Trevor Lynch can wax eloquent over Lawrence of Arabia  and The Bridge Over the River Kwai , but when I choose a great movie hero from that era, forget Lawrence or Lt. Colonel Nicholson; my man is Jake Holman (Steve McQueen) in Robert Wise’s 1966 The Sand Pebbles, an epic action film examining a common man whose performance by Steve McQueen is an excellent depiction of a true, common, American.
Jake Holman is in the China of 1926, a machinist’s mate assigned to the San Pablo, a gunboat on duty in the backwaters. As Holman later tells prim, unsure novice missionary Shirley (Candace Bergen), it ain’t your brother’s navy.
Holman checks into a hotel in Shanghai on his way to his new ship, and the owner, an ex-sailor who’s retired and keeps Chinese women and children under his wing, warns Holman gunboats are nothing.
Holman cocks back. “They got engines, ain’t they? Then they ain’t nothing.”
Holman is a loner, devoted to machines and keeping them in shape.
He’s indifferent to politics. At a heated table discussion where men debate what to do with China, he’s uneasy. One Englishman urges they crack down on the simmering Chinese. A missionary, Jameson (Larry Gates), argues China must be allowed to be free, and foreign powers should leave. After some drawing room arguments, Holman is asked his two cent’s worth, and shrugs. “It’s all look-see pidgin. Just something for the officers.”
He enters the world of the San Pablo in darkness, his navy whites almost angelic as he totes his seabag and hammock with confidence. On ship, he is noticed: by the chief petty officers, the Captain, Lt. Collins (Richard Crenna), and Frenchy (Richard Attenborough). Frenchy strikes up an immediate friendship with Holman, clueing him in on how the rice bowl works. That’s the system of coolie labor on ship where Chinese do all the hard work, and the sailors . . . do what? Mostly stand around and show the flag, and practice repelling boarders, much to the delight of a Chinese crowd who watches their Kabuki war with all the glee of a stage play. The Chief Petty Officer waves a cutlass and goes “aargh!” Kids squeal with delight as American use of force becomes a use of farce.
This recalls George Orwell’s essay Shooting an Elephant, where Orwell said the white man was always onstage before a native audience, aware he could not look weak, and was forced to play a part of master. Something he thought corrupted native and white alike.
The rice bowl is a system of parasitic behavior that once may have been altruistic, but has corrupted sailor and Chinese, eventually weakening the host. Think slavery and the south. Think South Africa. Think “cheap labor.”
Holman doesn’t like the rice bowl. He refers to shave himself, carry his own gear, and maintain the aging, powerful ship’s engine without coolies all over the place, especially the chief engine coolie, a resentful man who carries a heavy wrench more as a badge of office than a tool. When Holman came on board the San Pablo, the first thing he did was inspect the engine room, in a scene showing him silently feel, stroke, tap the machinery, finally smiling and saying quietly “Hello engine. I’m Jake Holman.”
The crew call themselves the sand pebbles, and Holman is like a rock dropped among them. The crew is happy with the good life, but Holman is an engineer, and Collins can’t go on missions to show America’s strength and determination unless the engine’s shipshape. He’s determined to show the flag. As he tells the crew, “It is we who will take the first shock . . . and buy time with our lives.” A stirring call to arms while the rice bowl goes on around him. It is a prophetic line, but to Holman another example of “look-see Pidgin.”
The tension between Holman and Collins begins the moment the San Pablo sails off and Holman makes it stop because the engine is ready to break down. The San Pablo, a Spanish gunboat seized by the navy in the Spanish-American war and given a fresh coat of paint and a U.S. flag, shows its age. When someone has to go under the engine and fix it, Holman goes to the hatch, but the chief coolie insists, and Holman, aware of his unpopularity for challenging the rice bowl, lets the coolie crawl into the ship’s engine. A malfunctioning gear slips loose, and the coolie is crushed to death.
Holman gets cold stares from the other coolies, who blame him and think he’s an evil spirit. The crew isn’t that bad, but, except for Frenchy, see him as a Jonah.
When Collins tries to blame Holman for the coolie’s death, Holman shoots back that the engine was poorly maintained, and Collin’s system was to blame. Ouch. A staring Collins orders Holman to train a new coolie replacement, and that’s an order.
He chooses Po-han (Mako), a cheerful coolie who was attracted to him the first night Holman came on board. Despite Holman’s reservations training a “slopehead,” Po-han, following Holman’s training, learns the ropes. Holman is satisfied, and they drink coffee together.
This breaks the rules of the rice bowl. Stawski (Simon Oakland), slaps the cup out of Po-han’s hand. His girth and growl scare off Po-han, but when he turns on Holman, one quick gut punch sends Stawski to his knees.
