For Jake Holman, nothing really works out, no matter how hard he tries. He’s the newest crew member on the San Pablo, nicknamed by the crew as The Sand Pebbles, patrolling the interior of China in 1926. Holman is used to being head engineer and working hard to keep the engine running as best as it can, but aboard the Sand Pebbles the sailors hardly lift a finger while their Chinese workers run the engine with little knowledge. So Holman doesn’t fit in with most of the sailors since he’s constantly working with the Chinese men; in turn the Chinese feel like he’s invading their space and threatening their work. When Holman tries to fix a few things on the engine, a fatal accident occurs and everyone blames him. So much for trying to do your job right. But Holman keeps trying, he teaches one of the Chinese workers, Po-han (Mako) everything about the engine and they become friends.
There’s also a side story about a girl everyone wants. Maily is a beautiful, young hostess at a popular bar for sailors to find a girl to take upstairs and speaks English surprisingly well. One of the sailors wants to take her upstairs, but her price is two hundred dollars, a high price for a sailor. In a noble effort Holman’s only friend of the ship, Frenchie (Richard Attenborough), wants to raise the two hundred so that she can be free from a life of prostitution.
One day, the blowheart from New Jersey starts talking smack about Po-han, and Holman defends him, wagering a fight between the two. The prize money will be enough for Maily. That means that her freedom depends on skinny little Po-han kicking New Jersey’s ass. It’s a good fight scene.
Oh yeah, did I mention the rebellion brewing in China? Yeah, it only fuels the tensions between the Chinese men and the sailors. After the bar fight scene is when that action starts to hit the fan and things turn violent.
There is a lot going on, so that’s why this movie takes three hours. It couldn’t be condensed and it’s all interesting, so I completely understand, my bladder was the only one who rejected the idea. The rest of me was willing for the whole ride.
Steve McQueen, who played so many cool guys in the sixties, plays Holman and earned a best lead actor nomination. As an engineer living a sort of drifter navy life, he’s a hardworking loner. His cynical and sarcastic attitude push people away, but we see his good intentions. It’s that hard shell with a hidden heart of gold that make Holman such an intriguing character, we just wish things would turn around for him.
I hate to complain about such trivial details as sound quality, but this film sucks at it, which is surprising considering the lovely soundtrack. Conversations are either too soft to hear, so I crank it up and suddenly there’s gunfire louder than jets buzzing overhead. Honestly, can’t there be a happy medium where we can hear the conversation and not be blasted?
The Sand Pebbles is a film of adventure, navy life in China and political turmoil. I don’t want to give anything away, but just don’t expect a happy ending.
“Damn your flag, damn all flags. It’s too late in the world for flags.”