The Sand Pebbles Engineer Jake Holman arrives aboard the gunboat U.S.S. San Pablo, assigned to patrol a tributary of the Yangtze in the middle of exploited and revolution-torn 1926 China. His iconoclasm and cynical nature soon clash with the “rice-bowl” system which runs the ship and the uneasy symbiosis between Chinese and foreigner on the river. Hostility towards the gunboat’s presence reaches a climax when the boat must crash through a river-boom and rescue missionaries upriver at China Light Mission. The Sand Pebbles
A beautiful film
I get tired of hearing how “they don’t make them like that any more,” but it’s hard to imagine THE SAND PEBBLES being made today. If a current movie is three hours long, you can bet it’s because the director has fallen in love with himself, not because the material merits it. THE SAND PEBBLES succeeds on just about every level: It is a compelling and complex story; it is beautifully filmed; the acting is mostly excellent; and there is a tremendous score. (Can you imagine a film today having an overture? Rampant adult ADD prohibits it.) The three hours gives you time to get to know the characters, sink into the Chinese setting, and become involved in the story. Just a little thing to notice, right at the start: Watch how McQueen fiddles with his napkin in the formal dining room. He’s out of place, and doesn’t know what to do with it; it’s the kind of physical bit that McQueen does so well to elaborate his character. Credit must also be given to the late Richard Crenna. His captain of the San Pablo is a complex and conflicted character, and Crenna, while carrying off a largely formal role, delivers a very nuanced and moving performance. THE SAND PEBBLES is a movie for grown-ups, largely forgotten today but well worth your time.