The Sand Pebbles

In 1966, the year Spain reported the first Jewish child born in Iberia since Queen Isabella expelled the Chosen in 1492, Hollywood released two remarkable movies: The Sand Pebbles, and Billy the Kid vs. Dracula.

One led to an Academy Award nomination for the Coolest Man in the World. The other starred John Carradine – father of the orgasmically deceased David “Kung Fu” Carradine – as Count Dracula. We will save the other for another time.

The Sand Pebbles, starred Steve McQueen [1930-to-1980] as U.S. Navy machinist’s mate 1st class Jake Holman. Along with John Ford’s The Long Voyage Home, and the German submarine film Das Boot, The Sand Pebbles remains a favorite among seafarers more than 40 years after its release.

“It has a good feel for engines and crappy duty up a Chinese river,” said Carl Nolte, a San Francisco Chronicle reporter who holds a captain’s license, a wordsmith in the tradition of Joseph Conrad, whose Heart of Darkness inspired Francis Ford Coppola’s 1979 river movie Apocalypse Now.

Directed by Robert Wise – who made The Sound of Music for 20th Century Fox during long lulls in production on The Sand Pebbles – the film is based on Richard McKenna’s best-selling novel from 1962.

On the surface, The Sand Pebbles is about mid-1920s gunboat diplomacy by the United States on China’s Yangtze River. Below decks, smaller dramas orbit easy assumptions about people who look different than us and the innate rebelliousness of the American loner in the person of McQueen.

Jake’s life (defined by his usefulness) depends on the boat’s fickle steam engine. Although the young Candice Bergen is afoot as a comely schoolteacher/missionary, the harder Holman works to keep the engine running, the more he is seduced by its well-oiled purr.

[Thus an insight into so many jokes about engineers, of which the author McKenna was one as a Navy machinist’s mate, ala Holman, from 1931 to 1953. In 1986, The Left-Handed Monkey Wrench, a posthumous McKenna collection of stories about seafaring engineers was released.]

But it is The Sand Pebbles – a bastardization of the ship’s name, “San Pablo” – for which the Idaho-born author is remembered.

Amidst shipboard bickering, assaults from insurgent Chinese Communists and brawls in brothels – one a prize match with an indentured prostitute [Emmanuelle Arsan], as the purse – comes an especially unforgettable scene.

In it, a Chinese “coolie” – an ancient pejorative – is sent with a wrench into the guts of the steam engine, having begged Holman for the chance to prove his worth and preserve his supper. He is then crushed to death by a giant piston.

“Live steam,” said Truitt Sunderland, a retired chief of the engine room who sailed deep sea for years. “Dead engineer.”

Rafael Alvarez is the author of A People’s History of the Archdiocese of Baltimore. He can be reached at



  1. John Hazlet 8 years ago

    A couple of statements above are not quite accurate, either from the movie or the book.

    1. Holman was never “seduced” by the engine’s well-oiled purr in the movie, and not in the book until after he realigned the engine and corrected the horrible thumping, vibrating bearing knock that limited power output and caused reliability issues.

    The “coolie” sent into the “guts of the steam engine” was the head engine room coolie, and insisted in going down there to save face with his workers. When a Woodruff key came loose and allowed condensing steam* to turn the engine, the coolie was crushed by a throw of the crankshaft. The pistons are enclosed in that engine, and can’t hit you.

    *A risk with this type of engine when it’s hot — and the reason they engaged the jacking gear, to hold it still. Evidently one key that held the jacking gear rigidly to the crankshaft had fallen out some time ago, and the second was loosened by chronic vibration caused by misalignment and resulting bearing problems.

    The Liberty Ship SS Jeremiah O’Brien in San Francisco has the same type of engine (but considerably larger), and I’m one of the engine room crew.

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