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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 Mai Ling, 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 Mai Ling 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 Mai Ling's room, finding her pregnant and Frenchie dead from pneumonia. Nationalist soldiers burst in and, the next day, Holman finds himself accused of Mai Ling'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. Holman decides to stay behind in order to cover Shirley's evacuation by his remaining crewmates. He is critically wounded just as he was about to fall back too.
- Anti-Hero: Holman.
- Anyone Can Die
- The Atoner: Mai Ling works as a hostess in order to pay back money she once stole from missionaries.
- The Bully: Stawski especially but most of the Sand Pebbles who in a drunken state encourage the sexual assault on Mai-Ling in a tavern.
- Chinese Launderer: And barber, and cook, and mechanic, and...
- Cloudcuckoolander: Jameson.
- The Engineer: Holman.
- Grey and Gray Morality: The Americans are corrupted by having power for to long and the Chinese are by gaining power suddenly after being powerless. Actually there are many parties, most off stage and the only one's innocent were the unseen Chinese peasants to weak to do much of anything evil and who obviously did not have gunboats to protect them.
- Gunboat Diplomacy: The historical context for the story, which provides literal examples.
- Interrupted Suicide: The captain after the attempted mutiny.
- Knight in Sour Armor: While he tells us he is just an engineer, he mentors Po-hon, helps rescue Mai-ling, and dies heroically rescuing a woman. All in all he maintains not only bravery but even compassion amid the corruption around.
- 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.
- Me Love You Long Time: Frenchie and Mai Ling. 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."
- 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.
- The Natives Are Restless
- Officer and a Gentleman: The Captain is big on this. He is stiff and looks like a martinet at first but he turns out to be a surprisingly Reasonable Authority Figure. He also seems to have a penchant for Honor Before Reason but there is a method to that as is shown by the fact that he is able to win a stare down twice even with crippling rules of engagement simply by a sense of the value of reputation.
- 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 Civilised: Po-Han is given the beginning of a death of a thousand cuts (before he is shot) for working for the Americans, and Mai-Ling is murdered by the rebels for having the audacity to fall in love with an American. Neither the Chinese nor the Americans are really very nice.
- An exception occurs when a Nationalist commander who is taking over a shore base gives honors of war (a ceremony of letting the loser march out with their flags, etc, best remembered in American history from American Civil War). He clearly wants to be seen as a fellow professional. The effect is spoiled by civilians pelting the crew from windows.
- Shoot the Shaggy Dog: "What the hell happened?"
- Title Drop: "Welcome aboard the Sand Pebble. That's what we call ourselves, the Sand Pebbles."
- We ARE Struggling Together: Everyone is struggling together. The Chinese are struggling, but agree they want the foreigners gone. A hint at the Bolsheviks coming with Russian support is mentioned too.
- What Do You Mean It's Not Political?: A film from the 1960s depicting American forces stuck in a quagmire in Asia?
- Yellow Peril: Just look at the tagline on the poster.