compelling war drama set in China in 1926, he plays American sailor Jake Holman, a man who's bonded to machinery more than people yet is imbued with a powerful sense of right and wrong. It's a part that plays perfectly to McQueen's strengths as an actor and his lifelong quest to hone performance into character, while jettisoning all but essential dialogue. All his emoting comes subtly: slight shifts of gaze; the way he cocks his head to listen; his complete stillness before action. In 1966 it also brought him his only Academy Award nomination, for Best Actor (but won that year by Paul Scofield for "A Man For All Seasons").

Scripter Robert Anderson had a tough job distilling Richard McKenna's sprawling novel of U.S. Navy gunboat 'San Pablo' (hence her sailors called themselves 'Sand Pebbles') at the start of the revolution that would tear China asunder and ultimately transform it into the post-WWII behemoth we know today. Luckily he and director Robert Wise knew to keep the plot's underpinnings solidly on the central irony of McKenna's story: that it is Jake's very alienation from his fellows that leads him inevitably to sacrifice and redemption. The ending is shocking and powerful; a reminder of better, more mature days in American film.

Wise directed on locations in Hong Kong and Taiwan with his customary mastery of both intense personal confrontation and epic sweep. In excellent support are Richard Attenborough, Richard Crenna and Mako. The film also features one of Jerry Goldsmith's most memorable scores.

I must again mention McKenna's novel. It is superb; sadly, the only full-length work he finished before his untimely death. It may be out of print but is well worth an online used book search.
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Throughly enjoyable.
barberoux28 March 2003
"The Sand Pebbles" was a throughly enjoyable movie. The setting was exotic and the story engaging. Though it starred Steve McQueen, who did an excellent job, its strength was the ensemble acting with a very talented cast including Richard Crenna, Richard Attenborough, Mako and Candice Bergen. The story was nicely involved and, though it portrayed the sailor's prejudices, did not feel condescending toward the Chinese as many war-type movies do. The men were caught up in the turbulent times and many of the conflicts portrayed seem to come more from troubled psyches. It is not Ramboish macho crap. I found the portrayals of the people and times entertaining. I had read the book so maybe I read more into the movie than others seeing it cold. It was a very good movie and well worth a watch.
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Great Movie!
jmorrison-212 August 2002
This is just one exceptional movie. One of my all time classics.

An examination of the little-known or understood tensions and political ramifications of being aboard an American gunboat, in the 1920's, in the China backwater.

The atmosphere and the story are superb.

Steve McQueen has never been better as Jake Holman, a hard-nosed American sailor, with his own code of right and wrong. His character absolutely dominates the movie. This is the type of character he was born to play.

Richard Crenna's ship Captain was perfect: smug, self-involved, deluded about his patriotism, but a decent man caught in a confusing, thankless, possibly deadly situation.

The rest of the cast in this is tremendous, especially Richard Attenborough, Candace Bergen, Simon Oakland, and Mako.

An absolutely superior film!
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Steve McQueen remains the focal point in ambitious, sometimes rambling film...
Doylenf28 August 2006
STEVE McQUEEN makes a completely believable machinist's mate aboard a U.S. Navy gunboat who finds himself enmeshed in the politics of unrest that existed in 1926 China during the period of the Boxer Rebellion. It's probably one of the finest roles of his career--honest, vexating, and completely true to the emotions of his character whose only real concern is taking care of his engines.

There are plenty of other good performances. RICHARD CRENNA is the Captain, uncertain of just how the U.S./Chinese friction should be solved, and CANDACE BERGEN is lovely as a missionary who has a tender romance with McQueen.

The exotic locales (it was filmed mostly in Taiwan), the lush background score by Jerry Goldsmith, and the confrontation between the U.S. Navy and the Chinese authorities which supplies the necessary suspense before an action-filled climax, all serve to make THE SAND PEBBLES a fascinating look at a period in history that is seldom explored. And, of course, it raises questions as to our role in imperialism and our interaction with the culture of foreign countries that make the film relevant today.

It's a long film, rather uneven in places, but directed with rare sensitivity by Robert Wise and richly detailed period atmosphere.
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Robert Wise's Masterpiece
henri sauvage7 May 2003
... and that's saying quite a bit, given his impressive filmography.

There are just a couple of points I'd like to add to the preceding commentary:

To really appreciate this movie, you must see it in letterbox, preferably on DVD. Joseph MacDonald's cinematography is breath-taking; you could take almost any individual frame of "The Sand Pebbles" and hang it on your wall as a work of art.