Holman is a loner, but he stands by people he likes, and like a gunfighter, protects people he has an interest in.
He joins the crew at a local brothel, where Maily (Emmanuelle Arsan), a shy, strange, mysterious girl fascinates the sailors. She speaks excellent English, and when asked how she learned it, only says “my secret.”
Frenchy is drawn to Maily, but so is Stawski, who makes it clear he wants to bed her, but must pay two hundred dollars, since Maily is a virgin.
Holman says Po-han can lick Stawski, who roars back demanding a match. Holman agrees, and when the pot is at two hundred and Stawski licks his lips at buying Maily, Frenchy glares at Holman.
Holman, while just wanting to be left alone, is already a revolutionary, a true proletarian upsetting Collin’s universe where, as he told Holman, “we have to refer ourselves into the design of this ship.”
Collins is uneasy. Holman’s service record is excellent, but Collins notes Holman has no leadership abilities.
Holman coaches Po-han how to box. Po-han gets his clock cleaned by a gleeful Stawski, but Stawski’s size and cockiness work against him . . . didn’t Sun Tzu say you destroy an enemy by turning his strengths back upon him?
A bloodied Po-han goes for the gut, and Stawski falls. Victory is sweet, but at that moment sirens sound. A mob of revolutionaries surge down the street. The crew retreat to the San Pablo, just missing the mob’s thrown torches.
The revolution in China, a game of musical chairs between the communists, Chiang Kai-shek’s nationalists, and any number of warlords, now heats up.
Gunboat diplomacy is put to the test as Collins is sent to retrieve missionaries for their own safety, and sends Ensign Boudelle (Charles Knox), his second-in-command to China Light, where Jameson has refused to leave. Holman goes along and meets Shirley, now adjusting to life in China. She partly wears Chinese dress, speaks Chinese as she orders students guarding the mission to relax. She’s happy to see Holman, showing him a generator and beet machine sent to Jameson by an altruistic America, but no one knows how to operate them.
Those students are led by Cho-jen, a student who is has ostensibly arrested Jameson so he can stand trial in the regional capital.
As they proceed to the city, they stop. When they get underway, a mob charges the San Pablo chasing a terrified Po-han. The chief coolie on the ship slyly tells Collins he sent Po-han ashore on an errand. Po-han is captured, strung up, and the crew, Holman, and the missionaries look on as he is tortured to death.
To open fire might start a war the communists and nationalists are yearning for. Collins offers money for Po-han, and the mob gleefully ignores him. He raises the price, recalling the bidding for Maily in the brothel.
Holman, furious, leaves his post. He’s ordered back.
“Do something,” he orders Collins.
Collins keeps up the useless bidding as Po-han screams. Jameson, the great idealist, can only look on and lower his head. Shirley’s tearful eyes plead to Holman. Holman is ready to burst. He approaches the bridge, stopped by a staring Boudrelle. Holman won’t budge.
“Get back to your post,” Collins orders, “or I’ll have you shot for a mutineer.”
Holman sneers. “Well, shoot something!”
Po-han’s screams fill the air. The chief coolie says Po-han is begging to be shot. Holman grabs a sailor’s rifle, shoves him to one side, and coldly adjusts the sights as carefully as he works his engine. When Collins orders Holman to stand down, Holman aims, takes a moment to show his shock, then pulls the trigger and Po-han drops like a broken puppet. Music breaks out in a crescendo as Holman, looking at rifle with disgust and a quick jerk of his body, throws it overboard.
He stalks below deck to the engine room. Coldly, mechanically, he begins to shovel coal, using more and more force until he bends over and cries.
It’s a turning point for Holman.
Back in the city, Collins orders Boudrelle to escort the American missionaries to the consulate. They do this, only to find Nationalist troops under a grim Major Chin (Richard Loo), lowering the stars and stripes and commandeering the consulate as army headquarters. Unlike the neophyte revolutionary Cho-jen, Chin is a tough old boar. Boudelle orders Chin to leave American property. Chin openly refuses as he stares down the young ensign and calls his bluff. Quoting American revolutionaries, Chin says “if you mean to have a war, let it begin here.”
I was reminded of Hilary Belloc’s quip about colonialism imposed upon the natives: “Whatever happens, we have got/The Maxim gun and they have not.”
Chin shows what happens when they have the Maxim gun, and orders
Boudelle to vacate the consulate. Holman, on the detail, sees Boudelle cave. Chinese troops have the sailors outnumbered, and the Consul assures Boudelle all will be fine. Chin offers an escort back to the San Pablo, where the city turns out to heckle, jeer, and toss garbage at the sailors.
