Sand Pebbles, The (1966): Robert Wise’s Oscar-Nominated War Film Starring Steve McQueen

Following the huge success of the Oscar-winning “The Longest Day” (1962), Fox attempted to make another blockbuster war movie, “The Sand Pebbles,” albeit of a different kind–and quality.

America’s gunboat diplomacy in strife-torn China in 1926 provides the background for Robert Wise’s war drama, based on Robert Anderson’s script.

Our Grade: B- (**1/2 out of *****)

An individualistic machinist’s mate (Steve McQueen), aboard the “San Pablo,” a U.S. gunboat on duty on the Yangtse River, falls in love with a schoolteacher (Candice Bergen) at a local mission. He plans to desert from the navy but he is caught up in the wake of a Chinese revolution. He is killed while helping a handful of Americans escape to the vessel. The captain of the American vessel is assigned to protect American citizens working along the river. A sailor becomes involved in a tragic love affair with a Chinese girl.

The film depicts the personal and international conflicts of the period, including the thin line the captain and his crew must walk in order to prevent further escalation of the tensions.

There were hints and parallels with what happened–and was still happening–in Vietnam, but screenwriter Richard Anderson and director Robert Wise were not exactly sure what kind of message they wanted sent to their audiences.

Even so, the film suggested that the American diplomacy of interference in the affairs of other people (who don’t want to be rescued) was based on racism and arrogance, taking a superior attitude toward an inferior race. And Steve McQueen’s cool and tough anti-hero, particularly his distrust of authority, reflected the way many Americans felt toward the war and their government.

Inexplicably, as a result of Fox’s aggressive and expensive marketing campaign, “Sand Pebbles” was nominated for many awards, including Best Picture, Actor (the only nomination McQueen would secure), and Supporting Actor to Japanese Mako. The big winner that year was Fred Zinnemann’s A Man for All Seasons, and thus Wise’s picture lost in every category it was nominated, including Cinematography, Art direction, Editing, Sound, and Original Music.

McQueen’s powerful screen persona, as the inscrutable sailor, and a romance with Candice Bergen, made the film more watchable–up to a point!

Undeterred, Fox launched an unabashedly aggressive publicity campaign, which helped the movie get eight Oscar nominations, though it lost in every category.

An expensive production, shot in Taiwan, The Sand Pebbles was not a box-office success, but it recouped its budget of $12 million.

Oscar Nominations: 8

Picture, produced by Robert Wise
Actor: Steve McQueen
Supporting Actor: Mako
Cinematography (Color): Joseph MacDonald
Art Direction-Set Direction (Color): Boris Leven; Walter M. Scott, John Sturtevant, and William Kiernan
Sound: James P. Corcoran
Original Music: Jerry Goldsmith
Film Editing: William Reynolds

Oscar Awards: None

Oscar Context

Wise’ war film competed against the British comedy “Alfie,” Zinnemann’s moral historical drama “A Man for All Seasons,” which won, Norman Jewison’s comedy “The Russians Are Coming,” the Russians Are Coming,” and Mike Nichols’ stunning directing debut “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” based on Edward Albee’s play.