This film, along with The Great Escape, established Steve McQueen as a major star, but it is much more than a vehicle for McQueen. This is a wonderful story of the intersection between Western culture and Old China, in the period when China was seeking to emerge as a modern nation.
This is the story of one Jake Holman, a sailor in the American gunboat navy in China. The Navy's mission is to protect American/Western missionaries, businessmen, their lives and property. Holman serves on the USS San Pablo, known to her crew as the "Sand Pebble." Holman has a passion for engines, and sought to serve on the Sand Pebble on the notion that his engineering expertise would make him valuable and autonomous aboard. Instead, he learns that each American sailor has a Chinese servant who actually performs all of that sailor's routine duties. Holman is thus effectively prevented from performing his engineering role. Nor are the Chinese, untrained in engineering and acting by wrote, able to safely handle the ship's power plant. An undercurrent to the story is Holman's struggle to get control of the management of the ship's antiquated but essential engines.
Holman's struggles to establish his place on the ship take place against the panorama of a China seeking to throw off foreign domination and become a modern nation-state. This is the larger story, effectively presented in this excellent film.
This film is a reasonably faithful adaptation of the bestselling novel of the same name. The cinamatography is superb, and the DVD appears to be a pretty good transfer from the original film. Recommended.