The Sand Pebbles Review

Set in revolution-ravaged China in 1926, The Sand Pebbles is an epic high-seas adventure mixing romance, racism and action. Directed by Oscar winning director Robert Wise, who had just finished The Sound Of Music. The Sand Pebbles was based on a novel by Richard McKenna, and was nominated for a number of Oscars including Best Picture.

Engineer Jake Holman (Steve McQueen) arrives aboard the gunboat U.S.S. San Pablo in 1926. The gunboat has been assigned to patrol the Yangtze river, and Holman is anxious to renew his relationship with a powerful engine. However, he is dismayed to find that aboard the San Pablo a hierarchical 'rice-bowl' system has been put into practice, in which the American naval soldiers stand and watch whilst a sub-level group of Chinese men man the ship. Holman through a series of mishaps becomes regarded as a 'jonah' amongst his fellow crew members, and has to keep his wits about him both on board the ship and off it considering the Chinese political upheaval that is occurring.

The Sand Pebbles is a bloated, sloppy epic that struggles to justify its extraordinary length. Maybe this is being slightly unfair to the film, because there are a number of different versions, in which the running times for each are different. This version lasts for one hundred and seventy nine minutes and is complete with overture and intermission cues, and yet it still feels as if it has been edited in a chunky fashion; suggesting that many scenes have been chopped to ease the running time. This is unfortunate, as the film certainly could have worked had the narrative been given time to flourish. It's obvious that the story had a strong structure, and yet it feels compromised and weak when brought to the big screen.

Although Steve McQueen and Richard Attenborough are the two main stars of the film, you can sense almost immediately that Richard Attenborough's character Frenchy has been heavily trimmed, including his spin-off romantic interlude with Maily (Emmanuelle Arsan). In their efforts to condense The Sand Pebbles into a three hour movie, Fox have released a film that looks expensively wasted. Sequences come and go that make little scene, and the dramatic impetus for the film is often juggled around with and maintained at an inconsistent level.

These criticism aside, The Sand Pebbles is a tremendous mid-sixties spectacle that exhibits many moments of cinematic craftsmanship. Director Robert Wise, probably one of the most important directors of the decade, certainly knows how to handle epic productions, and there is no doubt that the film would have ended up in a far worse state had any other man been at the helm. The history surrounding the film has always claimed it to be a troubled production, citing difficulties such as earthquakes, severe storms, hotel fires and budget-over-runs as events that threatened production. Robert Wise has always maintained that The Sand Pebbles was the most difficult production he ever worked on. There is an excellent website that deals with every element of the film and provides anyone interested in the story of The Sand Pebbles with a splendid wealth of information.

Performance wise, Steve McQueen is quite good as Holman, considering he was still regarded as an up-and-coming star. Despite playing a number of iconic heroes over the years, The Sand Pebbles was the only film in which McQueen would be nominated for an Oscar. McQueen is typically charismatic as the loner-hero of the story, although maybe Fox studios would have been better off with their first choice Paul Newman. Richard Crenna and Richard Attenborough provide acceptable support, and it's possible that Crenna was unduly overlooked for an Oscar nomination. He clearly provides a better performance than Mako, portrayer of Engine room coolie Po-Han. Mako's Oscar nomination seems a token gesture by the Academy in an attempt to illustrate their lack of racist selection procedures. Candice Bergen, appearing in only her second film, seems underused and slightly pointless.

Apart from a few instances of decidedly murky cinematography, the production values of the film are first-rate, ranging from Jerry Goldsmith's fine score to Boris Leven's production design. Because of difficulties associated with shooting in China, the production was instead filmed on location in Tai-wan and Hong-Kong, and doesn't suffer, with cinematographer Joseph MacDonald still managing to provide the film with some attractive locales and some stunning imagery.

Maybe the full version of The Sand Pebbles (apparently claimed to be missing by Fox) restores the film to a classic status. However, this version, despite weighing in at just under three hours, is laboured, messy and a small indication of the enormous potential the film could have unlocked. Rather than became the most significant work of Robert Wise, the film has quickly become ignored in favour of his better efforts.

Academy Awards 1966

Academy Award Nominations 1966
Best Picture
Best Actor - Steve McQueen
Best Supporting Actor - Mako
Best Original Score - Jerry Goldsmith
Best Art Direction - William Kiernan, Boris Leven, Walter M. Scott, John Sturtevant
Best Cinematography - Joseph MacDonald
Best Film Editing - William Reynolds
Best Sound - James Corcoran

Presented in anamorphic 2.35:1 widescreen, the picture quality of the transfer is mostly splendid, with fine sharp colour tones and a decent lack of any digital artefact traces. On occasions, the print suffers from a slightly gloomy exterior, but this is probably the fault of torrential weather that occurred during the production.

Presented in four-channel surround stereo, the sound quality is very good for a film more than thirty-five years old. Dialogue is given ferocious use of spatial channelling, and the sound effects are given a dynamic channel range when it comes to the more action-orientated sequences of the film.

Menu: A silent, static menu that aims to stylish comprise of promotional stills taken during the production.

Packaging: Presented in a transparent amaray casing complete with a decidedly minimalist front-cover and chapter listings printed on the reverse of the inlay.


Audio Commentary With Robert Wise, Richard Crenna, Candice Bergen & Mako: This is an interesting commentary track in which the participants' comments have been recorded separately but edited together to form one track. Because of the length of the film, this is an inspired idea, as it ensures that this commentary track never suffers from bouts of long pauses or participants struggling to find new things to say. Robert Wise offers much background information regarding how the film came to the screen, and Candice Bergen talks briefly about her views on the film and how she found Steve McQueen very enigmatic whilst working with him. Crenna and Mako seem very proud of the film and discuss their own personal experiences of making it.

Theatrical Trailer: The trailer is presented in anamorphic 2.35:1 widescreen but isn't in very good shape. It presents the film as an ambitious epic, but obviously doesn't highlight its failings.

Radio Documentaries: Two radio documentaries are featured. They last for a total of over twenty minutes and are narrated by Richard Attenborough. Whilst they do not beat a visual documentary, they are interesting to anyone wishing to study how the film was regarded during its production. Subjects discussed range from the problems associated with making the film to the difficulties associated with featuring what was then the largest cinematic prop ever used in the San Pablo ship.

Radio Spots: Three radio spots are featured, and again are relics of 1966 and thus hold the film in a 'promoting' light. They each last for approximately thirty seconds.

Stills Gallery: A good, concise collection of fourteen photographs taken behind-the-scenes during the production. The stills are accessible via user navigation.


The technical aspects of this Sand Pebbles DVD are very impressive, with good picture, sound and extras quality. However, unfortunately the film isn't the longest or indeed the best version available, so consumers face the tough decision of having to wait for the better version or to assume that Fox will only stick with this chopped edition.

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