Jake Holman (Steve McQueen) was a sailor in the U.S. Navy in the mid-nineteen-twenties and had been posted to a variety of ships as an engineer because he was very good at his job, but as the number of jobs he had indicated, he did not always get on with his shipmates too well. He gets off a boat in Shanghai with the orders to give to the latest vessel he is to serve on, the gunboat San Pablo, and makes straight for the boarding house cum bar to stay overnight before he begins, partaking of a drink and disappearing up to his room with a more than willing prostitute. Somehow, the next evening he finds himself in a dining room discussing the Chinese situation with a missionary and two officials, but he's more interested in the daughter (Candice Bergen) sitting across from him...
The fact remains, and this is observed about Holman early on, he is one of those Navy men who simply exist to be told what to do and when to do it, following orders is his lot in life and all he really wants, since anything else would require him to think over what is happening and the reasons the United States has a presence overseas. Arriving when it did, The Sand Pebbles was quickly picked up on as a commentary on the then escalating war in Vietnam, which was perhaps unfortunate when the mood of the nation and indeed the world was turning against American involvement rather vociferously, though given the message here was essentially about the futility of war then it’s not surprising it won a strong cult following among those who appreciated its mature take on the subject.
With all that in mind, the would-be blockbuster was a big gamble for its studio 20th Century Fox seeing as how it was still reeling from the financial disaster of Cleopatra, but a bright ray of hope had been shone by the massive success of The Sound of Music. The director of that was Robert Wise, and he was allowed carte blanche to do whatever he wanted for his next project, which happened to be this difficult proposition that was going to be expensive, there was no way around it. Nevertheless, he stuck to his guns this would be a prestige production that would bring in the punters like his previous hit did, and while it didn't make those profits and won a lukewarm response from the critics, it was able to show the benefits of spending money to make money.
But really only in one area of the market, which was men and boys who liked war epics. Couple that with scenes of heavy machinery pounding away and an air of intelligent musings over the worth of going to battle and international politics, and you had a work with appeal to those who like their epics with a strong degree of thought. It had been based on a novel by Richard McKenna, whose career began in his forties after a life in the navy, but was cut short by a fatal heart attack after only a few published results. The Sand Pebbles did very well in the book charts, based as it was on his experiences in China though he did not live to see the film completed, but one imagines he would be satisfied with what they conjured up, with location shooting in the Far East and a capable cast of interesting faces.
McQueen so embodied his role and its implications that he caught the attention of the Academy and secured his one and only Oscar nomination (Best Actor), and he did hold the centre of the movie for a long three hours as Holman's conscience is awoken. Second billed was Richard Attenborough as kind hearted Frenchy, who seeks to save a young girl from being sold into prostitution, though ironically she was played under an alias by Emmanuelle Arsan, whose sexual adventures had been a scandalous book sensation and would be played by Sylvia Kristel in the movie adaptations. This weighty subplot was all very well, but might have been better combined into Holman's narrative since McQueen's chemistry with nice but dull Bergen was lacking; more valuable was his outsider status among the crew who as the Chinese situation worsens regard him as a Jonah. Though this is more because he is right when almost everyone else is wrong, including the troubled Captain Richard Crenna, McQueen's rebel status well and truly in place. Building to a violent denouement (or two), its questioning of the politics of intervention did not breed any real answers, but it was a substantial meal of a movie nonetheless. Music by Jerry Goldsmith.