The second is that Wise himself (if you believe his commentary) wasn't trying to draw explicit parallels to Vietnam, where things did not begin to drastically escalate until near the end of filming for this movie. It's just that history has a sad habit of repeating itself.

If you get the DVD, listen to the commentary at least once: It's worth the time spent. Poor Candice Bergen: She comes across as simultaneously grateful for the opportunity to have worked on this film, and embarrassed that -- as a 19-year-old with little acting experience -- she didn't make a better job of it.

She should have credited Wise with seeing her possibilities a little better than she could. Bergen's gawky shyness is a pretty good fit with her role as a virginal, idealistic missionary newly arrived in China. Her often tentative body language works beautifully as a counterpoint to McQueen's assured and seemingly effortless performance, giving their doomed love affair great believability and poignancy.

This is an example of 60s' epic film-making at its best.
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McQueen's best ever performance
dogsbodie6 July 2001
This is truly my all time favorite film and not just because of the wonderful performances by McQueen, Crenna, Mako and the rest, but because I had an opportunity to experience the Asia culture first hand (during Viet Nam) and the depiction of the culture and the climate of the land is right on. I rank McQueen's performance right up there with my favorite Newman's performance in "Cool Hand Luke". Basically, the same type of a character, a loner challenging the boundries of their society's limits. It was a shame that the movie was released the same year as "A Man for All Seasons", because McQueen should have received and Oscar for this performance. I now own this video and I make a point of watching it once a year.
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A beautiful film
stpetebeach1 July 2005
I get tired of hearing how "they don't make them like that any more," but it's hard to imagine THE SAND PEBBLES being made today. If a current movie is three hours long, you can bet it's because the director has fallen in love with himself, not because the material merits it. THE SAND PEBBLES succeeds on just about every level: It is a compelling and complex story; it is beautifully filmed; the acting is mostly excellent; and there is a tremendous score. (Can you imagine a film today having an overture? Rampant adult ADD prohibits it.) The three hours gives you time to get to know the characters, sink into the Chinese setting, and become involved in the story. Just a little thing to notice, right at the start: Watch how McQueen fiddles with his napkin in the formal dining room. He's out of place, and doesn't know what to do with it; it's the kind of physical bit that McQueen does so well to elaborate his character. Credit must also be given to the late Richard Crenna. His captain of the San Pablo is a complex and conflicted character, and Crenna, while carrying off a largely formal role, delivers a very nuanced and moving performance. THE SAND PEBBLES is a movie for grown-ups, largely forgotten today but well worth your time.
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Strong Epic Film Which Got Shafted At Oscar Night
ccthemovieman-129 August 2007
What a powerful story! It's hard to believe this epic movie - three hours in length - was nominated for eight Academy Awards and came away with nothing. It seems unjust. Well, not everything is "just" in this dramatic story, either. Good people die, bad people live. Incredible joy and sorrow are but a few minutes away. The story is well-told and thus keeps your attention, is well-acted and is nicely- filmed.

My only complaint was the last 13 minutes when the film got a little too political and, of course, tilted to the Left as films tend to do. Otherwise, I throughly enjoyed the experience of watching this long movie, and sorry I didn't watch this years ago. Well, better late than never, is all I can say. This movie is worthy of any serious film collector's attention.

Robert Wise directed and he did a fabulous job. I just love some of the shots and camera angles in this widescreen production, which was done justice in a recently--released two- disc DVD. The cinematography was by Joseph MacDonald. I'm sorry he didn't win an Oscar.

The story has something for everyone: several action scenes, two romances, a little humor, some flag waving and flag disparaging, and a lot of drama and intrigue. I also found two interesting character studies: "Jake Holman," by lead actor Steve McQueen, and "Captain Collins-," with Richard Crenna. Both men delivered numerous surprises.

There also is a lot of hostility by the Chinese toward the "invaders," the Americans. China's revolution during the period this story takes place (md '20s) had two factions: the Nationalists, led by Chiang Kai-shek, and the Communists. The former was generally a peaceful organization, the latter, pretty violent. Neither one wanted outsiders running their country any longer.

The cast - well-known and not-so well--known, was solid from McQueen on down. I think it was odd to hear Richard Attenborugh with an American accent but he did a nice job with it. Crenna played the most interesting character, in my opinion, as captain hard to figure. As for the supporting actors, Simon Oakland ("Stawski") and Mako ("Po-han") stood out to me.