The humiliated and furious sailors tell the coolies not to wash their garbage-strewn uniforms but burn them. All except Holman, who wants his cleaned.
The sailors are now restricted only to the brothel. Frenchy has the two hundred to buy Maily, but a drunken, loutish bunch of American merchants won’t let go of her and start a bidding contest (an echo of Collin’s doomed attempt to buy Po-han’s life) Frenchy can’t win. When they raise the ante by stripping Maily, Frenchy goes wild, Holman joins him in a bar melee and gets Maily out.
Frenchy offers to marry Maily. They have no benefit of clergy, but Holman and Shirley are witnesses.
It’s a lousy time to fall in love, especially since Frenchy can’t marry a non-white woman, and the revolution is castigating foreign devils, but Frenchy hopes.
Shirley hopes as well. Holman shrugs, having his doubts. He’s not a joiner nor a believer but is starting to see something beyond the simple life he’s lived in the navy.
This develops as he gets to know Shirley. They walk together. He opens up about his past as he rows her in a lake; interesting how it’s on water that he tells her how for him it was the navy or jail. It’s a winter courtship in halcyon days, the mood soft and contemplative. Possibilities seem to appear, like the pebbles he and Shirley toss on a stone elephant. If your pebble lands on its back, you get a wish. Holman gets Shirley to buy a bird in a cage, the purpose being you will free it and feel good. She’s wanting to feel good, having told Holman she came to China because she wanted to be swept up by something.
But the revolution is doing the sweeping here, and everyone is about to get swamped. Shirley’s sad and poignant hope is based on pebbles tossed up to a stone elephant. Holman’s world is that of water; uncertain and impermanent.
Yet Shirley hopes for something better, and after Frenchy and Maily leave the chapel, she closes in on Holman. Like Maily, her hair is bunned. She wears western dress, as if she, too, is ready for a husband. Holman says Frenchy is fooling himself. It’s not going to last. Shirley kisses Holman. He’s stunned, returns her affection, but is open-eyed as they embrace.
“It ain’t gonna work,” he warns her, although his pained eyes say he wants it to.
She asks him to come back with her to China Light. He could make the machines function. He could teach the Chinese how to use them. Yes, he could.
But the siren from the ship sounds, breaking this peace, this hope.
Opium is discovered on the San Pablo. The Chinese mob, recalling the old curse of opium and the western intervention it brought, are seething. Collins restricts the crew to the ship. The coolies jump ship. The rice bowl is broken, and from now on, the sailors must do their own chores.
Amidst the chanting demonstrators in their sampans, another boat departs upriver carrying a smiling, waving Jameson, freed by the court. The mob cheers him. Shirley stands aft, away from her mentor, staring at Holman. He stares back.
One night Frenchy jumps ship. Later, Holman is on courier duty and on the way back to the dock, checks in on the couple. Frenchy is dead from pneumonia.
Maily had sobbed to a dying Frenchy that there was no hope for her. She wasn’t Chinese nor American. The missionaries made her into nothing.
This at the same time Jameson proudly declares himself to be stateless, and despise all nationalities, is ready to become Chinese.
Holman tells a distraught Maily she has to come with him. He’s getting out and going to China Light. She’ll be safe there.
Too late. Rioters break in, attack Holman and, as he’s being worked over (these Chinese, the new ones of revolution, know how to fight), one of them murders Maily. Holman escapes, but the next day the mob at the blockade accuse Holman of murder and demand he turn himself in.
Collins tells the mob to get lost. The crew, ready to crack, chant for Holman to surrender (recalling the American merchants chanting to strip Maily in the brothel) and are on the brink of mutiny when Collins fires a machine gun into the water, snapping the crew back to their duty.
The water in the harbor rises, and Collins orders the ship out. After a major conflict at Nanking, he has orders to rescue Jameson and Shirley at China Light, and is almost hypnotized in completing this mission. Before, he had his pistol out, staring at it. While Holman took a rifle and threw it away, Collins is ready to eat his gun.
In Collins there is a swirling sense of failure, duty, and determination. The speech he gave at the start of the film about the flag now seems to dominate his actions, as well as his cold, glazed eyes dressing down Holman. We must refit ourselves into the design of this ship. Collins will do that, and orders full speed ahead.
The river is blocked by a line of Chinese boats and cable. Collins orders battle stations. The San Pablo blasts its way close enough for a boarding party to cut the cable, and it’s a wild melee. Collins, cutlass in hand, leads the attack.
Holman joins him. The Chief Petty Officer, the man who brandished his cutlass in the semi-comic drill at the start of the film, leads the second wave and is dropped with a single shot. Holman uses his BAR to wipe out the attack, and when a sailor dies, he takes the axe and cuts the cable, killing Cho-jen when he tries to kill Holman.
