Drawing on his own experience aboard a Yangtze gunboat in the 1960s, author Richard McKenna set the time of his oriental tale a decade earlier, during the Northern Expedition in China. The three-part story first appeared in the Post in November 1962 and made its film debut in 1966.
Pat Boone had campaigned hard for the role of protagonist Jake Holman, but director Robert Wise’s first choice was Paul Newman. In the end, the role went to Steve McQueen.
Initially slotted for nine weeks of filming, the production took seven months to complete thanks to a series of unfortunate delays, including a capsized camera boat which ruined the soundboard, monsoons in Taipei, an abscessed molar that caused McQueen to fall ill, and rumored “hostage taking” of several cast member passports by the Chinese government until additional taxes were paid from filming. At the studio’s insistence, Wise reluctantly occupied the downtime with a “fill in” project he had originally rejected for being “too saccharine”—1965’s The Sound of Music.
For its troubles, Sand Pebbles was nominated for eight Golden Globes, including a win for Richard Attenborough for Best Supporting Actor, and eight Oscar nods, including Best Supporting Actor, Best Picture, and Best Actor—the only Academy Award nomination of Steve McQueen’s career. Wise was said to be so proud of the film that he held annual parties with surviving cast members to commemorate its completion.