I'm not going get into the story, as enough reviewers have already done that. Photograhy-wise, it was nice to see most of this shot outdoors, not on some studio lot or sound-stage. I enjoyed all of the shots of the ship, the "San Pablo." Having just bought (7/5/10) the Blu-Ray edition of this film, I'm anxious to see it in this format now. It promises to be a treat.

Overall, a memorable story and highly-recommended.
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"Hello engine, I'm Jake Holman."
classicsoncall19 July 2015
Warning: Spoilers
"The Sand Pebbles" is the film that cemented Steve McQueen's status as a leading man in Hollywood, one in which his character is the embodiment of a loner, a rebel at odds with himself and his environment. His portrayal is so effective because it's grounded in his own upbringing. Abandoned by a self absorbed father at the age of four months, and with an alcoholic mother who had little time for him, McQueen was raised by a succession of relatives and eventually wound up in a reform school. His early bitterness with the world is reflected in his performance as Jake Holman, more at home with inanimate objects than with human beings. He finds comfort in the machine room of the San Pablo, a naval gunboat patrolling the Yangtze River in 1926 China.

There's a telling moment in the movie that's quite bittersweet; it's when Holman buys a caged bird from a street vendor for missionary Shirley Eckert (Candice Bergen). Holman explains that the bird is meant to be freed from it's cage. As Miss Eckert opens the door of the cage releasing the bird, it's gone in an instant, and the viewer is visually confronted with the notion of freedom and what it might mean to the population of 1920's China, a country of factions in a period of upheaval trying to find a way to unite.

Through it all, the mission of the San Pablo is to remain neutral under the supervision of Captain Collins (Richard Crenna), a no nonsense commander who takes his duty seriously, and experiences a moment of personal crisis after he faces down both his own men and Chinese nationalists who demand that he turn Holman over to them following an incident on the mainland. It's at this point in the film that motivations and actions of the crew become a bit muddled to my thinking, as the crew of the San Pablo in turn defy the Captain, and then completely submit to his authority without further consequence. This was a confusing aspect of the story for me.

Shot entirely in Taiwan, the making of the film was plagued with problems related to weather and equipment loss, extending the original eighty day filming schedule to seven months. The re-creation of the San Pablo into a 1920's era gunboat cost two hundred fifty thousand dollars, and what's fascinating to me was the way it was made to look as a worn out, dilapidated rust bucket. "The Sand Pebbles" went on to garner a fist full of Oscar nominations including Best Picture and Best Actor for McQueen, who lost out to Paul Scofield in "A Man For All Seasons". It's one of those pictures that when viewed today in relation to it's peers of the day, it becomes apparent that the major Academy Awards for that year went to the wrong movies.
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A Primer On Sino-American Relations
bkoganbing28 September 2007
If The Sand Pebbles had been filmed ten years earlier it might have been called From Here to Eternity Goes to Sea. Like the James Jones novel it's protagonist is a loner type who finds a sense of purpose and order in the military. As Robert E. Lee Pruitt loved bugling and boxing, Jake Holman loves his engines. He's real happy to be on board the naval gunboat San Pablo, nicknamed Sand Pebbles, because he is the engineering staff and he takes real pride in making the naval vessel perform. Also kind of like Eugene O'Neill's Yank in The Hairy Ape.

But Steve McQueen as Jake Holman, probably THE rebel character he ever played in film, finds his life getting increasingly complex by America's mission in China between the two World Wars.

In 1911 China overthrew the Manchu dynasty which in its weakened state over the last century had sold off parcels of real estate outrightly controlled by European powers and later by Japan as well. The United States controlled no territory outright as other powers did, but we did insist on extraterritoriality involving our citizens doing business there. What that meant was that our citizens were not subject to Chinese laws, civil or criminal, matters involving them went to American courts. Other powers had those same treaties.

That was resented, westerners were resented, Japanese were resented most of all because they were fellow Asians doing it to the Chinese. But in this story we are concerned with Americans, particularly our missionaries who viewed China as one vast mission field for Christianity.

Missionaries like all people come in different shapes, sizes and intelligence. Some of them really did contribute positively to China. But when westerners began being resented, missionaries were included with the rest.

Two such would be Larry Gates and Candice Bergen. Candice plays a sincere young lady who heard a church talk and filled with romantic religious notions about saving the heathen in China volunteered to go there. She and McQueen bond in the same way that Monty Clift and Donna Reed do in From Here to Eternity.

