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The Sand Pebbles

20th Century Fox/20th Century Fox Home Entertainment . R4 . COLOR . 175 mins . PG . PAL


As a lifelong movie freak, it fills me with a mixture of embarrassment and self-loathing to admit that I had never seen a Steve McQueen film until recently. If you are currently as uncultured as I was, then I suggest that you see The Sand Pebbles post haste. 'Cos it's good. Real good.

The Sand Pebbles was made in 1966, after McQueen had made his name with The Great Escape. It earned McQueen his first and only Academy Award nomination, and also introduced the world to the dubious talents of Candice Bergen (Murphy Brown herself), plus it featured such respected thespians as Richards Attenborough and Crenna.

Set aboard the USS San Pablo, an American gunship patrolling the rivers of China in 1926, The Sand Pebbles begins with engineer Jake Holman (McQueen) arriving to begin his new commission. He is unsettled by the crew's practice of letting a group of Chinese sailors handle the day-to-day running of the ship, and tensions rise when he elects to relieve his "slopehead" (hey, this was 1966!) counterpart of his duties.

He quickly befriends Frenchy Burgoyne (Attenborough), a kind-hearted fellow engineer who is determined to marry a Chinese prostitute-with-a-heart-of-gold whom the pair meet in a seedy bar.

But Holman's cynicism and cavalier disregard for authority bring him head-to-head with the stern Captain Collins (Crenna), and when the boat is ordered to speed into hostile territory to rescue a group of stranded American missionaries, their conflict is compounded by mutinous natives and hordes of gun-toting "Chinks".

As you may have guessed, political correctness is not exactly adhered to in this patronisingly racist flick. And at 175 minutes, it oft-times moves at the speed of, well, a steamboat.

But if you can deal with that, there's plenty to enjoy here, particularly some strong central performances, an unpredictable and affecting story, and some kick-ass (well, in a '60s kinda way) action sequences.


A crystal clear widescreen (2.35:1, 16:9 enhanced) image more than does justice to this 37 year old film.


The Dolby Digital 4.0 surround soundtrack is decent considering the age of the source material. Dialogue is occassionally a little muddy, especially when the action is below decks, but the rest is fine. There's nothing here to really test your speakers of subwoofer, though.


The audio commentary by director Robert Wise and actors Richard Crenna, Candice Bergen and Mako is surprisingly listenable. Wise is an affable and interesting speaker, and as the director of such eclectic blockbusters as The Sound of Music, Star Trek: The Motion Picture and The Day the Earth Stood Still, he has plenty to share.

Hearing Crenna's contributions is bittersweet in light of his recent passing, especially when considering how lively and bullish he sounds in this commentary. Mako and Bergen make smaller but still worthy contributions, with one of the recurring subjects being McQueen's introverted, but quietly decent, persona.

There's a stills gallery that consists of 13 behind-the-scenes photos.

The theatrical trailer is... very '60s.

Three radio spots made to advertise the film are hardly compulsory listening.

Finally, two radio documentaries, both of which run for around ten minutes, consist of British interviews and behind-the-scenes info. Over-the-top, hyperbolic stuff, but interesting from an historical perspective.


The Sand Pebbles is a captivating, if leisurely paced action film with some hilariously politically incorrect dialogue and some great performances, particularly from the legendary Steve McQueen. They sure don't make 'em like they used to...

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      And I quote...
    "The Sand Pebbles is a captivating, if leisurely paced action film with some hilariously politically incorrect dialogue and some great performances, particularly from the legendary Steve McQueen. "
    - Terry Oberg
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