Fifty years ago this month, Hollywood legend Steve McQueen was in Hong Kong with his family and a large film crew, to shoot scenes for The Sand Pebbles, the hugely successful movie about an American gunboat patrolling the inland waters of revolutionary China.

Filming was undertaken mostly in Sai Kung, where the USS San Pablo, a replica American gunboat, engaged in a large maritime battle. Local filming took less than eight weeks but it made a significant impact on the city, which in turn left an indelible mark on the movie. Press reports and interviews from that period also reveal a little of the latent character of McQueen, the so-called King of Cool, a charismatic but troubled and insecure movie icon.

The Sand Pebbles, directed by Oscar-winning Robert Wise, who later described it as "the most difficult film I ever made", is based on the 1962 best-selling novel by Richard McKenna, which topped the New York Times best-seller list for 28 weeks. It's the colourful tale of the hard-bitten crew of the San Pablo, an antique gunboat patrolling the Yangtze River that becomes entangled in the patriotic fervour and social instability of post-revolutionary, 1920s China. The captain, played by Richard Crenna, and the ship's company have to navigate maritime, romantic and diplomatic hazards as they attempt to fulfil their duty during the early, fragmented days of the Chinese Republic. That duty includes protecting resident American missionaries, including an enchanting and vulnerable schoolteacher, Shirley Eckert, played by 19-year-old Candice Bergen.

McQueen, who arrived at Kai Tak airport on March 22, 1966, from Taiwan, with his wife and two children, plays the lead: recalcitrant sailor and moody hero Jake Holman. The steely ship's engineer and taciturn man of the world forms an unlikely romantic attachment with the prim young schoolteacher in a part that was perfect for McQueen. Off screen, he, too, was often more comfortable in the company of machines (notably high-performance motorbikes and sports cars) than people and the curious on-screen chemistry between the two stars still makes compelling viewing five decades later.

"He was the perfect choice for Jake Holman," Wise has been quoted as saying. "I've never seen an actor work with mechanical things the way he does. He learned everything about operating that ship's engine, just as Jake Holman did in the script. Jake Holman is a very strong individual who doesn't bend under pressure, a guy desperately determined to maintain his own personal identity and pride. Very much like Steve."

McQueen, however, was not Wise's first choice for the part.

"Robert Wise told me that when he initially began casting The Sand Pebbles, three or four years before its eventual release, he wanted Paul Newman to play Jake Holman. Steve McQueen was the name at the bottom of his list, in seventh position," says Richard Sydenham, the British-based author of Steve McQueen: The Cooler King - His Life Through His Movie Career.

With The Great Escape, in 1963, though, McQueen had become a fully fledged Hollywood superstar - and Wise's preferred choice for the role.

Anything I ever did wrong I paid for in Taiwan. I just hope something good comes out of it.
Steve McQueen

 

 

The Sand Pebbles is more than McQueen in an action-adventure romp and, despite the inevitable Western bias of a Hollywood movie of that era, it says more intelligent things about China and its relationship with the West than most mainstream movies that deal with the subject have since. No expense was spared in recreating 20s China. Lavish sets built in Taiwan recreated the urban charisma of Shanghai and the natural splendour of the upper Yangtze was imagined in the sheltered waters of Sai Kung. If you'd been visiting one of the godowns off Canton Road 50 years ago this week, you could have imagined yourself on a Hankow dock in 1926.

"The film was in the blockbuster bracket with its eventual US$12 million budget costs," says Sydenham, and although McQueen is more commonly associated with The Magnificent Seven and The Thomas Crown Affair, many critics agree The Sand Pebbles was one of his finest screen performances. It was the only one for which he was nominated for an Academy Award.

"Whenever people ask me about my favourite Steve McQueen movies I always find it hard to place any of his films higher than Papillon [1973], but The Sand Pebbles is, in my opinion, either his equal best work or a close second of his career," says Sydenham.

IN LATE MARCH,THE LARGE FILM crew began arriving from Taiwan, where they had been since the autumn of 1965. At a press conference on March 23, McQueen told reporters that he had not liked Taiwan very much, that filming there had been "very trying" and that he was happy to be in Hong Kong. The first movie location shoot ever attempted in Taiwan had been personally approved by Chiang Kai-shek and, although scheduled for 12 weeks, it had dragged on for eight months, through the miserable Taiwanese winter of 1965-66.

"Anything I ever did wrong," McQueen later confessed, "I paid for in Taiwan. I just hope something good comes out of it."