But Gates is a fascinating character. He's a very knowledgeable man, quite versed on the current political situation in China. Yet he's absolutely blind to the fact that he's in grave danger. It's a peculiar thing about some liberal types, they have great insight into the terrible wrongs done in the past. But at a certain point when guns start firing, buildings start toppling, we can't worry about political, economic, and social abuses of the past. You have to defend yourself and as vigorously as possible.

Still it's McQueen's film. As I said he's a rebel hero, but the military doesn't exactly favor individualism. His captain, Richard Crenna, is a by the book sailor who also doesn't understand the forces of resentment around him, but will not see his ship disgraced in any way. He and McQueen don't hit it off from the start.

There's a touching side story involving Richard Attenborough and a Chinese woman, Marryat Andriane who do the unthinkable and get married. Oriental women are for shacking up with, but not to be brides. They find no acceptance in either society and meet a Sayonara like end.

McQueen's performance was one of eight Oscar nominations The Sand Pebbles got including Best Picture, Best Director for Robert Wise, Best Supporting Actor for Make as the coolie who McQueen bonds with and who also finds no acceptance in either society. Unfortunately this was McQueen's only Oscar nomination and The Sand Pebbles had the misfortune to be up against A Man for All Seasons. In fact The Sand Pebbles took home nary a statue.

Yet viewed today, The Sand Pebbles is a primer for one who might want a visual as to Sino-American relations in the last century. And a great performance by Steve McQueen for his legion of fans.
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An epic, one of the best, but beware...
Mr. OpEd29 March 1999
Since Robert Wise directed one of the best musicals (Sound of Music), one of the best spook stories (The Haunting) and two of the best Sci-Fi films (Andromeda Strain and Day the Earth Stood Still), you probably wouldn't be surprised that he could comfortably make just about anything, and you'd be right! The Sand Pebbles is impressive on so many levels: acting is first rate throughout and Jerry Goldsmith's music is typically masterful. Just one thing you might not expect of a 1966 film: it can be brutal. The characters are so well drawn, that when the unflinchingly realistic violence confronts or befalls them, it can be very disturbing. Sand Pebbles does what few films can. It makes you feel like you've really experienced a different time and place.
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Wonderful Movie
claudio_carvalho11 October 2004
Warning: Spoilers
In 1926, in a troubled China, the efficient navy engineer Jake Holman (Steve McQueen) meets the American teacher Shirley Eckert (Candice Bergen), while traveling to take his new position in the gunboat 'U.S.S. San Pablo'. Shirley is going to work in a mission with the idealistic missionary Jameson (Larry Gates). Once in the steamship, the newcomer Jake has problems to accept the use of collies in the daily duty of the vessel, but Captain Collins (Richard Creena) orders him to replace the coolie chief of the engine room, who died in an accident while repairing a shaft bearing. Although reluctant, Jake trains Po-han (Mako) and becomes his friend, treating him equally with respect and dignity. In the crew, Frenchy Burgoyne (Richard Attenborough) becomes his greatest friend. The other crew members do not accept Jake, believing he brings bad-luck to the vessel. On land, Frenchy and Jake meet the Chinese woman Maily (Marayat Andriane) working in a brothel, and Frenchy falls in love with her and tries to get US$ 200,00 to buy her debts with the owner of the house of prostitution. In order to avoid spoilers, I am not going to extend my plot summary further than that. I bought 'The Sand Pebbles' one year ago and only yesterday I decided to watch this DVD. What I have missed along this year! This movie is a wonderful adventure, having a magnificent cast and direction. I do not know the accuracy of the historical events, but as a movie, it is a masterpiece. It has drama, romance, action, war and although having 182 minutes running time in the Brazilian DVD, the viewer never gets tired of watching it. I regret only acknowledging in IMDb that this is a mutilated version, since there are two other extended ones (UK:243 min (BBFC submission before censorship) / Sweden:193 min). This is the second role of the most beautiful American actress of the end of the 60s, Candice Bergen, performing a very sweet character. My vote is nine.

Title (Brazil): 'O Canhoneiro de Yang-Tse' ('The Gunboat Man of Yang-Tse')
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Great Movie.
PWNYCNY3 November 2005
Steve McQueen is usually associated with action movies. This movie has action too, but also offers a complex and compelling story about a sailor who finds himself trying to survive in a situation marked by tremendous and sweeping change. For the movie takes place in China at a time of political turmoil and unrest when China is beginning to assert its independence from the West. The result is a clash of cultures as the representatives and symbols of Western Imperialist power and influence struggle to preserve and defend their presence in a country that is becoming openly hostile to anything Western. The Chinese want the Westerners to leave ... just leave. The Chinese wave their flags, and anyone who cooperates with the Imperialists are treated as traitors and punished accordingly. Yet, Steve McQueen's character is apolitical, which makes his performance that much more notable, compelling and powerful. He just wants to get by and survive, but is not willing to sacrifice his principles. As a result, Mr. McQueen's character is heroic but without fanfare, which to me makes this movie special.

