In 1920s China, revolution seems so close and the people stir so much, it seems the whole country could revolt at a moment’s notice. In other words, the country is primed for some serious change and in truth, it could explode at any second, which is not a good concept by any means. The River Yangtze is right in the midst of all the tension and of course, that’s where engineer Jake Holman (Steve McQueen) has been assigned, to board the U.S.S. San Pablo. His attitude and approach to things make him unwelcome right from the start, but even more issues lurk aboard the warship, that’s for sure. Another crewman, Frenchy (Richard Attenborough) is forced to kidnap his Chinese lover, in order to keep her from being sold in a most awful way, via a common auction. At the same time as these and other issues plague the U.S.S. San Pablo, the Chinese begin to resent the crew’s presence and sooner or later, it’s all bound to come to a head and it does, to be sure.
I hadn’t seen The Sand Pebbles in some time and I was unsure how well it would stand up, but I am pleased to report, it is just as good as ever. I don’t think the film has become too dated and in the places it has, that is never enough of an issue to lessen the experience. This is a pretty wide scale picture and even with a lot of ambitious elements, it all seems to come off very well and it never fails to entertain. The production design is excellent and the budget never seems to come up short, obvious by the massive sets and location work involved. But you need those elements for a flick like this one and as such, it is by no means a waste of resources, not in the least. Robert Wise supplies more than solid direction, while Steve McQueen leads a cast that also includes such names as Richard Attenborough, Mako, Richard Crenna, and Candice Bergman. This Blu-ray release looks and sounds terrific and has the extras on deck, so there’s no reason not to upgrade. If you don’t own The Sand Pebbles already, then by all means at least give it a rental, as it is a fine picture.
I’d rank this as one of Steve McQueen’s finest performances and I think critics & audiences would agree, given their collective reaction to his turn here. I’ve loved McQueen’s work as a whole and while his performances are always enjoyable, they don’t always stack up as well on a critical level. But he could impress when given the correct role to be sure and this is one of those instances, very impressive work indeed. I think McQueen was the natural choice to play this role, as it fits his persona to perfection and he is able to execute it just as well. You can also see McQueen in such films as The Great Escape, The Hunter, Hell is for Heroes, The Blob, The Magnificent Seven, The Thomas Crown Affair, and Bullitt. The cast also includes Mako (Crying Freeman, Pearl Harbor), Richard Crenna (First Blood, Breakheart Pass), Candice Bergman (Carnal Knowledge, Gandhi), and Richard Attenborough (Jurassic Park, Elizabeth).
Video: How does it look?
The Sand Pebbles is presented in 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen. This is a very good transfer, with a clean print that shows some grain, but not to an extreme degree. The image has good depth, with improved detail, especially in closeups. I wouldn’t call the detail crystal clear, but this is much enhanced over the standard release. I found colors to be spot on, with bright and natural hues, while contrast yields accurate, consistent black levels. A good looking catalog transfer, one that should satisfy fans and make it easy to toss those DVDs out.
Audio: How does it sound?
This lossless DTS HD 5.1 option is impressive and a nice improvement over the standard releases. The surrounds have more depth and separation, so this doesn’t sound like mono pushed through the various channels. The surround presence isn’t just in the more action driven scenes either, even dialogue is placed in proper fashion. So if someone is to the right, that is where the vocals will originate, quite cool indeed. In short, one of the better updated soundtracks on an older catalog release I’ve heard, simply terrific work on this one. This disc also includes a 4.0 surround option, Spanish and French language tracks, and subtitles in English, Spanish, Cantonese, and Korean.
Supplements: What are the extras?
The roadshow version hasn’t been including, but the scenes are available as supplements, so at least you can view the material in some form. The same audio commentary track as before is back, with director Robert Wise, as well as actors Richard Crenna, Candice Bergman, and Mako. This was a nice overall session and with multiple participants, there’s never a lack of insight to be delivered. There is also the isolated music score option, with comments provided by several experts to provide additional insight. Other new goodies include around an hour and a half of featurettes, interviews about McQueen and Wise, and even background information on China in 1926, not to mention a MAD Magazine spoof. As far as mmore returning extras, the radio documentaries are back, as are the radio promo spots, and of course, the film’s theatrical trailer.