In 1926, the gunboat USS San Pablo patrols the Yangtze River in a vain effort to protect American interests in China while Chiang Kai-shek’s armies and Chinese warlords jockey for power and position.
Life aboard ship has settled into an upside-down normalcy, with Chinese workers running vital shipboard operations while American sailors are content to stand down. Enter ship’s engineer Jake Holman (Steve McQueen), new to the self-named “sand pebbles” crew and with an independent streak that draws suspicion from both his shipmates and coolie workers assigned to his beloved engine room.
The engine, a Vickers double expansion steam model which plays a large role in the picture, captures Holman’s affection until he crosses paths with schoolteacher Shirley Eckhart (Candice Bergen) and he finds his simple life as a “China Sailor” complicated exponentially. Things grow more complicated for them both, and for the rest of the crew, after a series of incidents bring the San Pablo’s role in China into question and to the forefront of an international incident promising to swallow them all.
NOTE: Dialogue includes references in use in 1926 and even in 1966 (the film is often described as a cinematic metaphor for American involvement in Vietnam) and may fall harshly on the ears of contemporary streamers. At a tick past three hours long it can be a long cruise.
Why We Liked It: Great cinematography. Great story-telling. A great score, with Jerry Goldsmith’s music setting the tone for much of the picture. The acting is very good with an Oscar nod for McQueen, but with only Richard Attenborough, who plays Machinist’s Mate 2nd Class Frenchy Burgoyne, actually taking home the Golden Man for Best Supporting Actor.
Quotable Quote: “Hello Engine. I’m Jake Holman.”
Available on Amazon Prime.