By the way, wasn't Richard Crenna a great actor?
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One of the better films I've seen
grahamsj311 January 2005
Warning: Spoilers
This film was a great success for a number of reasons. First, the story is beautifully written, it is superbly executed and perfectly cast. The Director, Robert Wise, was fresh off his triumph called "The Sound of Music". Steve McQueen positively steals the show from everyone else in this film in his portrayal of an American Navy Engineman aboard a US gunboat in China in the mid 20's. He fell into the role so well that it's hard to imagine that he could have been anyone but Jake Holman. Right on his heels in the acting department, however, is the always gorgeous Candice Bergen, who, as one would expect, falls for McQueens character. There is a hot and cold relationship between the Chinese and the Americans. McQueen's character can't believe the system that has been devised to divide the labor between the Chinese and the Americans aboard the gunboat. Then, of course, the Chinese decide to revolt. This was a period of great unrest in China just a few years before the Japanese invaded. In truth, one of the Japanese excuses for their invasion of China was this revolution (to restore order, so the Japanese said). Naturally, the US gunboat is charged with protecting American lives in the affected area. I won't spoil the film by saying anymore about the plot. This film is well worth a watch. It is one of the better films of the 60's. Special effects are minimal so that's not an issue either. This film wouldn't feel "dated" now at all. Great work!
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A classy, classic war film, and more.
BobLib29 October 1999
Those who know Robert Wise primarily as a director of big-scale musicals ("The Sound of Music," "West Side Story.") would be suprised to know that his best films, in many ways, were his NON-musicals. Consider "I Want to Live," "Odds Against Tomorrow," "Curse of the Cat People," and, most especially, "The Sand Pebbles," one of the best, most insightful films about men at war ever made.

Set in China in 1926, this film gives an honest evocation of the period between the collapse of the Monarchy in 1908 and the Communist takeover 41 years leter, when whoever had the most firepower essentially ran the country. A tumultuous period, pictured here with an honesty and candor rarely seen in a mainstream American film. In the midst of this, the men of the San Pablo try to maintain an uneasy peace, and the result is an effective film about men at war, without a lot of gratuitious sex or vulgar language.

Then there are the performances. Steve McQueen gives what's probably, along with "The Getaway," the best performance of his career. His Jake Holman is a basically honest, sane man cought up in a dishonest, insane situation. He was deservedly Oscar-nominated for this performance, but lost, perhaps inevitably, to Paul Scofield's incomparable St. Thomas More in "A Man for All Seasons." Sir Richard Attenborough once again proves a better actor than director as Frenchy, Holman's best friend. Always excellent Richard Crenna SHOULD have been nominated for Best Supporting Actor for his Captain Phillip Collins, a by-the-book officer who finds that you can't always play by the rules in a situation where madness is an everyday occurance. Mako WAS deservedly nominated as the tragic Po-Han, McQueen's assistant who becomes an unwilling pawn between the Americans and the Chinese radicals. And Candice Bergen proves that she can act when called upon as the young missionary with whom McQueen falls in love, and whose life he dies trying to save.

They don't make 'em like this anymore. See it.
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Spoilers included, digest this movie
Armilla13 November 2005
Warning: Spoilers
Steve McQueen did a breathtaking job bringing Jake Holman to life. For such a taciturn character, he was incredibly expressive and multi-dimensional, singular while not trying to make himself stand out, simple in motivation but had great capacity for tolerating complexity, unsocial but capable of deep loyalty to the people he connected with, but most of all, superbly cool and self-contained while intimately involved, uncontaminated by disdain and indifference. It is not everyday one sees a Hollywood flick with that level of character understanding and finely honed execution.

As a whole, I thought McQueen's character almost single handedly held the film together and kept audience interest going through several bad stretches. The film could have used some inspired editing, and the direction dragged precisely in places where briskness and suspense was called for. Nonetheless, it was a thoughtful treatment of the morass countries, races, individuals find themselves in when reality falls prey to politics, when battle lines get drawn, whether participants were willing or not. But do please ignore the simplification of the social and international context of China in 1929 in this film. That context alone would have taken a few more films if justice were to be done.

