Starring: Steve McQueen, Richard Attenborough, Richard Crenna, Candice Bergen
Director: Robert Wise
Video: 2.35:1 anamorphic/enhanced for 16:9, color, 1080p HD
Audio: DTS HD Master Audio 5.1, English DD 4.0, French/Spanish Mono
Extras: Deleted Scenes, Commentary, Featurettes, Trailer, Isolated Music Track
Subtitles: English, Spanish, Cantonese, Korean
Length: 179 minutes
The Sand Pebbles is Robert Wise’s classic 1966 film that chronicles the story of Jack Holman (Steve McQueen), a Navy machinist who’s been transferred to the U.S.S. San Pablo, a gunboat in action on the Yangtze River in 1920’s China. Holman has requested the transfer to the smaller craft, in hope that with fewer officers on board, there’ll be very little interference, and he’ll be free to quietly do his job. On the way to his post, he encounters a group of American missionaries; among them is a school teacher (played by Candace Bergen), and a spark obviously develops between the two. Upon arrival at the San Pablo, he’s introduced to his crewmates, who refer to themselves as “sand pebbles,” and he soon discovers that all is not as he had quite planned. The American ship sails the Yangtze as a show of force and to offer protection to U.S. nationals living and working in China. The San Pablo is crewed, however, by Chinese workers, and there’s a very tricky arrangement with their handlers, and an even more tenuous relationship with the American sailors. Holman, while not too happy with the arrangement, soon comes to accept it, even though he frequently butts heads with his superiors, including the ship’s captain (played by Richard Crenna). While the American sailors are pretty content with their constant battle drills and raucous shore leave routines, a growing climate of unrest in China with the Nationalists and Communists soon leads them into an unavoidable confrontation. While the movie essentially tells Holman’s story, it delves into a host of other issues, including nationalism, racism and revolution.
This superb film garnered eight academy award nominations, with Steve McQueen winning the lone statue for Best Actor. He’s excellent as Jack Holman, and gives his character a depth and complexity that belies the seemingly unpretentious façade that he displays to his shipmates. His fellows remain content to go through the motions, all the time looking down upon the Chinese, especially those who essentially perform all the shipboard labor. Jack Holman begins to understand the complicated reasons for the discontent of the Chinese, but as the chaos builds, his shipmates begin to regard him as a Jonah, and begin to hang responsibility for their troubles on his arrival on the ship.
The Blu-ray package is part of Fox’s recent crop of excellent war releases, which also included Patton and The Longest Day. Like each of those films, this disc sports a superb transfer of both image and sound; Jerry Goldsmith’s magnificent score gets an incredibly good DTS Master Audio treatment. While the movie is very dialogue driven, the constant presence of the music gives the film a quality of surround envelopment that made for a really enjoyable three-hour watch. There’s a really great Telarc SACD that features the late Jerry Goldsmith conducting his own scores, and my favorite track on that excellent disc is a medley that includes the two main themes from The Sand Pebbles. When this disc opens, the screen is blank, and there’s an entr’acte that features a few minutes of the score; the sound is so glorious and with such tremendous transient impact, I’d have sworn I was listening to the Telarc SACD! The image quality is likewise also first-rate, with superb contrast, a realistic color palette and a very film-like visual presentation, right up there with Patton, and one of the very best of Fox’s recent classic catalog releases.
There’s also an exceptional selection of bonus materials, including an excellent commentary track that features director Robert Wise, as well as Richard Crenna and numerous other principals involved in the film. I truly was not looking forward to devoting nearly three hours to this film, but its time passed all too quickly. Very highly recommended!
— Tom Gibbs