Out of the 1926 political and military turmoil in China, producer-director Robert Wise has created a sensitive, personal drama, set against a background of old style US Navy gunboat diplomacy. The Sand Pebbles, based on the novel by Richard McKenna, is a handsome production, boasting some excellent acting characterizations.
Steve McQueen looks and acts the part he plays so well – that of a machinist’s mate with nine years of navy service. Richard Crenna likewise is authentic as the gunboat captain, a young lieutenant who speaks the platitudes of leadership with a slight catch in his throat, due to lack of practical experience.
The title derives from a language perversion of San Pablo, formal name of the gunboat on Yangtze river patrol. Among the crew is Richard Attenborough, very believable in his role as a sailor who falls in love with newcomer Marayat Andriane in a tragic bi-racial romance. Her performance is sensitive.
The major drawback to the film as a whole is a surfeit of exposition, mainly in the second half. Every scene is in itself excellent, but unfortunately the overall dramatic flow of the pic suffers in the end.
1966: Nominations: Best Picture, Actor (Steve McQueen), Supp. Actor (Mako), Color Cinematography, Color Art Direction, Editing, Original Music Score, Sound