The Sand Pebbles
In 1926, China was in turmoil. Shaking off centuries of dynastic rule, the nation had endured many brutal wars and rebellions in the previous century, including the Boxer Rebellion of 1900, before the revolutionary Sun Yat-sen became the first leader of the Republic of China in 1911, ending 2,000 years of monarchy. But despite his goal of creating a Chinese society that would uphold his Three Principles of nationalism, democracy, and socialism, competing political forces were in place. Though small at the time, Mao Zedong established the Communist Party of China in 1921, and the unstable political landscape left warlords in control of several regions. After Sun's death in 1925, his protégé Chaing Kai-shek pursued the nationalist cause, primarily via military force. And in the midst of it all, Western powers in China not for any political designs per se but rather the vast opportunities for commerce and influence were omnipresent, be it in the form of trading companies, Christian missionaries, or naval gunboats. Amidst the growing sense of Chinese nationalism, they had long outstayed their welcome. Robert Wise's 1966 The Sand Pebbles, based on the novel by Richard McKenna, surveys the men of one gunboat, the U.S.S. San Pablo, as it patrols Chinese waters to represent and defend American interests during this tumultuous era. Steve McQueen stars as naval engineer Jake Holman, a sailor who has served on seven boats in his nine-year career a record that will get the attention of any commanding officer, and especially the no-nonsense skipper of the San Pablo, Capt. Collins (Richard Crenna). But despite his reputation for trouble, Jake's only goal is honest work for an honest wage. "On a small ship, you haven't got any of that military crap," Jake tells American missionary Shirley Eckert (Candace Bergen) on his journey to join the San Pablo. "They leave you alone." But the San Pablo, it turns out, is as complicated as a naval vessel can come the ship is manned by "coolies," Chinese nationals who earn a meager living serving the needs of the boat and its crew, and Jake immediately takes issue with the unprofessional way the engine room is managed. As a result, he has an uneasy relationship with the Chinese hands and the American crew alike, but one sailor, Frenchy (Richard Attenborough), becomes fast friends with Jake, as the pair often find themselves at odds with their surroundings particularly when Jake promotes an out-of-favor Chinese hand, Po-han (Mako), to run the engine room, and later when Frenchy falls in love with Maily (Emmanuelle Arsan), a Chinese prostitute. With open revolt in China and the demands it makes on the crew of the San Pablo, matters for the both of them only get worse, particularly as they consider fashioning new lives and destinies for themselves as civilians, and not sailors.
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A sprawling film that retains the episodic qualities of the source novel, The Sand Pebbles remains immensely watchable during its three-hour running time thanks to a remarkably subdued performance from McQueen it's certainly the best of his career, and the only one for which he earned an Oscar nomination. A great deal of McQueen's famous screen persona comes through in the part, but he also finds small ways to illustrate Jake's uncomplicated view of himself and his life, with his rural accent and clipped speech patterns, and while he's capable of dramatic outbursts, in his scenes with Candace Bergen he's practically a timid teenager struggling for things to say. It's a dynamic turn, and one that shows McQueen was a far better actor than his "King of Cool" reputation let on. Bergen herself was only 19 when shooting began on The Sand Pebbles, but she offers a mature performance as the young missionary who falls for Jake, while Richard Attenborough comes up with a convincing American patter as the chivalrous sailor with a soft spot for damsels in distress (the project also reunited McQueen and Attenborough four years after The Great Escape). Helmed by director Wise (The Sound of Music, West Side Story), The Sand Pebbles was one of the most expensive films undertaken by Fox at the time, shot on location in Taiwan and Hong Kong over eight months, and with a genuine steam-powered gunboat that cost $250,000 alone. But Wise didn't waste his resources the film is filled with panoramic vistas of the southeast Asian landscape, and several urban locations were extensively made over to resemble 1926 Peking. The result was nine Oscar nominations, and Wise later remarked that it was the favorite film of his career although, in part, simply because the shoot was so enormously complex. "I suppose having suffered through months and months and months of shooting on it," he told an interviewer, "and the weather problems and everything else that went into it, makes a more memorable experience than the others."
Fox's DVD edition of The Sand Pebbles offers a solid anamorphic transfer (2.35:1) from a clean and colorful source print that's showing very little wear for its age. It is presented in its "roadshow" format, with an Overture and Intermission, although this 182-minute cut falls short of the 196-minute version first screened in 1966 (the additional 14 minutes is lost, possibly forever according to some sources). Audio is available in a new Dolby Digital 4.0 mix, as well as Dolby 2.0 Stereo. Supplements include a feature-length commentary with director Wise, Bergen, Mako, and others; two audio documentaries, "Changsha Bund and the Streets of Taipei" and "A Ship Called San Pablo" (video sources for both apparently have been lost); three radio spots; a still gallery; and the original theatrical trailer. Keep-case.