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 new version includes a whole lot of new supplements, but the main draw is the roadshow version of the film itself, which fans will be thrilled to own. The movie is a terrific one and Fox’s new two disc edition is well worth a high recommendation.
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 the same transfer as before, but it still looks good, so I doubt anyone will complain. I was quite pleased with this presentation, especially the print used, as it looks very clean and shows minimal blemishes, very impressive indeed. The film’s restrained color scheme comes off well here, while flesh tones remain normal and warm, no complaints there. The contrast is stark and well balanced also, even the darker scenes look terrific here. I wouldn’t rank this as a reference level transfer, but it looks great and will satisfy fans, to be sure.
Audio: How does it sound?
The new Dolby Digital 5.1 surround track is much better than I had expected, with some excellent directional use, though limited by the material at times. I heard several instances of downright superb use of the channels, all of which enhance the overall experience a lot. The vocals seem crisp and never get lost in the mix, thanks to controlled volume levels. The musical score of Jerry Goldsmith’s also sounds good here and in the end, I found little to complain about here. This release also includes a 4.0 surround option, a stereo soundtrack, French mono track, and subtitles in English and Spanish.
Supplements: What are the extras?
As I mentioned above, this release includes both the theatrical and roadshow versions of the movie, with the latter running around thirteen minutes longer than the original. This is sure to delight fans and on that inclusion alone, an upgrade is in order, as that is something fans will have to own. 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 a new 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 returning extras, the radio documentaries are back, as are the radio promo spots, and of course, the film’s theatrical trailer.