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The Sand Pebbles
Cinema Classics Collection

The Sand Pebbles
Fox Home Video
1966 / Color / 2:35 anamorphic widescreen & 2:20 anamorphic widescreen / 179 & 196 min. / Street Date June 5, 2007 / 19.98
Starring Steve McQueen, Richard Attenborough, Richard Crenna, Candice Bergen, Mako, Simon Oakland, Joe Turkel
Cinematography Joseph MacDonald
Production Designer Boris Leven
Film Editor William Reynolds
Original Music Jerry Goldsmith
Writing credits Robert Anderson from the novel by Richard McKenna
Produced and Directed by Robert Wise

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Rewritten from Savant's original The Sand Pebbles review, May 5, 2001

Robert Wise, flush from the commercial triumph of The Sound of Music, made this strongly felt Road Show film to contemplate the issue of America as a colonial power mired in the Far East. Choosing an older historical situation, the middle 1920s when unwelcome foreign flags still patrolled the rivers of China, Wise takes the familar route of presenting 'the inscrutable East' as an undecipherable riddle. The Sand Pebbles is a tragedy that falls back on the same old message: Americans just aren't themselves unless they're in the middle of a fight.


Patrolling a Chinese backwater where civil war is taking its toll on foreigners and missionaries, the gunboat San Pablo has no clear mission and has fallen into a state of lethargic indolence, with local 'coolies' doing all the work for its peacetime warriors. New ship's engineer Jake Holman (Steve McQueen) begins a chaste flirtation with idealistic missionary Shirley Eckert (Candice Bergen), while his buddy Frenchy Burgoyne (Richard Attenborough) falls hopelessly in love with Maily (Marayat Andriane), a Chinese girl marked for a life of prostitution. Local agitators use their doomed affair to spark a political incident, and the San Pablo is besieged in a locked-horns diplomatic standoff. Its humiliated commander Collins (Richard Crenna) becomes so disturbed by the ordeal, he seizes on the opportunity to fling his gunboat into a reckless military action. Jake, a loner despised by his crewmates, finds himself fighting a war he doesn't believe in.

It was certainly a bold move for Robert Wise to take on a story about colonial conflict right during the troubling and unpopular war in Vietnam. The topic doesn't lend itself to simplification, as did his earlier I Want to Live!, a compassionate but (now) possibly incorrect reading of a capital punishment case. No matter what steps Wise and his writer take to present the Chinese in a fair light, the result is still paternalistic and patronizing. Even though the script talks about Communists and Nationalists, 1966 American audiences naturally identified the film's 'treacherous' Chinese belligerents with the News Hour boogeymen Ho Chi Minh and Mao. Wise is eventually unable to make a coherent statement: the only lesson we learn is that having anything to do with Asia is a bad idea.

Everything is shown from the American point of view. The sailors endure humiliations (Navy uniforms pelted with filth, savage cruelty) that action-loving Americans readily accept as action triggers: let loose the big guns and sort out the bodies later. The tender love story between McQueen and a radiantly fresh-faced Candice Bergen, with its attendant hopes for a peaceful resolution, comes to less than nothing. All of the talk about running away to some happy place, with the Internationalist missionary pronouncing himself a stateless person, is futile. This is a war film, by damn, where two hours of frustration had better climax with a rip-roaring, sabers-out battle. In the long run, it's the Marines versus the Chinamen and nothing else matters.

The major culprit is the Road Show format. Some reserved-seat Road Show attractions had been so successful that all kinds of subjects were being stretched to three hours with an intermission. Not every film concept is Lawrence of Arabia or has a dozen dynamite musical numbers, so audiences suffered through long, limp films like Custer of the West and The Hallelujah Trail. In The Sand Pebbles, Wise's story goes for a slow pace and too many unrewarding plot sidetracks. It would play much better at a little over two hours or so, with fewer 'meaningful' slow scenes. Both Po-Han's story and Richard Attenborough's pathetic romantic are set up for easy tragedy. The Chinese use the San Pablo for false propaganda, harass Frenchy and his secret Chinese bride, and torture Po-han. Even after the picture reverts to a gung-ho battle to pick things up, it remains a depressing downer.

The imitation For Whom the Bell Tolls ending, with a heroic Steve McQueen alone in the dark, is an empty epitaph for a film that doesn't even begin to deal with its own subject matter. The Americans fail because the San Pablo is a disgrace corrupted by easy colonial living: the sailors pay Chinese coolies to do everything on board, from cleanup to laundry to shaving. They have no pride in their own boat. The irresponsible Captain Collins foolishly overreacts to every provocation and parades his weapons as if he expected the jeering mobs to take him seriously. His boat is an easy propaganda target for the clever revolutionaries.

