Director Robert Wise chose to film Robert McKenna's award-winning novel The Sand Pebbles
as his follow-up to the success of The Sound of Music
. Shot in Taiwan and Hong Kong, the film combines historical sweep and intimate human drama in several parallel stories, all revolving around US Navy machinist's mate Jake Holman (Steve McQueen), a skilful but fiercely independent sailor who joins the "sand pebble" crew of the USS San Pablo, a Navy gunboat patrolling the Yangtze River on the eve of the Chinese revolution in 1926. The San Pablo's inexperienced captain (Richard Crenna) obsessively defends the Navy's mission-however unnecessary or unwanted--to protect American missionaries and businessmen, blind to the more dangerous implications of American involvement with China's opposing political factions.
Holman is a defiant voice of humanity in this clash between outmoded values and inevitable change; his final line of dialogue ("What the hell happened?") is a tragic summation of misguided policy, expressing the film's criticism of the Vietnam War. Rather than preach, however, Wise lets McKenna's potent drama emerge from finely drawn relationships: between Holman and a young American teacher (19-year-old Candice Bergen, in her second film); between Holman and the Chinese "coolie" (Mako), whose heart-breaking fate transcends all issues of racial or political difference; and between crewmate "Frenchy" Burgoyne (Richard Attenborough) and the Chinese woman he's sworn to love and protect at all costs. Combined with the film's colourful supporting cast, adventurous scope, and climactic battle scenes, these personal dynamics bring substance and spirit to a complex story of good intentions gone awry. --Jeff Shannon, Amazon.com
In China, 1926, the US gunboat San Pablo cruises the Yangtze river on a peacekeeping mission. New crew member Jake Holman (Steve McQueen) causes friction when he insists upon looking after the San Pablo's engines himself, rather than leaving the hard labour to the Chinese helpers. Holman ruffles more feathers when he falls in love with an American missionary (Candice Bergen), and as the political climate becomes more and more volatile, he begins to question the validity of the American presence on the river.