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25 of 26 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Sand Pebbles - a powerful and human anti-war film
"The Sand Pebbles" has been one of my favourite films since I first saw it on television in 1976. It is set in 1926 in revolution-torn China, when the crew of an American gunboat, the San Pablo, is called upon to rescue some American missionaries working far up the Yang Tse river. This widescreen version does justice not just to the sweeping panoramas of the quite...
Published on 8 Oct 2000

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25 of 26 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Sand Pebbles - a powerful and human anti-war film, 8 Oct 2000
By A Customer
This review is from: The Sand Pebbles [VHS] (VHS Tape)
"The Sand Pebbles" has been one of my favourite films since I first saw it on television in 1976. It is set in 1926 in revolution-torn China, when the crew of an American gunboat, the San Pablo, is called upon to rescue some American missionaries working far up the Yang Tse river. This widescreen version does justice not just to the sweeping panoramas of the quite breathtaking Chinese scenery, but also to the sweeping events and themes of the story. It is in every way a "big" film, dealing with political and military intervention (clear parallels with Vietnam at the time of release), nationalism, racism, and the horrors of war. Yet for all its heavy themes, it is most successful in the depiction of its very human characters. These characters are not just the means of conveying the "messages" of the film, or fodder for the gripping and well-staged action scenes. They are individuals in their own right, involved in something far greater than their own destinies. Some are unpleasant and ignorant while others are honourable but lost in the sea of historic events surrounding them. Some, like Jake Holman (Steve McQueen), demand sympathy and respect as they struggle to come to terms with their personal challenges brought to the fore by these historically significant and politically dangerous events. Inevitably there are slow and confusing passages as the political implications are expounded, but these are more than compensated for by our emotional engagement as we become involved in the stories of the people caught up in the political fall-out. Robert Wise's direction is strong and emotionally charged, complemented perfectly by Jerry Goldsmith's wonderfully haunting and ominous music. Steve McQueen gives what was probably the performance of his career (receiving his only Academy Award nomination), and he is supported by a wonderful cast including Richard Attenborough, Richard Crenna, Candice Bergen (aged just 19), and especially Mako. But it is really McQueen's film. His very presence lifts scenes and he manages to convey authenticity and gain the sympathy of the viewer with consummate ease. Apparently misunderstood by some critics on its release, it is a powerful and intrinsically human anti-war film. It is not a happy film, but it is totally absorbing and thought provoking.
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21 of 22 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars "I ain't got no more enemies!", 27 Nov 2007
By 
Trevor Willsmer (London, England) - See all my reviews
(HALL OF FAME REVIEWER)    (TOP 100 REVIEWER)   
This review is from: The Sand Pebbles [DVD] (DVD)
The Sand Pebbles, Robert Wise's epic tale of gunboat diplomacy in the turbulent China of the mid-Twenties is hugely ambitious and hugely expensive, yet, as with the best of his work, the focus is firmly on people, the momentous political events kept in the background until their consequences begin to overwhelm the principals. Even then, they are only drawn out of the small worlds they create for themselves (for Steve McQueen his engine room, for Candice Bergen her teaching in a remote mission) for purely personal reasons.

More than any epic of the Sixties, The Sand Pebbles seems to draw heavily on the chaos and the confusion of the then ongoing Vietnam War, so it's a real surprise that Wise seemed genuinely unaware of any parallels. Yet, perhaps because of history's tendency to repeat itself, they're all too apparent in the finished film. The enemy is unclear: one minute it is the communists who are trying to incite an incident, the next Chang Kai Shek's Nationalists (although filmed in Taiwan with his approval, it is surprisingly critical of his actions). The only constant is "Yankee go home."

McQueen's engineer Holman is pointedly referred to as a symbol of his country by his ineffectual commanding officer, but what kind? He holds no opinions, preferring to put his faith in machinery rather than people or politics, yet his mere presence is divisive. Even his own countrymen and crewmates turn against him and join in with their nominal enemies in an angry demonstration against his alleged crimes. While he projects the image of the simple, honest and misunderstand ordinary man suffering a situation not of his making that America's old guard wanted to believe of their boys in Asia, he ultimately declares his independence from a fight he cannot understand ("I ain't got no more enemies") and is only drawn back from desertion to save the woman he loves but doesn't quite understand.

The contradictory and opposed feelings of the folks at home are made clear from the opening debate on whether China can be trusted with its own destiny to Larry Gates' missionary renouncing his own nationality as he prays for a Chinese victory: he may stop short of burning the flag, but he has no qualms about cursing it ("Damn your flag! Damn all flags!").