The film touched on the perennial lessons on international exploitation and identity politics in which fear becomes the social currency. The characters and events illustrated the moral slipperiness of race and identity, the falseness of political positions, the dangers of pressing self-indulgent social justifications (even when rightfully justified), and ultimately, the uselessness to which moral judgment can be rendered once power play encourage violence to escalate. Jake Holman's last words capped it all.

"What the hell happened?" Indeed! Violence and exploitation has a way of creating mob mentality which strip nations and individuals of sense, of discernment, of ability to evaluate complexity, and steering the masses into arbitrary and false positions regardless of the facts, regardless of what most people actually think and feel. Reduced to this game of extreme, the ruling mentality becomes "kill or be killed". McQueen embodied thoughtfully this dismay and ambivalence. Take heed, warmongers and pacifists alike.
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pswanson0027 March 2005
Not to say that this film influenced me, but about a year and a half after its release I enlisted in the Navy. I had read the book at the age of 15, when it was serialized in the Saturday Evening post, and loved it. The movie script is not an exact transcript of the book, but is a faithful interpretation of it (I recently re-read it). The male ensemble cast is a big reason that this film works. Several of Holman's shipmates are played by men who were stars in their own right, and having that foundation added great depth to the film. The coarse humor and grabass behavior are VERY true to life, as is the depiction of sailors on liberty. It must be remembered that the 1920's were not a time when men enlisted in the service to earn money for college, or to learn a trade. The enlisted ranks were made up of men for whom life in the service was an improvement upon the standard of living from which they'd come, and they were almost all lifers. The "Army, Navy, or jail" choice given Jake Holman motivated many an enlistment as recently as the 1960's, and may still. The music in this film is another big reason that it works. The hauntingly beautiful main theme grabs me every time I hear it, and adds to the telling of the story. This is one of my all-time favorite films, and every adult should see it.
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Magnificent McQueen in Robert Wise's stunning character led epic.
Spikeopath7 April 2010
China 1926...

Ravaged from within by corrupt warlords...oppressed from without by the great world powers who had beaten China to her knees a century before...

China...a country of factions trying to unite to become a nation...through revolution.....

The Sand Pebbles is a multi stranded panoramic story. It tells of China lifting itself off her knees, and of the Americans who were caught in the giant's bloody rousing. It tells of crewmen Frenchy {Richard Attenborough} & Jake Holman {Steve McQueen} from the U.S.S. San Pablo, two men whose lives are to be severely altered here on the banks of the Yangtze River. It tells of the San Pablo's Captain Collins {Richard Crenna} as he tries to negotiate tricky political waters. And also of the missionaries {Larry Gates & Candice Bergen} who in turn are resentful and bewildered by the US involvement in China. All molded together brilliantly by Robert Wise in this stirring drama that's flecked with romance and explosive action.

Tho the film has undertaken a number of edits since its original release {ranging from 170 minutes to 195}, in any form the piece proves to be a lesson in character involvement. Adapted by Robert Anderson from the novel written by Richard McKenna, the film unfolds precision like, its intensity bubbling away until we reach the highly emotive conclusion. The film has often been placed as a parallel to the Vietnam conflict, something that is in truth hard to ignore. The Sand Pebbles shows the Americans meddling in affairs they don't understand. They act arrogantly towards the Chinese, they dismiss them and call them derogatory names. To them, the Chinese are an inferior race. But Frenchy & Jake are cut from different cloth, with the latter showing a cynicism and mistrust of authority that was felt by many young Americans towards their government for getting them involved in the civil war of Vietnam. Wise may be guilty of being heavy handed with his anti-war message, the aside at Imperialism boldly timed in 1966. But it does work and impacts hard, because the writing and the acting is so good. As is the many other technical aspects that are needed to tell such a vast story.

It was nominated for 8 Academy Awards, but incredibly it won none. It was McQueen's only nomination in his career, that in itself is arguably unfair {Papillon anybody?}. But here he really should have won, I mean seriously does anyone really remember Best Actor Winner Paul Scofield's turn now? Those close to McQueen have said that Jake Holman was closest in character to the man himself. It's a riveting, emotionally nuanced performance that shows his unnerving ability to say more with his eyes and body language than with words. As anti-hero performances go, McQueen's is right out of the top draw. Attenborough {Golden Globe Winner for Best Supporting Actor}, Crenna and the impressive Mako all captivate and draw the viewers in, while Bergen has a winsome quality that plays nicely off of McQueen's rugged weariness. The cinematography from Joseph MacDonald is gorgeous, shot in Deluxe Color and Panavision in Taiwan and Hong Kong, MacDonald brilliantly took advantage of the sweeping Oriental scenery. This in turn is backed up by a sublime score from Jerry Goldsmith, at times beautiful & tender with a pinch of Oriental flavouring, at others powerful and sharp and landing in the chest like a force of nature.

