Program Notes: The Sand Pebbles (1966)

Robert Wise wasn’t a “personal” filmmaker.

He didn’t return time after time to the same themes. He didn’t have a repertory company of actors who appeared again and again in his work. He didn’t use film to vent his inner demons.

Instead, Wise was a journeyman director who brought insight and competence to almost every genre.

But if there is a truly personal film on his resume, it is The Sand Pebbles.

Released in 1966 and based on Richard McKenna’s bestseller about U.S. Navy sailors stationed on China’s Yangtze River in 1926, The Sand Pebbles is noteworthy for its wonderful lead performance by Steve McQueen (he was nominated for a best actor Oscar), for its political subtext, for its stunning production values and for its somber, heartbreaking fatalism.

Film Screening:
The Sand Pebbles (1966)
Saturday, Jan. 28 at 1:30 p.m.
Central Library

Wise rarely let his personal philosophy color his work, but it’s hard to imagine being drawn to material this dark unless you identify with it.

Wise optioned the novel and worked for two years to get financing. When it became clear that The Sand Pebbles would take at least another two years of preproduction and that the money people were losing interest, Wise placated them by directing a “fill-in” movie: The Sound of Music.

The Sand Pebbles of the title are the crewmen of the gunboat San Pablo. Their ill-defined job is to maintain an American presence in the midst of China’s domestic upheaval. This was a time when the Chinese were rebelling against the Western powers that had more or less colonized their country over the previous 50 years.

McQueen’s Jake Holman, who specializes in engines, is the latest addition to the crew. One of the marvels of the film is that Holman starts out a not particularly nice guy. He’s contemptuous of the Chinese and tosses around racial slurs; he’s particularly upset that most of the work on the San Pablo is done by Chinese “coolies.”

Nevertheless, one of the film’s most satisfying elements is the friendship that springs up between Holman and Po-han, the Chinese man he reluctantly takes on as his engineering aide. Po-han is played by Mako, who also garnered an Oscar nomination for his work here.

But this is not a happy story. Holman’s friend Frenchy (Richard Attenborough) has an ill-fated romance with a Chinese woman he rescues from a life of prostitution; Holman has a tentative relationship with a young American missionary (Candice Bergen), but before it can go anywhere fate intervenes.

The highlight of the film is a brilliantly staged battle in which the San Pablo cruises down the Yangtze to blow up a chain of boats with which revolutionaries are blocking the river.

And then there are the politics. The Sand Pebbles was made during the Vietnam War, and it’s hard not to read into this tale of American adventurism and Western imperialism parallels with contemporary events.

Above all else, though, there is Steve McQueen’s performance. It has depth and humor and tragedy, all wrapped up in the actor’s unmistakable screen charisma.

See Bob's general introduction to the Robert Wise film series.

Other films in the series “Robert Wise: Hollywood Journeyman”

Mondays at 6:30 p.m.:


Saturdays at 1:30 p.m.:


Admission to these films is free.

About the Author

Robert W. Butler is a lifelong Kansas City area resident, a graduate of Shawnee Mission East High School and the William Allen White School of Journalism at the University of Kansas. For several decades he was the movie editor of the Kansas City Star; he now writes a movie-themed blog at He joined the Library's Public Affairs team in 2012.

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