Rather than setpiece battles (although it has a doozey of one in the last act), it is a film of escalating incidents, increasingly violent and all rendered impossible to deal with by the demands of diplomacy and provoking an endless source of black propaganda. Even when the American flag is obscured by a thick cloud of opium smoke emerging from the San Pablo's smokestack, the Americans remain innocent in principle but lose the moral high ground as they either exploit the locals for their own comfort or end up fighting among themselves.

Even the Captain's attitude is confused. He talks of duty, yet runs a slack ship for fear of giving the discontented crew an excuse for mutiny, even turning a literal blind eye to one crewmember's desertion. When it matters most, his crew openly disobey him, provoking him to consider suicide before defying orders and endangering his crew in several efforts to "die clean." The film itself has been accused of being equally confused, but it simply portrays the confusion, making no judgements. No dogma triumphs in this film, no side wins: all that is left are people forced into dealing with situations that will not profit them.

Robert Anderson's script manages to give nearly all of the characters a story of their own that are integrated into the main fabric of the plot while Wise isn't afraid to take the time each scene needs rather than rushing it, and that's repaid with uniformly excellent performances. The Oscar-nominated McQueen is in complete harmony with his role and shows remarkable sensitivity in his final scene with Marayat Andriane, whose romantic subplot with a genuinely affecting Richard Attenborough overshadows McQueen's uneasy nearly-romance with a very sweet and very young Candice Bergen. Richard Crenna is outstanding as the Captain driven to thoughts of suicide and equally suicidal heroism, with good support from Mako and a mug's gallery including Simon Oakland and Joe Turkel below decks.

A replacement for Alex North, who bowed out over concerns with the film's violence, Jerry Goldsmith's score (treated to an isolated score track with brief interview extracts wit the man himself) is one of his very best. From the tense and brooding main title over the strikingly simple design of a sampan dwarfing the gunboat to the hauntingly unresolved love theme he never overplays his hand or overdoes the Oriental flavor or the big, epic cues: they're there when needed, but all the more effective for not swamping the picture. Kudos too to Boris Leven's production design and Joseph McDonald's cinematography which, with its good use of color and location, makes 35mm look like 70mm.

In addition to a plethora of special features, Fox's 2-disc Region 1 NTSC also finally restores the original 196-minute roadshow version, although sadly the source print has faded quite badly, so you're left with a choice of a beautiful transfer of the 182-minute general release version or a rather soft transfer of the uncut version. It has to be said that both cuts work equally well, with little of substance cut. Yet while the cuts are sensitively made and the shorter version adheres to the old editor's maxim that "if it wasn't there would you know it was missing?," for anyone who likes the film they'll be a welcome addition. For those interested, the major restorations to the roadshow version are:

- Before the first repel boarders drill there is a brief scene with the tailor coolie measuring Holman for a new uniform on deck.
- A brief scene of local bandits firing on the San Pablo from the shore as the gunboat patrols the river.
- After the accident with the chief engine room coolie, the scene continues to show the repair of the engine.
- After the crew start taking bets on the fight between Po-Han and Stawski, there is a brief scene between Holman and Frenchie.
- Before Jake shows Shirley around Changsha, there is a brief sequence where she explains why no priests will marry Frenchie and Mailly; afterwards there is a conversation between the two in a restaurant.
- Captain Collins' conversation with Ensign Bordelles after they see the men fighting on deck is much longer, with Collins explaining that he has authority only as long as he does not exercise it.
- The battle scene at the river boom is much longer, with the San Pablo taking a direct hit and having to pull out of the fight while the crew put out a fire on deck.

Some other scenes are slightly extended with additional shots or dialogue; the roadshow version also has brief intermission scoring not on the general release version. Sadly, the exit music is not included on the DVD for some reason.

The Blu-ray release - Region A-locked for the US release but Region free for the rest of the world - only includes the general release version, with the missing scenes from the roadshow version presented separately as deleted scenes with no seamless branching option.
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8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Magnificent McQueen in Robert Wise's stunning character led epic., 6 Mar 2011
By 
Spike Owen "John Rouse Merriott Chard" (Birmingham, England.) - See all my reviews
(TOP 500 REVIEWER)   
This review is from: The Sand Pebbles [DVD] (DVD)
China 1926...

Ravaged from within by corrupt warlords...oppressed from without by the great world powers who had beaten China to her knees a century before...

China...a country of factions trying to unite to become a nation...through revolution.....

