Judge Brendan Babish thinks that if Fonzie is cool, Steve McQueen is ice cold.
The story of men who disturbed the sleeping dragon of China as the world watched in terror!
The Sand Pebbles is an epic, historical adventure, the kind of film they don't make very often anymore. It stars Steve McQueen (The Getaway), one of the biggest stars of the 1960s, one of the coolest men who ever lived; they don't make movie stars like him anymore either. Twentieth Century Fox has released The Sand Pebbles in a two-DVD set, the highlight of which is the inclusion of both the standard, 183-minute cut of the film, as well as the 196-minute roadshow version. Make no mistake, this is the definitive DVD release of The Sand Pebbles, and one of the best presentations of a film on DVD I have ever seen.
Facts of the Case
The year is 1926, and Jake Holman (McQueen) is a stoic engineer in the U.S. Navy who's been assigned to join the U.S.S. San Pablo, a ship that patrols a tributary of the Yangtze province in China. Holman instantly clashes with several of the "coolies," Chinese workers, who have been hired to do most of the manual labor on the San Pablo. This causes friction on board the ship, which is soon exacerbated by the angry indigenous population, who are constantly threatening violet action against the American crew.
Against this backdrop, both Holman and a shipmate, Frenchy (Richard Attenborough, Jurassic Park), manage to find romantic interests. Holman slowly endears himself to Shirley (Candice Bergen, Murphy Brown), a young American missionary, while Frenchy falls for the shy, somehow pure Chinese prostitute Maily (Emmanuelle Arsan, who, strangely enough, would go on to become a prolific erotic writer, creating the iconic Emmanuelle character). However, when violence finally breaks out between the American sailors and Chinese rebels, both the relationships, and the lives of everyone involved, become threatened.
In an episode of That '70s Show, the character Steven Hyde is trapped in a locker room with his friends and, seeking inspiration, reflects back on all the prison escape movies he had ever seen. However, the only realization he has is that "Steve McQueen is a total badass."
For those who have never seen a Steve McQueen film—and my guess is, since he has been dead for over a quarter century, there are many young people who haven't had the pleasure—this comment has little resonance. However, those who have seen Bullitt, or The Great Escape, or The Magnificent Seven, surely know what Hyde is talking about. And yet, as great as McQueen was in those films, his role in The Sand Pebbles earned him his only Oscar nomination, and is considered by many to be his best performance. Indeed, McQueen is so good here that he almost single-handedly elevates a mediocre, somewhat bloated epic into a classic, essential film.
What makes McQueen's presence in The Sand Pebbles so transformative is that his ineffable coolness—which still makes him seem contemporary 27 years after his death—prevents the film from seeming too hokey or dated. What hampers The Sand Pebbles—and in a general sense, often causes contemporary audiences to laugh at dramas from the 1950s and 60s—is lack of subtlety: a bombastic score that announces all tonal shifts; affected performances that rely on histrionics and raised voices to convey emotion; and fight scenes that are choreographed like dance numbers (this one's not so surprising, since director Robert Wise had previously directed West Side Story and The Sound of Music). But Steve McQueen, with an icy cool stare and a persona that manages to be both vulnerable and menacing at the same time, prevents any part of this film—with the possible exception of certain scenes between Frenchy and Maily—from devolving into camp.
And with McQueen as an anchor, The Sand Pebbles becomes one hell of a movie. At a little over three hours, it is runs a little long, especially in the first hour, which features too much engineering. However, once the conflict between the Chinese peasantry and the sailors turns violent, the drama heightens, and the film presents some surprisingly profound moral questions that are particularly interesting because they challenge much of the conventional wisdom of the early 1960s. The conflict is also interesting because it serves as a history lesson for Sino-American relations in the early 20th century; now I know a lot of people find history boring, and most don't go to the movies to learn anything, but history with guns and cannons and violence can be pretty exciting.
That said, the film is occasionally hampered by discordant romance. One of the few missteps is the relationship between Frenchy and Maily. Frenchy is a sailor with a heart of gold, and Maily is a prostitute with a heart of gold, and that combination just stretches credulity to the breaking point. It doesn't help that Frenchy is balding, portly, and overly sensitive while Maily is young, beautiful, and enchantingly enigmatic; this makes their relationship not only unbelievable, but somewhat creepy and exploitative as well. Still, it is fun to watch Emmanuelle Arsan in one of her few appearances on screen, and the irony that she plays an innocent ingénue certainly wasn't lost on me.
Ultimately, The Sand Pebbles is an essential film because it's a huge, sprawling epic that features one of Steve McQueen's best performances, as well a sensibility most modern audiences will relate to. Those who never knew that McQueen was a total badass are strongly recommended to check this one out.
As far as double dipping goes, 20th Century Fox's reissue of The Sand Pebbles has got to be one of the biggest no-brainers ever. Although the previous DVD incarnation featured a few extras, it contained nothing near the cornucopia on this package. Of course, the sweetest plum is the extended roadshow version on the second disc, which restores 14 minutes of footage that was previously thought to be lost. Roadshow releases, which were especially popular in the 1950s and 60s, were showcases for epic movies; these films would play in select theatres throughout the country, and would feature reserved seating, programs, and intermissions. The roadshow version of The Sand Pebbles hasn't been seen in over 40 years; fans of the film should rightly rejoice, though to be honest, the extra footage adds little to the overall impact of the movie.
The DVD set also offers numerous featurettes on the making of The Sand Pebbles, as well as a mini-featurette—"Steve McQueen Remembered"—on the film's star. These all offer brief insights, but in totally provide a pretty exhaustive background on the movie.
Additionally, special mention must be made for how great this film looks and sounds. The Sand Pebbles features great, ornate backdrops (it was shot on location in Taiwan), and no 40-year-old movie is going to look better than this. The colors are clear and vibrant, and the print is free of just about any scratching or fading. The sound is also fantastic, and takes great advantage of surround sound, especially in the extended battle scene between the San Pablo and the Chinese naval blockade.
The Sand Pebbles is probably going to be one of the best releases on DVD this year. It's a revelation for fans, and a chance for nascent generations to familiarize themselves with one of the great movie stars from yesteryear.
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Scales of Justice
• Roadshow version of The Sand Pebbles with introductions by Robert Wise and Richard Zanuck
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