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20th Century Fox presents
The Sand Pebbles (1966)

"I was home. What happened? What the hell happened?"
- Jake Holman (Steve McQueen)

Review By: Dale Dobson  
Published: May 12, 2001

Stars: Steve McQueen, Richard Attenborough
Other Stars: Richard Crenna, Candice Bergen, Mako
Director: Robert Wise

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for violence and sexual material
Run Time: 03h:02m:22s
Release Date: May 15, 2001
UPC: 024543013082
Genre: war

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer
A AA-A- A-

DVD Review

In 1926 China, a United States Navy crew pilots an aging warship along the Yangtze River as a visible "reminder" of American military might. The name of the boat is the U.S.S. San Pablo, and her men call themselves The Sand Pebbles. When naval engineer Jake Holman (Steve McQueen) arrives for duty aboard the San Pablo, he discovers a shipboard culture dependent on its Chinese crew, who do much of the work but get little respect from his fellow Americans. While Holman trains Cho-jen (Paul Chinpae) to replace a man accidentally killed in the engine room, his shipmate Frenchy (Richard Attenborough) falls in love with Maily (Marayat Adriane), a Chinese woman ransomed to crime lord Victor Shu (James Hong). As cultural upheaval seizes China during Chiang Kai-Shek's rise to power, the small Naval unit finds itself the target of anti-foreigner sentiment. In the face of diplomatic and military uncertainty, Captain Collins (Richard Crenna) orders his crew to take the San Pablo through a river blockade to rescue teacher Shirley Eckert (Candice Bergen) and missionary Mr. Jameson (Larry Gates).

The Sand Pebbles was a "roadshow" picture, a three-hour film presented with an Overture, an Intermission and the showmanship associated with theatrical epics of the 1960s. But the film is decidedly more human in scale than many of its peers, focusing its attention on the story of Holman and the people he comes to know in China. Robert Anderson's literate adaptation of Richard McKenna's novel makes a number of points about the human costs of war, without seeming preachy (though its prescience is impressive, given the direction the Vietnam conflict would take a few years later). Robert Wise's direction calls his The Day the Earth Stood Still to mind more than his successful musicals, perhaps because there are some thematic similarities here.

Wise employs a cast of veterans to good effect. Steve McQueen was nominated for an Academy Award® for his portrayal of Jake Holman, an efficient but amoral sailor who finds his center under duress. Richard Crenna is suitably commanding as Captain Collins; actor/director Richard Attenborough turns in a sensitive, moving performance as Frenchy, a good man betrayed by political circumstances; and Mako impresses as a student leader torn between his American friends and the Cultural Revolution. Some new faces make themselves welcome as well, including Candice Bergen (in her second screen role at age 19) as Shirley Eckert, a good-hearted teacher attracted to Holman, and Paul Chinpae as a young Chinese man whose mechanical skill cannot save him from the revolutionaries. Marayat Andriane portrays Maily as an intelligent, elegant woman held hostage by financial and cultural circumstances (cult film buffs will note that the actress is also known as Emmanuelle Arsan, author of the famous novel Emmanuelle: The Joys of a Woman that inspired the series of softcore sex movies!) The Asian actors are too often given pidgin English to speak, but looks, gestures and sheer screen time make it clear that Wise recognized and respected the contributions of every member of his cast.

The physical production also impresses, with a tolerance for detail that firmly anchors the story in reality (though pacing occasionally suffers as a result). Much of the film was shot on the water aboard a floating, full-sized version of the San Pablo, large crowds of extras populate the bustling Changsha Bund (actually filmed in Taiwan), and the movie benefits from convincingly authentic period production design by Boris Leven. The cinematography is often gorgeous, with Panavision sunsets and long shots of ships at sea that stir the emotions and please the eye.

But The Sand Pebbles is not solely dependent on its visual splendor and talented performers. It depicts the senseless tragedies that ensue when two cultures clash over ideology and nationalistic concerns, forever altering the lives of people to whom these issues never would have mattered. A solid story first and foremost, The Sand Pebbles raises questions rarely addressed by big-budget war movies on this scale; its willingness to challenge rather than pander is deserving of praise, and the execution is nearly flawless.

