A disquieting, ambitious film of immense scope married to subtle poignancies, Robert Wise’s The Sand Pebbles (1966) is a war melodrama with few equals. Based on Richard McKenna’s best seller, the story is centralized in China circa 1920; a turbulent paradise plagued by political strife and home grown revolutions between opposing loyalists on either side.
Into this turbulent mixture come outside forces with hidden agendas; the British, the Americans and the missionaries (the former only referred to, the latter merely touched upon and the central, the focus of our story) – each superficially dedicated to bringing peace to the Far East; though at what price?
The screenplay by Robert Anderson remains relatively faithful to McKenna’s book. China’s political climate circa 1960s precluded director Wise and his company from shooting on actual locations. Hence, Taiwan and Hong Kong are stand-ins for the Yangtze. Nevertheless, the set dressings by Boris Levin and sumptuous cinematography from Joseph MacDonald are quite successful at recapturing a ‘fake realism’ for both the region and the period in which the story takes place.
The film opens with the arrival of engineer Jake Holman (Steve McQueen) aboard the USS San Pablo – a patrolling American vessel overseen by the ineffectual Capt. Collins (Richard Crenna). Holman is an unassuming loner who prefers the company of steam pistons and crank shafts to his fellow crewmates, though eventually he develops a friendship with first mate, Frenchy (Richard Attenborough).
Holman’s relations on board are strained with his Chinese engine crew who all but run the internal machinery of the San Pablo. After the chief engineer is killed in an accident, both the American and Chinese crew regards Holman as a curse. Perhaps in part to lessen these tensions, Holman promotes one of the Chinese, Po-Han (Mako) to chief engineer and then spends the first half of the patrol training Po in his general maintenance duties.
A rather awkward romance blossoms between Holman and missionary Shirley Eckart (Candice Bergan) who is stationed at a mission near China Light. At the same time, Frenchy has begun to favor his affections on Maily (Emmanuella Arsan), a captive in the brothel of corrupt Oriental pimp, Victor Shu (James Hong). After bidding for her freedom, Frenchy and Maily escape Shu’s wrath and are secretly married. Their joy together, however, is short lived.
Threatened with retaliation from the marauding forces of Chiang-Kai-Shek, the crew is confined to the San Pablo for the duration of their journey. Po-Han is captured and quartered by revolutionaries, forcing Holman to shoot him before the torture is completed. This mercenary act brands Holman a murderer in the eyes of the Chinese and very nearly results in a mutiny aboard the San Pablo.
There is much more to this lengthy narrative, best left absent from this review for the first time viewer to discover. In hindsight, the most impressive aspect of the film is its pictorial backdrop – starkly contrasted and conflicting cultures caught in maelstrom of danger and intrigue. The most outstanding performance in the film belongs to McQueen – a sustained tour de force that, perhaps, more than mirrors the actor’s own aloof nature.
On set, McQueen briefly clashed with Wise – resulting in a two week stalemate between director and star that ended only after McQueen saw the rushes from the footage already shot and deemed Wise a genius. Inclement weather and repeated delays caused the originally budgeted and scheduled nine week location shoot to balloon into nine months, a staggering oversight that sunk Fox Studios more deeply into the red following the disastrous release of Cleopatra (1963).
In the last analysis, The Sand Pebbles emerges as one of the major grand exercises in old time epic film making. No expense has been spared. Built expressly for the film by Vaughn and Jung in Hong Kong from the keel up at a cost of $200,000 (then a considerable sum), the San Pablo is a fully functional sea faring vessel.
Some two thousand costumes were either created or assembled for this production, representing an eclectic melding of American, Cantonese and Mandarin styles. Existing streets and structures were refitted with convincing facades to resurrect the look and feel of 1920s China. In all then, The Sand Pebbles is elephantine and impressive – a must see spectacle with an engaging story to propel its 3 hr. plus running time.
Fox Home Video’s Blu-Ray easily bests its previously issued and lavishly appointed 2 disc DVD released as part of their Cinema Classics Collection. Curiously, the 196 min. road show edition (included on the DVD) is absent from the Blu-Ray, though all of the deleted scenes are offered as extras on the Blu-Ray.
On the Blu-Ray: the 183 min. version exhibits extremely vibrant colors, stunning clarity and a considerable amount of fine detail throughout. Superior color fidelity, solid contrast levels, accurately rendered flesh tones and a minor smattering of film grain mark a near flawless presentation. The audio is 5.1 lossless and exhibits remarkable clarity, though it retains a strident tinny echo during battle sequences.
Extras are direct imports from the Cinema Classics DVD and include two comprehensive audio commentaries and an isolated track showcasing Jerry Goldsmith’s superlative score. Also included is the rather choppy 6 part documentary on the making of the film, two incongruously edited tributes to Robert Wise and Steve McQueen and a litany of vintage extras from the Fox Vaults – trailers, stills, press kits and radio spots.
What is missing from the Blu-Ray are all of the collectible extras featured with the DVD; these include lobby cards, a brief historical summary and the reproduction of the film’s original press kit. Nevertheless, the Blu-Ray comes highly recommended for its superior video presentation of the film itself.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)