Judge Dave Ryan hates it when he gets sand pebbles in his shoe.
"Hello, engine. I'm Jake Holman."
When Fox released its 1966 epic The Sand Pebbles in a special collector's edition format last year, you knew it wouldn't take long for some sort of next-generation release to follow. Now that Blu-ray has won the day, Fox has released a BD-DVD version of the film in all its high-definition glory. Although the package isn't quite as complete as the standard definition version, lacking the "roadshow" version of the film, the glorious high-def transfer more than makes up for that, and makes this a must-buy for all fans of Steve McQueen, director Robert Wise, or gunboat diplomacy.
Facts of the Case
A rebellious sailor named Jake Holman (Steve McQueen, The Great Escape) is reassigned within the Asiatic Fleet when his commanding officer tires of dealing with him. He winds up as the chief mechanic on the USS San Pablo, a tired old ex-Spanish gunboat assigned to patrolling the upper reaches of the Yangtze River. The San Pablo—called the "Sand Pebble" by its crew—is a fairly easy assignment for its sailors. It's the coolies who do all the work; all the crew does is supervise. Still, Captain Collins (Richard Crenna, First Blood) runs a tight ship and takes his role as protector of U.S. interests under the "Unequal Treaties" seriously. Over the course of the next year, the dramatically changing political currents of post-Imperial China will thrust the Sand Pebbles into the middle of a war, and push them to, and beyond, their limits.
My colleague Judge Brendan "The BB Gun" Babish did a fine job of clearly illustrating why some version of the Collector's Edition of The Sand Pebbles should be on your list of films to see—there isn't a lot that I can substantively add to his piece. I agree with him on all points. It's just a question of which version you want to purchase or rent—the standard definition DVD or this new Blu-ray release. Therefore, I'll just add a few of my observations on the film, and focus mainly on the changes made in the translation to Blu-ray.
The Sand Pebbles is an important film in the McQueen canon first and foremost because it earned him his first, and only, Oscar nomination. He lost the Oscar to Paul Scofield (for Scofield's performance as Sir Thomas More in A Man For All Seasons), but did manage to take home a Golden Globe that year (the Henrietta Award) as the world's male "film favorite." More importantly, his performance in the film demonstrated that he had the acting talent to carry a film with a pure dramatic role; he wasn't just a cowboy or action star. Many people regard Jake Holman as McQueen's greatest acting performance, and it certainly is a spectacularly realized role. But I disagree with the assertion that it's his greatest role. Because I don't think he's really acting.
Jake Holman is, for all purposes, Steve McQueen. McQueen was an ex-Marine who, like Holman, didn't completely take to the concept of military protocol. And like Holman, he managed to contain that rebel streak and find his niche in the Marines. McQueen and Holman both lack formal educations, but each of them is intelligent. I think McQueen immediately understood the Holman character, and embraced him more than he did any other role he played…because he didn't have to "play" Holman. McQueen was a student of Sanford Meisner, who taught a variant of what we refer to today as "method acting." The Meisner technique, like Lee Strasberg's "Method," has the actor contextualize the character (hence the old "what's my motivation?" joke) in order to better use the actor's actual, unforced emotional responses in the performance (as opposed to the actor developing, from a detached viewpoint, what he/she thinks the character's responses should be, and performing them accordingly). The basic theory of method acting techniques is that when you internalize the character, your performance will be more realistic and true. Well…if you already ARE the character, and you're trained in how to exploit that…you're going to give a fantastic performance. But it isn't really acting at that point, because you're just being yourself. Don't get me wrong—this doesn't diminish McQueen's performance in the least. It is an outstanding, star-making role. But I think McQueen's greatest roles were the ones where he took characters who were not at all like Steve McQueen—e.g. Thomas Crown and Junior Bonner—and fully inhabited/explored them, while still bringing a lot of his own self into them.
The really great acting job in The Sand Pebbles comes from Japanese actor Mako (Pearl Harbor) (born Makoto Iwamatsu), who was nominated for the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his portrayal of the young coolie Po-han. It was one of the few times in his career that McQueen was matched with someone who shared his physical/facial acting style and who was almost as talented as him. Po-han, who only speaks pigeon English, is one of the most gripping characters in the film, and his story arc is both exhilarating and heartbreaking. Why Mako never rose to great acclaim as an actor—he worked constantly, but never again received a role as good as Po-han—is a complete mystery.
The story itself, adapted from the popular novel by Richard McKenna and (loosely) based on the real between-the-world-wars history of China, becomes a loose parable of US foreign intervention in general, a subject that became highly relevant as the Vietnam War heated up following the film's release. However, in the competent hands of the great Robert Wise (The Day The Earth Stood Still, The Andromeda Strain), the film avoids becoming preachy or heavy-handed (or exceedingly dated, for that matter), which gives it continuing relevance today.
There is only one significant feature from the prior release of The Sand Pebbles that didn't make it onto this Blu-ray offering. The standard definition set—which was a two-disc package—included the longer "roadshow" version of the film, which had been recently re-discovered in Fox's vaults. The roadshow version added 14 minutes of additional footage to bring the film's running time up to a full three and a half hours (when you include about 15 minutes for intermission), which was designed to enable theaters to show the film as a full-evening "event." This single-disc Blu-ray edition does not include that extra version, although it does include the deleted footage as a "roadshow scenes" extra—sans the option to view them all at once, which is very annoying, given that some are only a few seconds long. (A minor feature—the Mad Magazine parody of the film—is also omitted from this release.)
However, the plusses more than outweigh that one minus when it comes to this set. If you don't mind the higher list price of Blu-ray, then this is the edition to buy. All of the substantive extras from the original Collector's Edition are retained here—the commentary with Wise, Candice Bergen (who made her acting debut here), and Mako; the soundtrack-specific commentary; the series of contemporaneous featurettes; a substantial "Making Of" featurette; some radio documentaries and commercials narrated by Richard Attenborough; and small featurettes on McQueen, Wise, and Chinese history. The same spectacular restored copy of the film is on display here, but now in glorious high definition, which highlights exactly how well the print has been restored. This disc adds a new audio option, a rich and potent DTS 5.1 Master Lossless Audio track that sounds flawless. While the originally-issued Dolby 4.0 surround track is nothing to sneeze at, the battle scenes and the great Jerry Goldsmith score pop even more with the DTS track.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The film isn't perfect by any stretch. The romances in the film aren't fully realized, and the story plays fast and loose with certain elements of Chinese history. Plus, the film really only addresses the Western viewpoint of the Unequal Treaties era; it never explores why the Chinese were rebelling, or how the Chinese people viewed the foreign "invaders." Therefore, while it's an effective film from a metaphorical perspective, it's actually quite useless from a historian's perspective. (The film's Pop-Up-Video-like trivia track, however, does provide a lot of factual information about China's history in this period.)
The Sand Pebbles is a good old-fashioned epic. Sprawling, beautiful, and extremely well-acted, it's the kind of film Hollywood simply doesn't make anymore. It's an essential part of the McQueen canon, and one of the highlights of Robert Wise's long and storied directorial career. You can't go wrong with either of Fox's offerings, but if you've got the equipment, I'd recommend this Blu-ray release. The picture and sound are exquisite, and you don't miss out on anything significant from the terrific package of extras.
Death by a thousand cuts! No, wait—I mean "not guilty."
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Scales of Justice
• Commentary by Director Robert Wise, and Actors Candice Bergin, Richard Crenna, and Mako
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