The Sand Pebbles (USA 1966)

Director: Robert Wise

Starring: Steve McQueen, Richard Attenborough, Richard Crenna, Mako, Candice Bergen, Marayat Andriane

Cinematography: Joseph MacDonald

OriginalMusic: Jerry Goldsmith

Screenplay: Robert Anderson

Novel: Richard McKenna

FACT: Maryat Andriane created the original 'Emmanuelle' in her 1959 book The Joys of a Woman

In one line: A rebellious loner refuses to join the bullies on an American gunboat.


Holman (McQueen), a naval machinist mate is transferred to the USS gunboat The San Pueblo for unspecified reasons.

He refuses to follow the labour system which enables the ship's crew (the 'San Pebbles') to evade normal engineering and manual work whilst exploiting the native Chinese workers and forcing them to do the dirty work around the ship.

Holman is hated by the crew and is considered a Jonah when a number of his principled stands result in the deaths of Americans and Chinese alike. 

He is befriended by Frenchy (Attenborough) who has fallen in love with the Chinese prostitute Maily. Holman also befriends a young Chinese worker Po-han (Mako) and teaches him the workings of the ship's engines.

Political manoeuvrings on both sides lead to confrontation between the Chinese communists and the American imperialists.

When the San Pueblo is ordered to help evacuate an American mission in a remote Chinese province, the final tragedy is set in motion.

Commentary (Marxism Revisited) 

There are obvious shades of the escalating Vietnam conflict in this reasonably intelligent but fairly slow moving drama.

McQueen is quite good for a change, giving a thoughtful, low-key performance along with his newly-acquired chum Attenborough.

There's the usual crap, crass representation issues to contend with.The ordinary seamen are portrayed as boorish, sheep-like bullies (Steve and Dick excepted) whereas the officers are seen as flawed but essentially noble (no surprises there).

I would imagine that all concerned in the creative processes wanted to say something about racism and sexism, and some of the individual Chinese people (Mako, Andriane) are given sympathetic traits (although they have to be adopted and protected by the 'good' Americans to have any chance of surviving), but the rest are the usual Chinese stereotypes - cruel, inscrutable or just a hostile, nameless, faceless morass. 

There's some ace (for its time) violence - particularly the storming of a boom of junks across the Yangtse and some tense stand-off scnes before the figjting commences.

The cinematography is good and Goldsmith contributes his usual first-class score.

All in all, a well-crafted and sombre epic from a man whose previous film had featured Nazis and nuns and goats.

The dirty bastard.

SV (2012)