The movie was already over budget by the time Wise, McQueen and Bergen arrived with the rest of the cast in Hong Kong; publicity director Ted Taylor told the South China Morning Post the same month that the movie had cost its producers an extra US$1.5 million already.

"The film is now six weeks behind schedule and we are hoping for better weather," said Taylor, referring to the fact that the San Pablo, which had been specially constructed for the movie at a Kowloon shipyard (contradictory sources name the yard as belonging to either Cheoy Lee, Vaughn & Yung Engineering or Pacific Islands Shipbuilding) and launched by Miss Hong Kong Joy Drake, was still weather-bound in Taiwan. The seaworthy warship-cum-floating-film-set eventually arrived on March 31, after a passage so stormy, according to a crew member of the Philippine tug boat that towed the ship, he had been unable to eat for three days.

As wild and unconventional as he seems, basically he is just an old-fashioned man
Neile Adams, McQueen's wife

 

 

The 150-foot "American gunboat", skippered by a Chinese Nationalist naval officer (who did not appear onscreen), raised more than a few eyebrows while cruising around Hong Kong Island, Lantau and Sai Kung. The thick black smoke belching from its funnel was cosmetic, created by a special effects furnace below decks.

Unlike the rest of the cast and crew, McQueen could at least be with his family while in Asia, a condition stipulated in his contract, probably at the insistence of his wife, former Broadway star Neile Adams. They lived together in a villa near Taipei while in Taiwan and, during the eight-week stay in Hong Kong, their six-year-old daughter, Terry, attended the Maryknoll Convent School, in Kowloon Tong. Son Chad, then five, stayed with his mother in their hotel.

While McQueen was engaged in large-scale maritime warfare scenes in Tung Chung and Sai Kung, Adams gave a revealing interview to reporter Jane Crocker, of the South China Sunday Post-Herald, published on April 17.

"As wild and unconventional as he seems, basically he is just an old-fashioned man," Adams said, and Crocker stated that having spent "considerable time" with the McQueens, she thought that Adams was a "stabiliser for her husband, who tends towards the romantic side of life".

Less sympathetic observers might have described the moody actor as a chauvinist and hypocrite who demanded total loyalty from friends and family members but who, it was frequently said, did not have a monogamous bone in his body. It is a subject that was alluded to later in the interview, after Crocker had resorted to classic understatement: "from the average woman's perspective, McQueen would probably be a difficult man to live with".

"I don't worry about other women, if I did, I would get old before my time," said Adams, going on to explain that because her husband's parents had divorced at an early age and he had been brought up by his great uncle, he had very puritanical views about some things.

Steve was the archetypal man's man and always preferred to hang with the stuntmen than his co-stars or writers, producers. They were his kind of people, who loved a beer and maybe fun with the local girls.
Richard Sydenham, author 

 

 

Adams, herself, had had a troubled childhood. She was born in Manila, in the Philippines, and her English-Chinese father (the maternal great-grandfather of Spanish singer Enrique Iglesias) was shot and killed by the Japanese during the second world war. Neile was incarcerated with her Spanish-Filipino mother by the Japanese and was injured by shrapnel in the liberation of Manila before briefly attending school in Hong Kong, then being taken to the United States by her mother.

McQueen's reputation as a drinking, fighting, womanising spoilt brat preceded the actor to Hong Kong but the reality was more complex. He was also a dedicated father and there is disagreement about just how wild McQueen was during this period.

"Steve was the archetypal man's man and always preferred to hang with the stuntmen than his co-stars or writers, producers," says Sydenham, who has interviewed many of McQueen's Sand Pebbles co-stars. "They were his kind of people, who loved a beer and maybe fun with the local girls. But while Steve could be a hell-raiser, his reputation sometimes preceded him, somewhat unfairly."

In her autobiography, Bergen claimed McQueen got into brawls and was up to mischief frequently with his hell-raising buddies while on location but a co-star in Taiwan and Hong Kong, Joe Turkel (who plays seaman Bronson), saw things differently.

"Every day we worked together he was always on time, he was always sober, he always knew his lines and he was always ready to work," Turkel told Sydenham.

Actor Steve Ferry, a friend of both Bergen and McQueen, refuted her charges that the film star fought with locals.

"In all the time I knew Steve, he got in one fight. That was in Hong Kong. He was in a club and some guy gave him the movie star routine and followed Steve into the john. McQueen punched him out and left him there," recounted Ferry, to Marshall Terrill, author of the McQueen biography Portrait of an American Rebel.