The San Pablo makes it to China Light. In the dark, Collins, Holman and two sailors are there to bring Jameson and Shirley to safety, but Jameson refuses. He reminds Collins he has declared himself stateless. Romantic nonsense, Collins says: he’ll be killed, as will Shirley, after she’s been raped.
At this point Holman tells Collins he’s not going back. He’s had enough.
Before Collins can react, we hear Chinese troops in the dark. Unlike Cho-jen’s Boy Scout troop of marching students with sticks, these unseen men in the dark mean business.
When Jameson approaches the unseen soldiers waving his paper of statelessness, they gun him down. Collins now lives up to his speech early in the film and must buy time with his life. He’s almost reckless in his attack, perhaps seeking death . . . which he finds. Holman takes over. He tells the sailors to get Shirley out while he covers their retreat. He couldn’t save Po-han, he couldn’t save Maily, but he can save Shirley. She’s tearful as sailors drag her away, and Holman, in a ritual imitation of Collins, fights off the Chinese, only to be shot. He bleeds, propped against the boxed machinery he could have made run. “We were home,” he cries out, “What the hell happened?”
A final shot keels him over.
The Sand Pebbles is a movie rich in action, drama, and a theme of imperialism and rebellion, showing individuals walled in and crushed by this conflict. Running at two and half hours, it doesn’t feel slow at all, and the music is effectively used at certain points, like the punches Holman tells Po-han to make in the fight.
Richard McKenna, the author of the novel, wrote from experience. He was a machinist in a gun boat in the U.S. navy’s China fleet of the 1930s, not the 1920s. You feel the grit of authenticity of this world and how men like Holman are coaxed out of their chosen occupations only to see any alternatives dashed by the intervention of human forces beyond his control. The movie offers a tragic view of life. Not depressive, but honest and unflinching.
Released in 1966, The Sand Pebbles was immediately seen as an interpretation of Vietnam, much as The Charge of the Light Brigade was (see my review ), but both films offer a timeless view of war and the conflict of peoples.
The Sand Pebbles feels just as real now as when it was first released, and the struggle of peoples and races are more than ever relevant. Maily’s impassioned outcry that the missionaries made her nobody with nowhere to go, and Jameson’s
Lofty but ultimately suicidal stance of statelessness in the midst of a civil war are always a subject for discussion, as is Collin’s almost fanatical stand for an American patriotism that is pointless in a totally foreign place like China.
The film recalls debates over China American businessmen and journalists had at that time. There was endless speculation over the China market; how hundreds of millions of Chinese would buy Model-Ts, toasters, whatever, and secure an endless American prosperity. Or the stern dictates of Henry Luce, who proclaimed it was America’s duty to Christianize China.
I remembered all the debates how America “lost” China to communism, although, as any thinking person would realize, China wasn’t ours to lose because we didn’t own it.
In the end, China became modernized, but on its own terms, not ours, because before they could become happy consumers, China had to straighten out a political mess when their empire collapsed from corruption, bureaucratic ossification, and foreign intervention. It is the personal tragedies in the film that Po-han and Maily, two people who might have become middle-class leaders, were destroyed both by foreign imperialism and a revolutionary urge to cleanse China of ‘running dogs,’ no matter who had to die.
China, as I said, will modernize on its own terms and not as an accessory to global capitalism. If anything, we could wind up as an accessory to China. If the west loses its sense of purpose, Chinese gunboats or their equivalent could patrol an America fragmented, ruptured, with perhaps some parts welcoming a China imposing stability and ending black lawlessness, ‘Woke’ madness, and a government printing warehouses full of money to spend on the next war . . . a splendid mirror image of what the 19th century did to this magnificent empire.
Regardless of geopolitics of then and possibly to come, The Sand Pebbles is a great film with spectacle, compelling scenes, and solid action. In addition to this, it is the Steve McQueen movie. His Holman propels the story and never fails to get our empathy and interest. McQueen does so much just with gestures or expressions. He was an unusual actor who always wanted his dialogue cut because he said he didn’t need most of it. The Sand Pebbles is a masterful example of this. From the first long shot of him toting his gear, he commands the movie. In the end, his Jake Holman is a wonderful everyman and, if we want to wax socialist here, a heroic laborer. Holman’s Do something! Was the true cry of the Trump supporter.
People of all persuasions should enjoy this great, epic film. It hasn’t got sand or snow like Lawrence of Arabia and Dr. Zhivago, but it has China, a long, vast river that mirrors life’s journey, and McQueen.
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