Robert Wise’s epic 1966 action adventure The Sand Pebbles, from a screenplay by Robert Anderson (who adapted from Richard McKenna’s book), stars the extra-manly Steve McQueen as a headstrong Navy officer working as a machinist on the fictional USS San Pablo in 1926, which is patrolling the Yangtze River while fighting rages between communist rebels and Chinese warlords. With the ship under threat after taking civilians aboard, the situation changes when McQueen shows that patented rebellious streak, taking matters into his own hands when he and his crew are ordered to protect American lives at all costs. Shot on location in Hong Kong and Taiwan over the course of seven months, The Sand Pebbles feels absolutely huge on all levels, boasting truly epic production values and a sense of scale that feels rather awe-inspiring considering our current day and age of create-everything-in-the-computer-laziness, while the narrative clearly doubled for a rather potent anti-Vietnam war statement.
Jerry Goldsmith’s brash and adventurous musical score is a major bonus, while the super-widescreen cinematography by Joseph MacDonald is positively eye-filling, with both large and small details. The deep supporting cast included Richard Attenborough, Richard Crenna, Candice Bergen, Mako, Larry Gates, Simon Oakland, and Marayat Andriane. A critical favorite and hit with audiences, The Sand Pebbles received eight Oscar nominations (including McQueen’s only Best Actor nod), and has remained a cable TV favorite for years. McQueen became physically exhausted after the extensive production, requiring a one year break from any filming, and dental work needed to repair an abscessed molar which he refused to have fixed while out of the United States. Originally released as a 182 minute feature, with a 196 minute roadshow version also screened after 14 additional minutes were discovered years after it premiered. The Sand Pebbles is available on Blu-ray and DVD in various releases.