The Sand Pebbles is a multi stranded panoramic story. It tells of China lifting itself off her knees, and of the Americans who were caught in the giant's bloody rousing. It tells of crewmen Frenchy {Richard Attenborough} & Jake Holman {Steve McQueen} from the U.S.S. San Pablo, two men whose lives are to be severely altered here on the banks of the Yangtze River. It tells of the San Pablo's Captain Collins {Richard Crenna} as he tries to negotiate tricky political waters. And also of the missionaries {Larry Gates & Candice Bergen} who in turn are resentful and bewildered by the US involvement in China. All molded together brilliantly by Robert Wise in this stirring drama that's flecked with romance and explosive action.

Tho the film has undertaken a number of edits since its original release {ranging from 170 minutes to 195}, in any form the piece proves to be a lesson in character involvement. Adapted by Robert Anderson from the novel written by Richard McKenna, the film unfolds precision like, its intensity bubbling away until we reach the highly emotive conclusion. The film has often been placed as a parallel to the Vietnam conflict, something that is in truth hard to ignore. The Sand Pebbles shows the Americans meddling in affairs they don't understand. They act arrogantly towards the Chinese, they dismiss them and call them derogatory names. To them, the Chinese are an inferior race. But Frenchy & Jake are cut from different cloth, with the latter showing a cynicism and mistrust of authority that was felt by many young Americans towards their government for getting them involved in the civil war of Vietnam. Wise may be guilty of being heavy handed with his anti-war message, the aside at Imperialism boldly timed in 1966. But it does work and impacts hard, because the writing and the acting is so good. As is the many other technical aspects that are needed to tell such a vast story.

It was nominated for 8 Academy Awards, but incredibly it won none. It was McQueen's only nomination in his career, that in itself is arguably unfair {Papillon anybody?}. But here he really should have won, I mean seriously does anyone really remember Best Actor Winner Paul Scofield's turn now? Those close to McQueen have said that Jake Holman was closest in character to the man himself. It's a riveting, emotionally nuanced performance that shows his unnerving ability to say more with his eyes and body language than with words. As anti-hero performances go, McQueen's is right out of the top draw. Attenborough {Golden Globe Winner for Best Supporting Actor}, Crenna and the impressive Mako all captivate and draw the viewers in, while Bergen has a winsome quality that plays nicely off of McQueen's rugged weariness. The cinematography from Joseph MacDonald is gorgeous, shot in Deluxe Color and Panavision in Taiwan and Hong Kong, MacDonald brilliantly took advantage of the sweeping Oriental scenery. This in turn is backed up by a sublime score from Jerry Goldsmith, at times beautiful & tender with a pinch of Oriental flavouring, at others powerful and sharp and landing in the chest like a force of nature.

It was a far from trouble free shoot. McQueen initially clashed with Wise over how certain scenes should be shot, but the director won out and eventually got McQueen's support. Something that wasn't to be sniffed at, and something that wasn't afforded to Anderson who was jettisoned after falling foul of "Blue Eyes". Bergen and McQueen also didn't get on, but with she being 19 years of age and he 36, that's somewhat understandable. But when she proclaimed that there was no talent on set! one hopes that was merely the misguided naivety of youth? Wise always said it was the most difficult picture he ever made. Expensive props, thousands of extras, low and high tides, Taiwan still at war with China! Three months of delays and $3 million over budget, Wise said that the cast and crew were heroes one and all. To be dropped into a completely foreign country, and suffer the delays and problems they did, it's a miracle the finished product is so dam good.

