The Sand Pebbles

The Sand Pebbles (2008)
20th Century Fox Home Entertainment
Cast: Steve McQueen, Richard Attenborough, Richard Crenna, Candice Bergen
Extras: Commentary Track, Isolated Score, Featurettes, Radio Spots, Trailer

"The Sand Pebbles" was directed by the legendary Robert Wise, whose long career in film brought us films as varied as "West Side Story", "Audrey Rose", "The Sound Of Music" and my favorite Star Trek film, "Star Trek: The Motion Picture". His career spanned many different eras of Hollywood and his vast and varied filmography is certainly a reflection of that. And yet, of the many films Robert Wise was attached to as producer or director or both, he had a fondness for "The Sand Pebbles" that rose above all others.

Released in 1966, the film is as powerful and effective today as it ever was, and now it has been released on Blu-ray to be rediscovered by fans and those of us who have yet to discover this classic war drama that is an epic as powerful as anything you're likely to see. I think the appeal of this classic film and the reason it stands up so well with the test of time is because it really does have something for everyone, romance and action, all based in an exotic location in 1926 and clocking in at more than three hours, this is an old school epic, one of the last and best of its kind. Its much anticipated restoration and re-release in high definition is an event worth noticing because it looks better than it ever has on home video, and is one of the most impressive high definition releases I have ever seen.

Steve McQueen plays a troubled career Navy engineer named Jake Holman, who arrives aboard the gunboat U.S.S. San Pablo, which is assigned to patrol a revolution torn area of China in 1926 amid rising tensions. He meets his crewmates, which include a wide cast including Frenchie (Richard Attenborough) and Richard Crenna as their devoted Captain Collins, who tries to keep his men focused even during relatively tranquil times of fragile peace at sea. Even though Holman is a military man and has been for years, he has a rebellious streak and has to do things his own way. When he finds that his fellow crewmembers have been having some of the grunt work on the engine done by foreigners, it troubles him. He doesn't play by the rules, which concerns not only his superiors but also his fellow shipmates.

When an accident happens in the engine room, one of the Chinese 'coolies' gets killed while performing maintenance, and even though it wasn't any fault of Holman's, it increases tensions in the region, which is getting more and more frustrated with the presence of the United States in their waters. He trains someone new named Po-Han (played by a very young Mako), who ends up getting into a fight with another crewmember, which leads to a boxing match, which certainly gives the bored sailors something to do, including making some extra money on betting for the winner, which it turns out to be Po-Han, who wins at the last second.

Meanwhile, Frenchie has fallen for one of the local girls, Maily and wants to use his prize money to win her freedom from a Chinese bookie and a tense bidding war takes place, followed by a vicious fight between a bar full of the locals and the Navy crewmen. All of these incidents are leading up to a frustrated group of locals who, along with some provocation from Russia, have decided it is time to protest the Americans' presence.

As tensions increase with the Chinese government, Frenchie decides to get married to his flame in the presence of Holman and his love interest Shirley. Shirley has been trying to figure out Jake, but he is distant, and she soon leaves to go help a group of Chinese students. While the ship is at a standstill waiting for orders to leave amid escalating brutality which includes the abduction and subsequent torture and mercy killing (performed by Holman) of Po-Han, Frenchie has been sneaking away with his new wife. Although, this means swimming in the cold waters and therefore dying of hypothermia. When Holman goes to find out what happened, he finds his body and locals storm the apartment and also murder the girl. It seems that everywhere Holman goes, a body appears soon after, and when he returns to his ship and is accused of murder by the local community, his crewmembers are more than ready to turn him over, especially if it means saving their own lives.

The film is a complex and intricate story, filled with many different themes and storylines, based on a novel by Richard McKenna. It is an epic in every sense of the word and is quite simply a great film to watch since films like these are rarely made anymore. An old-fashioned masterpiece you won't soon forget, it certainly takes its time telling the story, and before you know it you are caught up in the story because it takes so much time for character development. I won't ruin any more of it for you, but the ending is a real shocker, this movie was filled with many shocking moments. I fell in love with this movie because it reminds me why I love movies to begin with. It is escapism at its finest and its presentation on this Blu-ray is so well done that you will be in awe over the beautiful scenery. The perfect film in a perfect format to present itself.

The picture (presented in an aspect ratio of 2.35:1 on a 50 GB Blu-ray) is quite simply breathtaking in its clarity. Sometimes when a classic is released they look a little overdone, but that is not the case with this film. Every detail of the ship is amazingly rendered (especially the engine room) and takes on an almost three dimensional quality while retaining a film like texture. In fact this is easily one of those instances where I am simply blown away with the quality and care that was included on this release. The colors all appear very natural and the flesh tones seem right. The level of detail is almost unsurpassed with a film of this age, and it certainly deserves it, being that the locations in and around China have such breathtaking beauty. The many shots of crowds are absolutely fascinating because you can make out all of the details in the faces and clothing of each individual person, and every detail of the background, down to the patterns in the wood are painstakingly recreated. And the black levels are also perfectly balanced. In fact this is one of the best transfers I have ever seen and certainly should provide more than enough evidence of the relevance and superior nature of Blu-ray over standard definition since it really takes an older title like this or "The Searchers" to point out how far they can take this technology. You won't believe how amazing this film looks, outstanding in every way. I hope 20th Century Fox has more surprises like this in store, because nothing makes me happier than to see a much loved film get the care it deserves. I am thrilled to have been able to discover this film, but also feel lucky to have seen it for the first time with such a stunning presentation. "The Sand Pebbles" is a thought provoking, ambitious and sprawling work which never ceases to entertain and is as relevant now as it ever was.

