The Sand Pebbles, starring the “King of Cool” Steve McQueen, is one of the best films of the 1960s. The film focuses on the journey of a Navy Engineer by the name of Jake Holman in the year 1926 in China, a time of great political upheaval. After nearly a century of foreign domination, with countries such as Japan, America, the UK, Russia and other states slicing China up into different spheres of influence under the ‘unequal treaties’ China finds itself in a great civil war with nationalists and communists vying for influence. Meanwhile many missionaries, military men, foreign businessmen, diplomats and academics still found themselves in China.
The “San Pablo,” nicknamed “The Sand Pebbles” finds itself in China during this time. Aboard is a captain who is balancing relations between the Chinese “coolies” on the ship and the American seamen aboard his ship. There are some elements of racism present in this film, but Holman sees the Chinese as humans and the assignment as somewhat devoid of moral purpose.
The film also depicts the exploitation of local women by unscrupulous Chinese businessmen and also the development of two real love stories, both of which end tragically, although I will say no more if you have not seen the film. The movie also has some very high quality battle sequences, far ahead of their time. The Sand Pebbles does not attempt to answer the question of whether or not the purpose of the mission in China is just, but rather focuses on the human element. It is very much a character driven film, although the plot does play a role in moving the story along. The film is a little on the long side (around three hours), but it is well worth seeing.