The final word should go to Francis Ford Coppola. Who whilst suffering similar problems filming Apocalypse Now, requested a copy of The Sand Pebbles from Robert Wise. He used it to show his cast and crew what a terrific end result can come out of adversity. 10/10
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Ibex Reviews:, 24 Jan 2005
By 
M. D. Matthews "RuralViewer" (England) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: The Sand Pebbles [DVD] (DVD)
This film is a classic. McQueen, the jinxed U.S naval marine engineer sails his gunboat through dangerous Chinese rivers to rescue the beautiful missionary. An absorbingly detailed portrayal of a man caught up in the violence of the Chinese revolution; striving to resolve the conflict on board his ship and at the same time to support his shipmate, a lovelorn Attenbourough through an impossible affair with a local woman - whilst confronting his own emotional reaction to the stunning Candice Bergen. An action packed thrilling film - a collector's irem.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars It's a 2-disc set, 9 Feb 2009
By 
N. C. Bateman (Brighton, UK) - See all my reviews
(REAL NAME)   
...despite Amazon listing it as 1. Also, there's a great little booklet made up of the original 1966 press & promotional materials, a envelope of 4 lobby cards, a typical "chapter list and overview" booklet and it's all slipcased in a beautiful box - nice to see original artwork being used! Tremendous value. I also bought the 2-disc Patton in the same Fox Cinema Classics Collection, but that has no booklets.
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10 of 11 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Sand Pebbles / Gripping Adventure Story, 22 Nov 2003
By 
Rankin Cattan "rankin_cattan" (Scotland) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: The Sand Pebbles [VHS] (VHS Tape)
This is an excellant movie ,directed by Robert Wise and Starring Steve Mcqueen as Holman an american sailor accused of murder by a puppet communist state in China at the start of the last century.Steve Mcqueen gives an excellant as the tight lipped loner who has to fight his way out of a nasty situation alongside his shipmates,colourful,and exciting "The Sand Pebbles" is well worth a look I would rate it 15
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Old but still very good, 22 Sep 2011
This review is from: The Sand Pebbles [DVD] (DVD)
I can remember watching this 25yrs ago and bought it to revisit and was not dissapointed. Slow first hour but next 2 pass very quickly.Steve did many excellent films but this one and the getaway are my top 2
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Beautifully made, McQueen at his best., 24 Nov 2009
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This review is from: The Sand Pebbles [DVD] (DVD)
The Sandpebbles is a film that is long,(nearly three hours) but does not get ponderous or dull. Robert Wise directs Steve McQueen, Candice Bergen and Richard Attenborough masterfully.
I found the Steve McQueen character Jake Holman,to be very likeable. He is tough,yet has a kind heart. One feels that he has not had an easy life but has not yet become embittered. The scene where he is teaching a fellow shipmate about the workings of a steam engine,shows the McQueen character to be a patient and kind man. Contrasted to his later having to perform unpleasant but necessary tasks. He reminded me of Cool Hand Luke in this film. This is Steve McQueen at his cool best.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars McQueen at his best, 5 Oct 2007
By 
M. A. Ramos (Florida USA) - See all my reviews
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Sand Pebbles is the story of an American sailor, who is stationed on China's Yangtze River in 1926. Though he'd prefer to stay below deck and work on the engines, he falls in love with a missionary teacher, and through his romance, he becomes aware of the Chinese political climate. When civil war breaks out within the country, he finds himself siding against his American superiors
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9 of 10 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars It's all in the eyes!, 3 July 2003
This review is from: The Sand Pebbles [DVD] (DVD)
(...)P>'The Sand Pebbles' has all the ingredients of an epic; a running time of well over two hours and a theme that reaches out beyond it's historical setting (pre communist China) to make a comment about the still fresh Vietnam War (...).
Robert Wise showed great foresight in getting the streetwise McQueen to play Holman. A sailor from the working class suburbs of America, a tough kid given the choice between the Navy and jail is almost a reflection of McQueen's own life. But he doesn't play the role for cool; we learn early on that he has trouble with authority and his scenes with Crenna's Captain Collins become increasingly one sided as Holman listens to Crenna's skewed sense of values spiral ever forward into dillusion. But Wise also spends time giving us the full character of Holman - we see his delicate, faltering connection to Candice Bergen's missionary teacher hover on the brink of romance and how he is unable to accept the cultural rules that have orientalised the running of the boat.
In particular McQueen is aided by Mako's performance as the coolie Holman reluctantly takes under his wing in the engine room. A deft comic timing overarches their scenes of education - with the awesome payoff that follows in the most powerful, coruscating scene of the movie. Caught in the most impossible of situations, McQueen's Holman makes a decision few of us would be capable of - the aftermath is one of the great unspoken stretches of virtuoso Hollywood acting. McQueen manages, with only his face (particulary his eyes), to encompass all the feelings that overwhelm his character; unable to communicate with anyone he descends to the engine room where the physicality of his actions displays more rage than any scream. A truly remarkable piece of gut wrentching acting.
So why only four stars? Richard Attenborough is miscast as Frenchy. He is unable to make Frenchy totally believable as either a sailor far from home or a lover (...). There are some loose scenes in the film, the Frency/Maily subplot becoming a little slack in places. But the crew are brilliantly drawn, with particular respect going to stalwart Simon Oakland's super Stawski.
Where Robert Wise and his scriptwriter deserve credit is in the ending of the movie. It is so downbeat that it is impossible to know it ever passed the studio moguls - and has I suspect not helped the film's popularity. But it is a fitting conclusion to the piece and gives McQueen an exceptional, blood curdling last line that probably was said many times in the jungles of Vietnam.
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The Sand Pebbles [Blu-ray] [1966] [US Import]
The Sand Pebbles [Blu-ray] [1966] [US Import] by Robert Wise (Blu-ray - 2008)
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