And the sound is every bit as good as the picture itself, featuring a wonderful and full sounding DTS 5.1 Master Lossless Audio track (as well as a 4.0 Dolby Track) that surprised me with its amount of aggression. The beautiful score by Jerry Goldsmith fills the room nicely and the action scenes hold up very well. But what I really noticed was how the surround effects and ambient sounds really added to the feeling that you are at sea. The dialogue is also very clean sounding, although at times it is clearly obvious which scenes were filmed on a soundstage due to a certain echo. The audio shines every bit as much as the crystal clear picture, which makes this release nothing short of a revelation.

The special features really take this release up to the highest level of quality, because they are outstanding and really raise this the extra star that will almost make it a five star release in every sense of the word. All of the features are in standard definition. The menu is the only thing on this release that I have any complaints with, it is difficult to navigate, and for some reason they put the making of documentary in the 'Roadshow Version Scenes' and it was actually difficult to find.

There are two commentaries, one featuring the late director Robert Wise, along with Candice Bergen, Richard Crenna and Mako (recorded separately) and an isolated score featuring film music historian Jon Burlingame and film historian/screenwriter Lem Dobbs. Both tracks are informative, entertaining and above all educational. There is also a very informative 'Trivia Track'.

'The Making Of The Sand Pebbles' is about as interesting and well made as you could expect and features interviews with everyone involved in the making of the film and explains how they surfed on the waves of Wise's hugely successful "The Sound Of Music" in order to get funding and complete this ambitious project, it is very well done and quite impressive, though not as passionate and fascinating as the radio segments.

Originally this very long epic had a legendary roadshow that actually included more scenes. These scenes are included here in a deleted scenes feature called 'Roadshow Version Scenes'. There are thirteen in all, none of them remastered, it would have been great had they included them, after all, at more than three hours they may as well have taken it all the way, especially since most of the scenes are quite good.

In a section called 'Side Bars' we have three featurettes, the first is called 'Steve McQueen Remembered' and runs about ten minutes and 45 seconds but I came out knowing him more than I thought. In fact, it turns out his character in "The Sand Pebbles" was actually as close as he ever got to playing himself, and I consider "The Sand Pebbles" to be perhaps his finest film.

The 'Bob Wise In Command' feature interviews with those who knew and worked with him and is about ten minutes long. A very complimentary feature that presents a man who was very professional and fun to work with. Bob Wise passed away in 2005.

'China 1926' runs almost thirteen minutes and gave me a much needed history of that time and place, it presents a lesson in how when America interferes in certain foreign lands they can be met with aggression and hostility and things can go from bad to worse. Fascinating stuff.

In an area called '1966' we have a few featurettes. The first is called 'A Ship Called San Pablo' and runs about fifteen minutes and is narrated by Richard Attenborough as he takes you on a tour of the building of the ship used in the film (which was actually filmed in Taiwan and Hong Kong, except for the many soundstage sequences). It is a vintage featurette and therefore retains a freshness and is thoroughly entertaining and educational.

'The Secret of San Pablo' is narrated by Richard Crenna and runs about nine minutes. It is another very well done and informative vintage feature that features some excellent footage and is all about the difficulties (and expenses) of filming in and around Taiwan and how they got the boat on the shallow river.

'Original Theatrical Trailer' is the third feature in the '1966' section. We also have two 'Radio Documentaries' the first of which is called 'Changsha Bund and the Streets of Taipei' and (like both) is narrated by Richard Attenborough. I don't know about you, but I love old radio dramas and advertisements and such and this one is simply very well done and Attenborough really is passionate about the project and it is very well conveyed in the poetic nature of his presentation. The radio feature captures all of the sounds of Taiwan and China in full glory. Don't pass it up, it's very entertaining, shockingly well done and one of the best features on the disc. In fact the radio documentaries are even more in depth and fascinating than any of the other features. 'A Ship Called San Pablo' which is just as good. It is obvious that he has the same passion and intensity as his younger brother David Attenborough, who narrates the magnificent BBC nature documentaries including "Planet Earth", the resemblance in style and substance is uncanny. We also have some 'Radio Spots' which are promotional in nature and just as old fashioned and over the top as you would want them to be.

"The Sand Pebbles" is a fascinating example of how to present a classic film for the home theater. The only thing that holds it back from getting a five star rating is the special features weren't remastered very effectively and the menu navigation can be a little frustrating. But, more importantly we have a film which is presented in pristine condition and fans of the film will certainly be thrilled and it will find a new audience since it is definitely demo material to show off to the naysayers. Utterly impressive and worthy of seeking out, "The Sand Pebbles" is a standout release that outshines even the most high profile new releases we have seen recently.