Film: The Sand Pebbles

The Sand Pebbles is a film directed by Robert Wise, adapted from the eponymous 1962 novel by Richard McKenna and released in 1966. It starred Steve McQueen, Richard Attenborough and Candice Bergen.

In 1926, as China is in the throes of warlordism and anarchy, Machinist's Mate 1st Class Jake Holman (McQueen) is transferred from the US Asiatic Fleet's flagship in Shanghai to the river gunboat San Pablo, nicknamed the Sand Pebble by its crew. On the way, he meets Jameson, an idealistic missionary, and Shirley (Bergen), a young American woman who has just signed up for a teaching position in a missionary school.

The San Pablo, it turns out, is a run-down rust bucket of a boat only used for patrolling backwaters, and currently assigned to flag-showing in Changsha. Onboard discipline is relaxed to the point of negligence: as Holman discovers, the crew have, with the captain's tacit permission, delegated all menial chores to a coolie labor gang. However, Holman makes a point of taking care of the steam engine himself, antagonizing both his crewmates and the coolies for whom doing the sailors' work is how they earn their living.

After an accident kills the coolie in charge of the engine's mechanical maintenance, Holman is ordered to train a new one, Po-han (played by Mako), and despite his initial prejudice at the perceived stupidity of the Chinese, gradually warms to him. Meanwhile, Frenchie (Attenborough), the only crewman who gets along with Holman, meets Maily, a young Chinese woman who works as a hostess in a local brothel. With Holman's help, he buys up her debt and takes her to a room he has rented out for her.

Worsening tensions between Westerners and Chinese nationalist activists result in Po-han getting lynched by an angry mob. Jameson and Shirley are reluctantly put under the San Pablo's protection, and the latter develops romantic feelings for Holman. Frenchie marries Maily in a secret ceremony and, while the boat is stuck offshore from Changsha for the winter, sneaks away every night to be with her. One day, as Holman is allowed ashore to carry mail, he shows up at Maily's room, finding her pregnant and Frenchie dead from pneumonia. Nationalist soldiers burst in and, the next day, Holman finds himself accused of Maily's murder.

An angry mob demands that the San Pablo put Holman to Chinese custody, leading to a tense stand-off and a near-mutiny from the crew. The boat's captain stands his ground, though his crew's behavior leaves him near-suicidal. The next day, he receives radioed orders to sail downriver to the coast, but ignores them and instead decides to form a rescue mission to evacuate Jameson and Shirley to safety. The San Pablo runs a Chinese blockade, and much of the crew dies in a violent boarding action. At the missionary compound, Jameson, who refuses to leave, is gunned down by Nationalist soldiers. After the Captain is killed, Holman decides to stay behind in order to cover Shirley's evacuation by his remaining crewmates. He is mortally wounded just as he was about to fall back too.

Contains examples of:

  • Anti-Hero: Holman.
  • Anyone Can Die
  • Asian Hooker Stereotype: Frenchie and Maily. More generally, the sailors are fond of patronizing Chinese prostitutes and, as Holman explains to Shirley, "Most [American] China Sailors, they don't go back. They pull 20, 30 years, then they shack up with a Chinese girl and open a bar."
  • The Atoner: Maily works as a hostess in order to pay back money she once stole from missionaries.
  • Chinese Launderer: And barber, and cook, and mechanic, and...
  • Cloud Cuckoo Lander: Jameson.
  • The Engineer: Holman.
  • Gunboat Diplomacy: The historical context for the story, which provides literal examples.
  • Interrupted Suicide: The captain after the attempted mutiny.
    • The entire mission to rescue the missionaries can be viewed as an extension of his suicide attempt.
  • Last Stand: Holman stays behind to hold off the Chinese soldiers while the other sailors evacuate Shirley to the boat.
  • Machine Empathy: Holman feels more comfortable around machines than around people. Given the way he affectionately speaks to the ship's steam engine, it almost qualifies as Cargo Ship.
  • Mercy Kill: Holman shoots Po-han at the latter's request, to avoid him being tortured to death by a lynch mob. It's still very much a Shoot the Dog deed as far as he and everyone else is concerned.
  • The Mutiny: Not carried through, but a close thing nonetheless.
  • Professional Buttkisser: Ensign Bordelles to Captain Collins.
  • Reassigned to Antarctica: Holman is transferred to a remote backwater because he tends to get on his superiors' wrong side.
  • The Revolution Will Not Be Civilized: In keeping with Cold War politics, the Nationalists are depicted as well-intentioned extremists with legitimate grievances who feel driven to violence. Less sympathetic are the Dirty Communists, who try to goad the San Pablo into attacking them and incite Po Han's death. Nobody comes off well the end.
  • Sanity Slippage: Captain Collins, big time.
  • Shoot the Shaggy Dog: "What the hell happened?"
  • Suicidal Pacifist: Jameson.
  • Sword and Gun: The boat's Captain in the battle at the river barricade.
  • Title Drop: "Welcome aboard the Sand Pebble. That's what we call ourselves, the Sand Pebbles."
  • Yellow Peril: Just look at the tagline on the poster.