At the time, Steve McQueen's Jake Holman personified the honest young Vietnam draftee. His sincere effort to communicate with Po-han is the picture's only successful linking with the inscrutable Asian race. Candice Bergen does a superlative job as the sweet missionary character. Richard Crenna plays the mentally constipated captain as a soldier incapable of dealing with politics. The Captain got an undeserved laugh when he draws his cutlass. The authentic detail seemed a silly anachronism in 1966 -- today the brandished sword would probably evoke cheers. Lovesick sailor Richard Attenborough does his best but his role seems a calculated Oscar bid, a la Red Buttons in Sayonara. Attenborough's extended subplot unfortunately does the most to bog down the proceedings. The rest of the cast also seem to know that they're in Something Significant, and try a little too hard, with Ford Rainey and Simon Oakland chewing the scenery. Mako has the screen time to develop his character Po-han, and comes off memorably.

The big set piece is a meticulous river battle that bristles with tension, bravado and bloody havoc. It's the kind of thing big-budget movies do best, even when they can't manage an underlying story. The parting of the river-blocking cable is a GLARING SYMBOL for the tearing apart of any hope for reconciliation between East and West. Effective it is, but like everything else in The Sand Pebbles, it burdens the film with a sense of hopelessness. The eventual message is not that we need to work on Chinese-American policy, but that communication with 'the damned Asians' is impossible. The Sand Pebbles is a perfect example of what conservatives call 'wishy washy liberalism.'

When I reviewed Fox Home Video's special edition DVD of The Sand Pebbles back in 2001, I remarked that it would be nice to see the longer Road Show version one day. This two-disc Cinema Classics Collection release presents two versions of the 1966 film. Disc one has the standard release cut and Disc two holds a transfer of the Road Show cut, thirteen minutes longer. The theatrical version is beautifully transferred, while the Road Show is severely faded to magenta.

I scanned the Road Show and identified only three wholly new scenes accounting for only six extra minutes or so. Obviously I missed some others, or existing scenes are longer and I didn't notice. At 23:58, Frenchy introduces Holman to Sew-Sew, the ship's tailor who will outfit him with tropical uniforms. At 35:44 comes the scene that shows up in some of the Sand Pebbles trailers, but it doesn't amount to much. Crusing upriver, the San Pablo exchanges shots with bandits on shore; the point being that the sailors behave as if random attacks like this one are business as usual. At 2:48:38, right in the middle of the battle approach to the river boom, a Chinese cannon shot hits the San Pablo's poop deck, and the ship halts dead in the water. It takes about three minutes to put the fire out, while both the Chinese and the Americans stop shooting. The result is an awkward interruption to the exciting battle. The pause also reveals that the scene was filmed on an ocean inlet and not in a river: when the motor stops, the boat doesn't drift downriver.

Someone with a better memory of the film can probably identify more new material. Although the Overture, Intermission and Exit music are on the standard cut, they may be shorter.

The transfer on disc one carries over the previous commentary with Robert Wise, Candice Bergen, Mako and Richard Crenna, and adds a new track that holds the isolated music score. When no music plays, the gaps are filled with commentary from Nick Redman, Jon Burlingame and screenwriter Lem Dobbs.

Disc two is a flipper. The rest of the extras are opposite the Road Show transfer. Disc producer Michael Kurcfeld assembles at least ninety minutes of featurette material on the making of the movie, with added 'sidebar' shows on Steve McQueen and Robert Wise, and even a piece on Chinese history of the time. The late Robert Wise appears in file interviews and is joined by Richard Attenborough, Candice Bergen, Neile McQueen, Robert Relyea and many others. Fox-generated extras include two original featurettes, a pair of radio documentaries, radio spots, a trailer and stills. A wholly unexpected extra is the 1968 Mad Magazine parody called Sam Pebbles. At its end Chang Kai-Chek and Mao Tse-Tung stand arm in arm, gloating over the demise of the heroes and happy that democracy will never take root in China.

Fox has packaged the special edition in a fancy slipcase with an insert flyer, a miniature replica of the original Road Show program and a packet of the postcard-sized stills they call 'lobby cards.'

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Sand Pebbles Two-Disc Special Edition rates:
Movie: Good
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Longer Road Show cut; trailer, radio spots, audio featurettes, Commentary with Robert Wise, Candice Bergen, Mako & Richard Crenna; Isolated music score and additional commentary with Nick Redman, Jon Burlingame and Lem Dobbs; 90 minutes of featurettes; Mad Magazine movie parody; insert booklet, miniature Road Show program reproduction, photo cards.
Packaging: Two discs in Keep case in card sleeve.
Reviewed: June 3, 2007

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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