Questions About "THE SAND PEBBLES"

After many years of seeing this film in bits and pieces, I finally watched it all the way through! (It was on AMC). Overall, a big, confused mess of a movie…you can always tell when Hollywood tries to make high art-they always wind up with something that has just too many themes (Steve McQueen, the loner antihero, love affair between american sailor and pretty chinese girl (doomed from the start), clash of ideologies (Wester Navy vs Chniese civilization in decay), great hsitorical theme (rise of Chinese nationalism under Chiang Kai-Shek), and (mercifally finally) romantic Naval officer (captain of "San Pablo) wants to get killed in battle to “redeem his honor”-and actually winds up getting killed, for no good purpose.
Anyway, was this movie a sucess when it was released? Why did poor “Frenchy” (the american sailor played by a British actor) HAVE to die? Why was the “san Pablo” commanded by that psychopath lieutenant anyway? And, for salors of the US Navy’s Asiatic Fleet-was life really that good? Did you get to have chinese colies do all of your work for you? :eek:

What are “Chinese Colies”? :confused:

The OP means Chinese coolies, derogatory slang for laborers. Haven’t seen the movie myself, but IMHO the book (by Richard McKenna) is excellent.

Oh… I never heard that term used before

I recently read the book and the movie follows the novel very closely, including the themes you were complaining about. Why did Frenchy have to die? Because he chose the love of his Chinese gf over his duty as a sailor and the friendship of his comrades. The gf, likewise, chose him over the friendship of her Chinese neighbors. When societal forces beyond their control overwhelmed them, they were doomed (it is strongly implied in the novel that the gf doesn’t survive either). They are, in essence, that long-standing literary device: the star-crossed lovers.
The Lt. isn’t a psychopath. He just has a very strong and old-fashioned devotion to honor and duty. You’ll find people just like him throughout military history and in the military today.
In the context of the novel, the sailors did have it pretty good in terms of not having to do the day-to-day drudgery of running the ship and keeping it in good condition. The Lt. considered them fighting men (as they thought of themselves) and so fighting was primarily what they did. We don’t get it explained in as much detail in the movie, but the Sao Paolo does do a fair amount of steaming around and skirmishing with bandits and warlords. Part of the reason everybody on the ship comes to hate Homan is that he doesn’t want to be a fighting man. He likes machinery and wants to be down in the engine room taking care of his beloved steam engine. This, of course, upsets the whole social order on the Sao Paolo with bad results for a lot of people.

I just finished this book and am curious if anyone else has & has any observations. I noticed a couple of interesting themes, I thought, a bit deeper than what I was expecting. And the ending was Sopranos-like in a way, in that the protagonist is alive one moment, and then

he’s not.

Oh, and zombie, zombie, zombie, zombie, zombie . . . there, I said it.

It does have a very abrupt ending. Richard McKenna had taken college classes to be educated as a writer, but he was essentially a self-taught one; and in his era Hemmingway was the gold standard for self-taught writers.

McKenna always struck me as the navy’s answer to James Jones. Jones was reaching not just to tell his big story, as a lot of veterans do, but to be accepted into the world of Quality Lit. So he was consciously avoidant of Hemmingway’s style. But, while From Here to Eternity is overall a better book than McKenna’s, there’s a lot of words in it that just have to be slogged through

Frenchy didn’t really die. He went on to become CEO of InGen and created Jurassic Park.

“She’s sure as hell a home and a feeder”

One of my favorite films a bit slow paced for the modern audience. I have read the book as well and to tell the truth I think the film is one of those rare cases of being better than the book.

Neal Stephenson’s Crytonomicon has some early stuff set in Shanghai just before Pearl Harbor (so ~15 years after The Sand Pebbles). The US Marines on the Yangtze River Patrol are pulling out as China falls into chaos.

There are several mentions of the great life (aside from having to steam upstream and fight with a dozen different groups of bandits, warlords, etc.) in Shangai at the time due to relative living standards. The Marines really did have hired help that took care of all their needs, plus opium was cheap.

Stephenson did extensive research, including the memories of one his relatives who served in the area before the war.

Here’s Steve McQueen on What’s My Line? He discusses the filming of the movie a bit at the end:

See The Old China Hands (1961) by Charles Finney for the land equivalent of The Sand Pebbles; it’s a memoir about serving with the U.S. Army in late 1920s China. They had cheap servants to clean their uniforms, polish their shoes, cook for them, etc. Pretty cushy duty, despite occasional danger.

Huh. I didn’t get it until you explained that part.

I believe that the coolies themselves had a “pecking order”, too.

I thought that Holman’s rejection of the engine room coolies was causing discontent amongst them, and the rest of the American sailors didn’t like anything that upset the order of things. I didn’t realise that the other American’s saw Holman as rejecting their “way of life”, too.

That’s more filled-out in the book, too. Po-han’s death was a set-up by the head coolie, who didn’t like Holman’s meddling either.

Also changed in the movie was the love story between Steve McQueen and Candice Berman. In the book, he developed feelings for her, but she put him in an even worse place than the “friend zone:” he was her “project.” After Jake shot Po-han, she brought another missionary to comfort him spiritually: if she loved him she’d have come by herself and given him a hug.

At the end, the Lt tells the head missionary they have to evacuate or else Shirley would be raped, and the head missionary responds that the sailors are to blame for that, since they’d done as much to the Chinese girls in the brothels. Holman sees Shirley with her young missionary boyfriend, which eats his guts out; and feels like dogshit for boinking all those Chinese girls over the years. So he sacrifices himself as an act of redemption. Therefore, back to the OP: there really isn’t much needed for the story after he gets shot to pieces.

Wow-my old thread gets revived! Who says zombies don’t exist?
That said, “The Sand Pebbles” is quite a good story…I’ll always remember that Chinese Nationalist Lt. “If there is to be a war, let it start here!”
Which neatly summarizes the dilemma for the USN in pre-war China-we are a nation born of revolution-why couldn’t the Chinese have theirs? Now we wind up backing corrupt regimes.

For more tragic adventure, go back a bit further and read about the Taiping Rebellion. Casualties as big as WWII in an area the size of the American Midwest, and a storyline that reads like a fairy tale set in Hell.

Good observation-Holman protests to the Captain, that his orders are putting the engines at a risk of destruction (working beyond capacity). The Lt. replies that the ship and the men are expendable-it is their duty, etc.
Holman is really the only uncorrupted human being in the whole story-he treats the Chinese fairly, has a conscience, etc…which ultimately dooms him.

Just popped in to say that Richard McKenna is one of my favorite authors and this book is one of my favorite as well. I thought the film was very good, almost perfect as a movie, but yeah, they had to cut some corners with the expository stuff when filming.

Oh, but what I really wanted to say was how cool it’s been to read what y’all have thought of this book & movie; I don’t know anyone else in real life that’s ever read or even seen The Sand Pebbles.

Nor I.
I love the scene after the battle of the cable, where Holman steps back aboard San Pablo. I can’t remember if he is holding an ax or the BAR.

Someday, just because of The Sand Pebbles, I am going to own a BAR and a Lewis Gun.

Clyde Barrow had a BAR.
I’d settle for an M-14.

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