If McQueen was the undisputed star of the movie, as recognised by his handsome US$650,000 fee, the specially commissioned San Pablo was equally critical to its success. At US$250,000, it was at the time the most expensive prop ever built for a movie and was based on the USS Villalobos, a Spanish ship seized during the Spanish-American war (April 1898 to August 1898) and drafted into service in the Far East, where it sank in 1929, off the Philippines.

The Hong Kong-built San Pablo was central to the dramatic climactic battle scene, set in the upper reaches of the Yangtze. As Philip Kenny notes in his movie blog, Hong Kong (& Macau) Film Stuff, the scene was filmed near what is now High Island Reservoir. This was the biggest set-piece of the film and took six weeks to complete. Pressed into action was a supporting armada of 35 motor boats and barges as the San Pablo battled 30 junks and sampans connected by a 300 metre bamboo and hemp cable weighing some 25 tonnes, which formed a barrier across the ship's path.

In all the time I knew Steve, he got in one fight. That was in Hong Kong. He was in a club and some guy gave him the movie star routine and followed Steve into the john. McQueen punched him out and left him there
Steve Ferry, actor

 

 

A short documentary film featuring scenes from the battle and narrated by Richard Attenborough, the British actor who played machinist's mate Frenchy in The Sand Pebbles, has survived and makes for fascinating viewing on YouTube. It also shows footage of a lion dance onboard the San Pablo as McQueen and the film crew celebrate the two Oscars - for best director and best movie - that were awarded to Wise-directed film The Sound of Music on April 19, 1966, as the battle was being filmed in Sai Kung waters.

The scenery was central but Kenny points to another important local contribution to The Sand Pebbles.

"Several veteran Hong Kong film stunt people were employed as stuntmen on the production, including Tong Kai, Lau Kar-leung and Tsui Chung-hok and, of course, Paul Chun Pui [the Shaw Brothers actor and brother of David Chiang] had a small role as a Chinese soldier," he says, before explaining how their American counterparts influenced the local daredevils by making their reactions to punches more realistic and using trampolines.

Few in Hong Kong would have predicted during filming that The Sand Pebbles would become such a success but it was nominated for eight Academy Awards and eight Golden Globe Awards, with Attenborough winning the Golden Globe for best supporting actor. Despite being nominated, McQueen missed out on the best actor Oscar to Paul Scofield ( A Man for All Seasons).

On screen, Holman is a man of courage who, sickened by the killing, feels he can take no more, so plans to run away with Eckert into the Chinese interior.

"Jake, we can have a good life there," implores Bergen's character, but Holman's commanding officer is not so enthusiastic about his sudden career change.

"Do you know what this is? Desertion in the face of the enemy," he is told by Crenna's character.

"I ain't got no more enemies," replies Holman. "Shove off, captain."

This rebellious anti-war sentiment informed some of McQueen's own views on the Vietnam war, which was raging at the time. "It was a travesty that Steve did not win the Academy Award after receiving the only nomination of his career," says Sydenham. "But McQueen upset people along the way and anti-establishment rebels like him did not always get what they deserved when it came to industry recognition."

On May 15, 1966, McQueen left with his family for London, according to an article in the following day's South China Morning Post, to begin working on the motor-racing movie Day of the Champion. The truth, however, was that, because The Sand Pebbles had run over schedule, the James Garner-starring Grand Prix was much further down the road than Day of the Champion, and it had been decided there was no commercial benefit in releasing two similar movies at the same time. Much to his chagrin, Day of the Champion was canned while McQueen was still in Hong Kong.

The star returned instead to California, and threatened that The Sand Pebbles would be his last movie. He changed his mind, of course, and went on to make several more successful films before he died from a rare form of lung cancer, at the age of 50.

And what became of the San Pablo? After filming, it appears she was used as a dormitory vessel by an American construction company that was building infrastructure behind the front lines in Vietnam and was then sold to the De Long Timber Co, in the Philippines, which renamed her Nola D. By the early 70s she was being used as accommodation by a seismic survey company in Tarakan, Indonesia, until, in 1975, she was taken to Singapore to be broken up. The engine that McQueen worked on is now housed in the SS Lane Victory, a ship-cum-museum in Los Angeles.

McQueen gave perhaps his best performance aboard the San Pablo but, like Hong Kong itself, his inanimate co-star was quickly forgotten as the Hollywood juggernaut moved on.