The U.S.S San Pablo patrols the Yangtze River in 1926. New to the ship is Engineer Jake Holman (Steve McQueen) and he likes to work his own engines. He and the head coolie don't see eye to eye. Holman goes to Captain Collins (Richard Crenna) to let him know that the engines need some work done on them. When the engines do finally break down Holman lets a coolie go and try and fix it and he ends up getting crushed to death. The head coolie blames Holman and the crew start to not care for him either. You see Holman liked to shake things up and everybody else likes things to go smooth. Holman is told to train another coolie and he picks Po Han (Mako). Now Po Han learned well but he was not going to be the choice of the head coolie.
One night when they had leave Po Han got himself involved in a boxing match with Stawski (Simon Oakland). Stawski was all over Holman's case. The two just didn't hit it off. Frenchy (Richard Attenborough) probably the only friend of Holman's on the ship wanted to buy a young girl by the name of Maily (Emmanuelle Arsan). The alternative would be for Maily to take up prostitution and Frenchy wouldn't hear of that. With the money they won from the fight Frenchy was able to pay for Maily.
Holman had attended a dinner with some missionaries and one of them was a teacher by the name of Shirley Eckert (Candice Bergen). Holman really started to like this girl. When Maily and Frenchy get married Holman and Shirley were their witnesses.
Po Han would later be captured by the Communist and tortured. Holman would fire the shot to end the spectacle. The Captain was furious and wanted Holman transferred off the ship. The tension between the Communists and the Americans would escalate. The Chinese would set up a blockade around the San Pablo and would keep them in port during the winter. Frenchy would make it ashore and would eventually die from exposure to the water. Holman would be blamed for the murder of Maily even though it was the Chinese who killed her. A mutiny would almost take place but in the end the crew would pull together.
The problems with the Chinese would make the San Pablo run the blockade to go help the missionaries at the China Light Mission. Does Holman and the crew make it in time to save the missionaries and Shirley? Well, watch the movie and find out. The action is good and the movie is the best.
Director Robert Wise brings history and entertainment to the big screen on this one. 'The Sand Pebbles' is a drama that most have never seen, but should. This movie is one of the best ever made and the cast is some of the best of the time. Take a trip down the Yangtze River and enjoy the movie 'The Sand Pebbles'.