It was a far from trouble free shoot. McQueen initially clashed with Wise over how certain scenes should be shot, but the director won out and eventually got McQueen's support. Something that wasn't to be sniffed at, and something that wasn't afforded to Anderson who was jettisoned after falling foul of "Blue Eyes". Bergen and McQueen also didn't get on, but with she being 19 years of age and he 36, that's somewhat understandable. But when she proclaimed that there was no talent on set! one hopes that was merely the misguided naivety of youth? Wise always said it was the most difficult picture he ever made. Expensive props, thousands of extras, low and high tides, Taiwan still at war with China! Three months of delays and $3 million over budget, Wise said that the cast and crew were heroes one and all. To be dropped into a completely foreign country, and suffer the delays and problems they did, it's a miracle the finished product is so dam good.

The final word should go to Francis Ford Coppola. Who whilst suffering similar problems filming Apocalypse Now, requested a copy of The Sand Pebbles from Robert Wise. He used it to show his cast and crew what a terrific end result can come out of adversity. 10/10
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Ambitious epic which doesn't hit many of its goals, though the acting is good and it is, pictorially, a treat.
barnabyrudge12 April 2007
Warning: Spoilers
Director Robert Wise masterminded such a box office hit in 1965 with The Sound Of Music that the executives at Twentieth Century Fox gave him virtual total control – and an immense budget – for his next project. That project - The Sand Pebbles - is a passable epic set in 1926 China which, while technically well done and colourfully performed, is decidedly on the long side and hampered by irrelevant allegorical links with the Vietnam War. On the plus side, the film features arguably the best performance ever given by Steve McQueen, and expensively recreates a convincing view of its period and locale despite being shot forty years after the incidents on screen. The film was envisaged as a major "event movie" from the studio, alongside the same year's The Bible: In The Beginning and The Blue Max. But, despite being up for eight Oscars, the film won in none of the categories for which it was nominated - which tells you everything you need to know. This is one of those films that looks good, sounds good, tells a worthy story at great length…. but ultimately fails to do justice to its own potential.

In 1926, US Navy engineer Jake Holman (Steve McQueen) transfers from an ocean-based warship to the river gunboat San Pablo. The San Pablo patrols the Yangtze River in China under the orders of Captain Collins (Richard Crenna). Collins likes to keep his engine room crew busy, while the officers and deck sailors spend most of their time carrying out combat drills. However, Holman performs his engine room duties with such conscientiousness and gusto that he gradually alienates himself from most of the other crew members. During their journeys up and down the river, Holman falls in love with a teacher at a mission outpost, the young and beautiful Shirley Eckert (Candice Bergen). He also forms a strong friendship with fellow sailor Frenchy Burgoyne (Richard Attenborough), who has saved a Chinese prostitute from a life of vice and degradation by marrying her. The political situation in the country deteriorates and the crew of the San Pablo find themselves caught up in a difficult situation. Things reach crisis point when a Chinese crew member is captured and tortured because of his allegiance to the Americans. Worse still, the afore-mentioned mission outpost is attacked by Chinese soldiers, and the San Pablo has to smash through a blockade of Chinese junks – thereby declaring an intent of war – in order to rescue the missionaries and their colleagues. This act of foolhardy heroism proves to be fatal for many of the San Pablo's beleaguered sailors.