Rating for Style: A
Rating for Substance: A


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio2.35:1 - Widescreen
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: The Sand Pebbles is presented in its original 2.35:1 Panavision widescreen theatrical aspect ratio, with an excellent anamorphic transfer drawn from a clean source print (a few dirt flecks aside). Detail is crisp, color is naturalistic, and the dual-layer digital transfer captures the film's epic cinematography and expansive depth-of-field with no distracting digital artifacts. I can't imagine this late-1960s film looking much better than it does here—not quite in the same stunning league as Cleopatra, but definitely up to current DVD standards.

Image Transfer Grade: A-


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
DS 2.0Englishyes
Dolby Digital

Audio Transfer Review: Fox presents The Sand Pebbles in several audio formats—English Dolby Digital 4.0, English 2.0 Stereo, and French 2.0 mono. The '4.0' mix would more correctly be labeled a 3.0 presentation, as the rear channel stays silent throughout, but the soundtrack is nicely spread across the front soundstage, with highly directional dialogue and an excellent presentation of Jerry Goldsmith's majestic, Asian-influenced score. There's some momentary distortion and popping here and there due to recording technology limitations of the day, but the rich, layered soundtrack sounds quite modern and is well-captured here. The 2.0 track is not as crisp or as well-separated as the 4.0 version, but it's still solid in the spirit of the original roadshow presentation. The French mono dubbed soundtrack is dynamically limited, though the French voices are well-cast, sounding similar to the original actors in most cases. The 4.0 track is the preferred presentation.

Audio Transfer Grade: A-


Disc Extras

Static menu
Scene Access with 36 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English, Spanish with remote access
1 Original Trailer(s)
1 Feature/Episode commentary by director Robert Wise, stars Candice Bergen, Mako, Richard Crenna, Paul Chinpae
Packaging: Amaray
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: RSDL
Layers Switch: 01h:32m:40s

Extra Extras:
  1. Audio Documentary—Changsha Bund and the Streets of Taipei
  2. Audio Documentary—A Ship Called San Pablo
  3. 3 Radio Spots
  4. Still Gallery
Extras Review: Fox supports The Sand Pebbles with 36 picture-menu chapter stops, English and Spanish subtitles, a layer-change nicely placed at the Intermission, and a substantial batch of extras:

Theatrical Trailer:

The film's theatrical trailer is presented in 2.35:1 anamorphic, Dolby 2.0 mono format, transferred from a dated source print with some damage and persistent scratches. The marketing campaign ties The Sand Pebbles to Wise's earlier hits, The Sound of Music and West Side Story, though this non-musical production would seem to appeal to a different audience.

Radio Spots:

Three brief radio spots allow us a glimpse at the film's original promotional campaign ("In Panavision!")

Still Gallery:

Thirteen behind-the-scenes color photographs are presented, mostly focusing on Wise manning the picture's helm. They can be stepped through using the DVD remote, no auto-play feature is provided.

Changsha Bund and the Streets of Taipei Audio Documentary:

An interesting radio documentary, produced during the film's production in the mid-1960s. The program focuses on the extras and Assistant Directors initially, segueing into a more general look at the city of Taipei, Taiwan (standing in for China). It's a nicely produced documentary in the BBC/NPR style, with authentic, atmospheric sound and well-written copy.

A Ship Called SAN PABLO Audio Documentary:

A second behind-the-scenes radio documentary in the same style, discussing the floating set of the San Pablo, the weather, wind and boat problems that complicated production, and the personnel involved, with brief sound bites from Robert Wise, Steve McQueen, and Candice Bergen.

Director and Cast Commentary:

A substantial commentary track features contributions (not always screen-specific) from director Robert Wise and stars Candice Bergen, Mako, Richard Crenna, and Paul Chinpae (more than advertised on the keepcase). Memories of the difficult physical production and of Steve McQueen provide insightful and entertaining material, and the number of people involved keeps the three-hour track moving along, minus a break for the intermission.

Extras Grade: A-


Final Comments

The Sand Pebbles is an epic anti-war picture, featuring an all-star cast under the direction of the great Robert Wise. Fox's DVD presents this classic film with an excellent transfer and substantial supplements, making for an excellent package all around. Recommended.


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