Jim Fritz - Recollections of The Sand Pebbles

(Editor's note: Jim's recollections were originally posted May 2002)

Robert Wise and Jim Fritz

I happened to stumble on to your website as I was looking for some additional material about the movie. I had recently purchased a DVD copy and it re-kindled my interest in the film.

I retired from Cummins Engine Company in 1998 as Director-Marketing Communications after 36 years with the company. I believe it was either late 1965 or early 1966 that I received a phone call from a public relations person employed by our Los Angeles Cummins Distributorship. He was a former Navy man and had called to tell me that not too long ago they had sold a pair of C-180M Cummins marine engines to Solar Productions at Fox. The folks at Solar had contacted the distributor to see if Cummins would be interested in making a film about the use of our products in the boat. They were then producing the other documentary you reference to on your website. I told him that I thought there might be a possibility that we would be interested since I knew this film was a major production and carried a most impressive list of actors. He recalled the studio and they suggested that I come out to see them as soon as possible. That Spring my wife and I drove our new Corvette from Indiana to Los Angeles. My wife and I had a meeting with the Solar folks along with the L.A. distributor person on the lot at 20th Century. They wanted something in the neighborhood of 10-15 grand to take all the footage already in the can and edit out a movie for our use. I had a better idea! Since this film was to be sold on a "Road Show" basis, that is with all theatre seats sold in advance like a Broadway play, I knew they wanted all the hype they could muster ahead of the opening. Cummins made marine engines for pleasure as well as work boats and so I took a look at our shows and exhibit schedule of marine shows (I was in charge of this area as well) and told them that we would be showing our products in the New York Boat Show at the same time the film was opening in New York. The same was true in Miami and Chicago as we had boat shows there as well. I suggested that if they would just produce the film for us at no charge I would see that it was exhibited in all our marine shows as well as building a special exhibit backwall that would highlight the movie as well as plug Cummins role in it. After some discussion they agreed to do so. When the meeting was over they ask if we would like a tour of 20th and since they didn't offer tours at Fox to the general public in those days we said "yes!".

We not only got a great tour but we were taken onto the set of The Sand Pebbles and I got to stand behind Robert Wise as he directed Steve McQueen and others in an action scene. This is the scene where Jake comes ashore to get Frenchy and take him back to the boat as he is AWOL. Jake is jumped by some of the locals and the scene lasts about a minute and a half in the movie. This was their second complete day trying to shoot this short scene!

No wonder this film ran so far over budget! As I remember the original budget was 8 mil. They told us and it finally ended up costing something like 12 mil. McQueen was a partner in Solar Productions along with others. I had met McQueen briefly in the late 1950's when I was working in an imported car business in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida and he came in with his first wife and a new Austin Healy 100 (red) that they had just purchased and driven down to Florida from New York for a short vacation. He had just appeared live on a 90 minute Playhouse 90 drama on TV (black & white) which impressed me with his performance so I knew who he was when I first saw him.

We didn't make contact on the set that day and I doubt that he even knew anyone else was on the set except the crew since this was a closed set. Later, after the picture had opened in New York we received an invitation to attend a premiere party to be held at The Athletic Club in Indianapolis prior to it's premier there. Robert Wise (a native Hoosier) was to be the guest of honor, so the head of the Marketing Group and I attended the event, got to speak to Wise at some length and had our picture taken with him, which I still have.

We decided to call our short film "The Secret of the San Pablo" as it pointed out that while steam engines were used in the original gunboat, the new boat had diesels. The smoke was produced by a smoke machine they had on board. Our selling point in our film was the fact that since shooting costs exceeded 50 grand a day (sounds like nothing today!) they couldn't afford "sick" engines so for that reason they choose Cummins. The film included a lot of footage from the movie and the studio was kind enough to give us Richard Crenna as the host. He also does an interview with Robert Wise about the difficulities they had with the boat in making the film. I am checking with Cummins to see if we still have either a 16mm print of this short (about 15 minutes) film or if we converted it to video. I still have a 35mm print of the film in my collection. (I am a film buff and collector and have a home theatre, as well). If you or any of your associates would have interest in seeing this film or owning a copy we can see what arrangements might be possible. I just taped the "History vs. Hollywood" special on the movie which ran last night on the History Channel. As I look at the movie now, I have even more respect for it than I did at the time it was made. I find it leaves a strong impression on others including young people as well after they see it. It preaches a strong lesson about racial tolerance and learning to live with others who may be different than ouselves...something we still need to strive for in this country, to this day.

Hope you found some of this history interesting and look forward to hearing from you.

Follow-up email...

I forgot to add a couple of more interesting details about my visit to 20th Century Fox Studios. After we watched the action scene I described to you being filmed, the hosts ask us if we would like to see the set with the steam engine, used in the movie. We were all interested in that so they took us over to that area. They told us how they found the engine from an old logging camp that they believed was almost exactly like the one that powered the real gunboat in the 1930's. I made the statement "I assume it doesn't really run?" and at that point they took me around to the back of the engine to the point where the driveshaft came out of the engine. It was resting on a carved out piece of wood and you could see all the black burn marks in the wood where the shaft had been turning as they had been running it during the filming!

We were very impressed as it would have taken a lot of manhours to get the old engine back into full running order. Robert Wise had a reputation in Hollywood as a director who paid close attention to all the small details. If you look at his film "The Hinderburg" you can also see this as he even had the Hinderburg's original china recreated for the shots in the dinning room of the zepplin! Many of these props from this film are on display in Washington, I believe, the National Air and Space Museum. So when you look at "The Sand Pebbles" and the gunboat you are looking at an almost perfect recreation of the San Pablo type of ship. One other comment I remember from our meeting with the Solar folks was their mentioning that they had a party coming up soon to celebrate the "death" of Jake Holman (Steve McQueen) in the film. The reason for the party, they told us, was because they were paying McQueen so much money for each extra day of filming that it was further destroying the budget that was already way over the original estimate. This, even though McQueen was a partner in the production company! McQueen would run into these same problems when he filmed "LeMans" which was a labor of love for him as he loved racing sports cars so much. Unlike "The Sand Pebbles", "Le Mans" didn't return its investment to the backers as "The Sand Pebbles" did.

Jim Fritz 2002

Update: Sadly James (Jim) W. Fritz passed away September 17, 2012 in Jacksonville, FL. He was 82.

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