This is the heroic story of the men on the U.S.S. San Pablo who disturbed the sleeping dragon of savage China as the threatened world watched in breathless terror.
The Sand Pebbles is a film epic in scope, though firmly grounded in character development and one that asks more questions than it answers. Set in a time of political unrest in China during the 1920s, it shows many parallels to the events we were only beginning to face in Vietnam, and it brought up questions we were too late in asking. Is duty to flag and country more important than what is morally right? How badly have we as industrialized nations miscalculated in our dealings with those less developed? The film does give answers of a sort, but it retains a patronizing attitude despite good intentions. I can't say I absolutely enjoyed the film, which mixes tragedy, comedy, and adventure, but it was still a film worth experiencing. Fox produced a fine if not perfect DVD release and fans of the film should be pleased.
Facts of the Case
Machinist Mate Jake Holman (Steve McQueen) is a navy man who thinks more highly of engines than people, and has a history of grating on officers and subsequent transfers. His latest assignment is to the U.S.S. San Pablo, a gunboat prowling the rivers of China in an effort to keep American interests safe from the indigenous people. After meeting the crew, including the soft-hearted Frenchy (Richard Attenborough) and the rigid Captain Collins (Richard Crenna), he is exposed to the coolie system at work in the US Navy, where the Chinese maintain and operate the ship. Adventures abound as the San Pablo deals with riots and even a siege between rowdy encounters at a local brothel, and romance forces its way into the war.
First and foremost, the cast and performances in The Sand Pebbles are exceptional. This is certainly one of Steve McQueen's best roles, and many think he has never surpassed that performance. Here was the sole Oscar nomination of his career. Richard Attenborough and Richard Crenna are both very strong, with Attenborough getting the nomination for Best Supporting Actor. In fact, the film was nominated for nine Oscars, including Best Picture, only to be completely shut out. The rest of the supporting cast are also admirable, including a very young Candice Bergen and the ubiquitous Mako.
Robert Wise expertly handles the direction of the film, and the camera pans the gorgeous Chinese scenery as well as the squalor of the native people. Like MASH several years later, Wise decided to take a different historical period and use it as a backdrop for the war in Vietnam. It was a bold move, and in many ways, the film is successful in promoting the anti-war sentiments of the time and in the futility of fighting a war in Asia. Still, the rousing battle at the end reminds us that after all this is a war movie as much as a social commentary. Unfortunately, other questions are left unanswered.
Fox has done a fine job with the picture quality for a film that is 36 years old. Scratches and other film defects from the source elements are minimal considering their age, and I was impressed. Though the colors are less bold or saturated than they might have been long ago, they are well balanced and flesh tones look normal. Black levels are fine and shadow detail is more than satisfactory for the night scenes. The transfer is anamorphic and in the 2.35:1 aspect ratio, befitting the film. Dolby Digital 4.0 and 2.0 soundtracks are offered, and the 4.0 track is the better of the two. The soundstage is wide and spacious and imaging is terrific. Surround use is sparse, and bass is lacking on the negative side. I still judge it more than satisfactory.
Fox also provided a nice collection of extra content on the disc, especially considering space constraints for such a long film. Fortunately, most of the extra content is in the form of audio only, which takes up less space. A commentary track with director Robert Wise with actors Candice Bergen, Mako, and Richard Crenna is the biggest of the lot. It was an entertaining and interesting track, with a nice mix of production detail, reminiscences about the shooting, and personal stories. Also among the extras are two radio documentaries done at the time of the filming. These last about 25 minutes and along with three radio spots make up the audio features. The theatrical trailer and a small still gallery comprise the remainder.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Robert Wise was flush with his success with The Sound Of Music, and decided to tackle a big roadshow feature about colonialism. The roadshows were becoming popular at this point, so it shouldn't have been surprising. The length of the roadshow feature gives time to devote to the intricacies of a subject not easily condensed, but here I think it was both too much and too little. To really discuss colonialism, the coolie system, the unwanted foreign powers being thwarted by the "natives," and the politics of China in the '20s would have taken even longer. By the same token, the film feels too long, with the romances of Frenchy and Jake attached without real purpose. I don't know if the McKenna novel on which the film is based included the women, but their stories were merely ancillary to the film and forced the running length to three hours in the process. I should mention that though the film is presented in a roadshow format with an Overture and an Intermission, this is not the roadshow version. The editing feels disjointed in the second act, and I think missing footage is the culprit.
The biggest gripe I had with the film only came to me after I finished watching it the first time. I felt far more positive about the images and plight of the Chinese and how it was related on film while I was watching. It was clear that Wise was trying to be sensitive to both sides in this conflict, but in too many instances he failed, and the Chinese cannot be put into a sympathetic light while they are also being portrayed as the enemy. Though the political situation (Nationalists in the south, Mao and the Communists in the north) is explained, there was little doubt the Marxist Chinese were the enemy, particularly at a time where we were "upgrading" the offensive in Vietnam. But most of the events that befall the crew of the San Pablo come from the Chinese they see every day. Only in the relationship between Holman and the coolie Po-Han (Mako), and to a lesser extent between Frenchy and the Chinese girl Maily (Emmanuelle Arsan) do we see the status between American and Chinese as anything but servant to master or as an adversary. When it comes down to it we have a full battle between the good guy Americans and the bad guy Chinese, and it's pretty hard to really address the colonialism issue in that context. I think The Sand Pebbles came close but just eluded greatness.
Steve McQueen gave a stellar performance, and it would probably be worth watching the film to see him alone, not to mention the rest of the fine cast. Though I was ultimately unhappy with the film, I still think the sheer ambition, good intentions, and great production make it worth watching at least once. Many will find the disc a welcome addition to their collection, but others will prefer a rental.
As a side note for those wondering, the title of the film comes from an offshoot of the ship's name. The San Pablo became The Sand Pebble and the sailors aboard Sand Pebbles.
Robert Wise need not be judged in this court; his films have been among those I consider great. Even the film is free to go; despite my concerns, much worse fare walks our cinematic streets and I wouldn't consider finding it guilty. The disc is acquitted as well.
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Scales of Justice
• Director and Cast Commentary Track
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