“The story of men...men who disturbed the sleeping dragon of China as the world watched in terror!”
Could the “world [watch] in terror”? Perhaps, but euphemism seems a more likely explanation of that part of the tagline above. However, the story for this film, based on actual situations, arises from the early 20th century history of China and its rebellion against “European colonialist influences.” One might wonder how the men of the U.S.S. San Pablo became involved in “European colonialist influences.” This film, like several others, e.g. Shenandoah, was produced and released during the early period of the Vietnam war. It gives an example of an even earlier American interventionist foreign policy and its consequences. Considering recent events, the film remains extremely relevant today.
The story centers on the U.S.S. San Pablo's new ship's engineer: Jake Holman (Steve McQueen), beginning with his assignment and journey to the gunboat. On this trip he meets Shirley Eckert (Candice Bergen in her second screen appearance) a young missionary on her way to work in China's interior. They seem drawn to each other and will come to know each other well over the course of the movie.
Unlike his affinity for Shirley, later Jake often appears detached in his early dealings with others on his new ship. He seems a man who prefers machinery, especially engines, to people. On the other hand, he shows many admirable character traits such as self-reliance and honesty, but these don't always win him friends among the Sand Pebbles: the chosen nickname of the San Pablo's crew. In addition to the US Navy component of the crew, a large number of Chinese sailors have attached themselves to positions in the ship's work gang. They call their positions, their “rice bowls.”
Initially Jake does not approve of this relationship. At first he, as well as many of the American crew, often uses ethnic slurs to refer to the Chinese sailors. However after Captain Collins (Richard Crenna) orders it, Jake trains one of the Chinese sailors: Po-han (Mako), to fill an important position in the engineering section. During Po-han's training, his intelligence and affinity for the engineering work win Jake's approval and friendship.
Another shipmate: Frenchy Burgoyne (Richard Attenborough), also seems open to the idea that Po-han – as well as other Chinese – deserve respect. At a bar frequented by many Sand Pebbles, Frenchy meets Maily (Emmanuelle Arsan, the writer of the Emmanuelle stories). Unlike most of the Americans, Frenchy and Jake treat Maily with respect. Frenchy falls in love with her. The two subplots involving Po-han and Maily intertwine and carry the story forward developing the characters, especially Jake.
Director Robert Wise crafted many artistic masterpieces in film. This movie ranks with the best of them. Although Steve McQueen was known as an action hero for movies such as Papillion, as well as many others, and Jake Holman easily fits within that mold, with this role he also shows significant dramatic capability. That dramatic talent shows most within the excellent 1978 movie version of Henrik Ibsen's classic play (adapted by Arthur Miller) An Enemy of the People (another great film inexplicably not available on either VHS or DVD), but his portrayal of Jake Holman probably comes in a respectable second.
Even this story of China in the 1920s doesn't mark the beginning of significant US intervention overseas. However, it does show that neither Korea nor Vietnam began the habit. Always “good intentions” lead to US intervention, but seldom do they result in good consequences. If you seek a historical lesson in the ugliness and sorrow of war, I recommend The Sand Pebbles very highly.