The Sand Pebbles is based on a best selling novel by Richard Mackenna, who actually served in the China River Patrol (albeit in 1936, ten years after the events depicted in his story). Robert Anderson's screenplay incorporates much of the novel's complexity within its mammoth narrative, but the decision to turn the film into an apologetic Vietnam allegory is not a wise move. A film like this would be better off dealing with its own period and story, rather than dragging in heavy-handed subtextual meanings. Cinematographer Joseph MacDonald gives the film an exciting visual grandeur with his sumptuous lensing of the locations (Taiwan standing in for 1920s China), but Robert Wise's efforts to make the film succeed as entertainment generally come up short due, in no small part, to the heavy-going nature of the plot and the well-documented production difficulties (including bad weather, plus "creative differences" between him and McQueen).
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Rhapsody on a theme of Jones.
rmax30482315 February 2003
lAn exciting, curious movie, "epic" in scope, filmed in Taiwan. A viewer can believe that this is what China looked like in the 1920s, from the rebuilt river gunboat to the dingy whorehouses. The acting is good as well. The production designer deserves commendation. Everything seems so right. And the technical stuff too: aboard the San Pablo, every surface seems to have about two hundred coats of white paint. (This effectively insulates sailors from the asbestos that coats hot pipes, making it unlikely that McQueen died from an asbestos-induced mesothelioma, although he did work on ships.) The dress uniforms are neat as well. And when I was wearing one as an adolescent I always fantasized wearing leggings, carrying a rifle, and joining a landing party. The scenes ashore and on ship are equally good. What images -- a flat well-armed river gunboat sailing towards a boom across the river, McQueen adjusting the sights on his BAR, flashing swords, love with a stone elephant in the background, how to get along on ten dollars a month in a Chinese port of call. There's a good deal of humor in the first part, climaxing in the fight between Mako (a closet Japanese actor) and Stawski.

The story is tense too. Let me see. Attenborough loves Meili, a beautiful young Chinese virgin, about to be auctioned off to the nearest glandular bidder. McQueen loves Candace Bergen, a virginal young missionary who believes in the unity of mankind. (And womankind.) McQueen also loves his engines, being a motor machinist's mate. However, there is a conflict between the rest of the crew and McQueen. And there is a dysfunction between the crew of the San Pablo and most of the Chinese.

Both the action and the love stories are appealingly done. The problem is that much of it doesn't make too much sense. I must have seen this movie a dozen times. (Once in a theater in Trenton, New Jersey, which is mentioned in the film. Trenton, I mean, not the theater.) Why does the crew grow to hate McQueen so much? I still don't know, unless the reason is that it just adds to the drama. There's hardly any justification for it that follows a known chain of logic. Why does McQueen switch his allegiance from the Navy to a social/religious/political cause against whose contamination his entire life has been designed to inure him? I don't know either. Even Candace Bergen, angularly stunning as she is, doesn't provide enough of a reason.

What is this movie anyhow, besides a collection of tense or humorous episodes and character exploration expressed in unforgettable imagery? I read the novel years ago. It was published not long after the blockbuster success of James Jones' "From Here to Eternity," which successfully -- well, MORE than just successfully -- took us into the U. S. Army in Hawaii in 1941. The novel aims for more or less the same thing, and almost hits the mark, but the influence of its model is strong enough to weaken the story. The parallels persist even after they might more profitably have been deep sixed. Thus, McQueen's love for his engines is like Prewitt's love for the army. Attenborough is like Sinatra. McQueen gets mixed up with a forbidden woman, just like Burt Lancaster. Meili is a respectable, sensitive girl in a cathouse, just like Donna Reed. The setting is exotic in both cases. Social dynamics of the crew or the barracks are explored. McQueen gets "the treatment," as Montgomery Clift did. (That's why the crew dislikes McQueen; the original template calls for it.) McQueen deserts his professional love in favor of his emotional commitment to a woman, as Clift did, and dies for it, as Clift did. There is an exciting, momentous action climax.

Absolutely nothing about this movie is boring. There are even original elements introduced -- McQueen sponsoring a slope as an apprentice engineer. But behind the surface events is that nagging irritation over the holes in this left-over plot. But don't misunderstand, because I usually watch this when it's on TV. It's like being Twilight Zoned into a more colorful past.
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A grand romance
Bram-519 February 1999
One of the true romances, in the grand sense, with love and pain and the whole damn thing. Steve McQueen was made to play loner Jake Holman who finds true love and a sense of purpose in 1920's China. This is one of the very few movies I own and worth every penny spent and every moment watching.
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Superb, underrated epic with one weakness
coop-164 March 2000
I like almost everything about this film!It is that comparative rarity, a THINKING persons epic. It explores some vital themes:Imperialism, national honor, alienation, inter-racial relations, and does so while telling a rousing, if depressing story. Almost all the performances are superb. Attenborough was at his best, Crenna ( best known at the time for playing naive farmers , love-struck high school students, and idealistic liberal politicians on TV)puts in a performance of extraordinary subtlety as as the neurotic and rigid, but genuinely heroic and honorable, Captain Collins. McQueen puts in the best performance of his honorable, misunderstood career.Mako is also very good, and deserved a best supporting Oscar almost as much as Crenna. The only fault is the very pretty, but ever callow, Candice Bergen. In short, a very fine film.
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