The Sand Pebbles (1966)

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Released 6-Jan-2003

Cover Art

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Details At A Glance

General Extras
Category Drama Audio Commentary
Theatrical Trailer
Audio-Only Track-Radio Documentary 1; Radio Documentary 2
Radio Spots-3
Rating ?
Year Of Production 1966
Running Time 175:04
RSDL / Flipper RSDL (89:12) Cast & Crew
Start Up Menu
Region Coding 2,4 Directed By Robert Wise

Twentieth Century Fox
Starring Steve McQueen
Richard Attenborough
Richard Crenna
Candice Bergen
Marayat Andrianne
Larry Gates
Case ?
RPI $31.95 Music Jerry Goldsmith

Video Audio
Pan & Scan/Full Frame None English Dolby Digital 4.0 L-C-R-S (384Kb/s)
English Audio Commentary Dolby Digital 2.0 mono (96Kb/s)
Widescreen Aspect Ratio 2.35:1
16x9 Enhancement
16x9 Enhanced
Video Format 576i (PAL)
Original Aspect Ratio 2.35:1 Miscellaneous
Jacket Pictures No
Subtitles Croatian
English for the Hearing Impaired
Smoking Yes
Annoying Product Placement No
Action In or After Credits No

NOTE: The Profanity Filter is ON. Turn it off here.

Plot Synopsis

    I came to this movie without preconceptions, mostly because I'd never heard of it before. When I started it, the first thing I checked was the length, and that was something of a surprise — nearly 3 hours.

    This is a richly-detailed film. It seems quite simple, a sad little story, but it really uses every minute of that 3 hour running time, and is never boring — that is quite an impressive feat. Although it is set against the backdrop of momentous events, and features a cast of thousands of extras, it is really an intimate story of just a few people with the strongest focus being on Jake Holman (Steve McQueen).

    This film is set in 1929, in China, in a period when the Chinese Nationalists were rising under Chiang Kai Shek — trying to rid their country of the various foreign governments.

    Jake Holman is a navy engineer, who has just left the Navy's Asian fleet flagship because he wants the chance to be in charge of the engine room. So he joins a gunboat (a much smaller, far less prestigious assignment). Maybe someone had it in for him, or maybe it was the only assignment available, but he gets assigned to the San Pablo, an old and somewhat decrepit vessel which ploughs the rivers of inland China . He discovers (to his surprise) that the San Pablo is not run in conventional Navy fashion — it has a large crew of Chinese coolies (paid very little money) who do all, or almost all, of the manual labour, with each crew of coolies (such as the engine room crew) under the control of a head coolie. Jake is unhappy about this concept, because he has an intimate relationship with the engine, and he has no intention of letting other people get in his way. He yields on other points (such as allowing another coolie to shave him) because it's the coolie's "rice bowl" (it's the only way that coolie can earn a living).

    Jake interacts with a number of people. He meets a young woman, Shirley  (a very young Candice Bergen — she was about 19), on the boat on the way to his ship. He forms friendships with Frenchy (Richard Attenborough), a member of his engine crew, and Po-Han (a young Mako), one of the engine room coolies. He does not become friends with the captain, Collins (Richard Crenna), mainly because they have very different ideas of the proper way to run the boat.

    This film features a lot of racial prejudice — Jake Holman frequently refers to slopeheads, and yet he generally treats them fairly; other sailors don't use that term, but treat them most definitely as second-class citizens. Collins doesn't seem to think too much about the coolies, except in that they free his men to be warriors, which he sees as their primary role. This is one film where the racism cannot be smoothed over by political correctness — it is a vital part of the film, because it provides the motivation for a number of the behaviours that would otherwise be inexplicable. There are a couple of scenes that are beautifully constructed — perhaps the most interesting is the black smoke drifting across the US flag (you'll see what I mean).

    In case you are wondering, the title of the movie comes from the nickname given to the sailors on the San Pablo — they are called the Sand Pebbles.

    This is an interesting film, and possibly Steve McQueen's best work (this is the only time he got nominated for an Oscar — it would have been richly deserved). I am surprised it isn't better known.

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Transfer Quality


    This movie is presented in an aspect ratio of 2.35:1, which is the intended ratio. It is 16x9 enhanced.

    This film looks rather good, considering the age of the film. It was released in 1966, meaning it was filmed almost four decades ago. There are no "opticals" (optical special effects) in this film — everything was shot as it appears — so a vast amount of the film was shot on location, in varying weather conditions. Under those circumstances, this looks very good indeed.

    There is quite a bit of film grain, mostly very light, lending a touch of softness (and grittiness) to the picture that I'm quite happy to accept. The picture is remarkably clear, given that softness. Shadow detail is limited, and the contrast seems somewhat harsh a lot of the time. There's no low-level noise.

    Colour is dull, looking faded, which I attribute to a combination of the film stock and the location shooting conditions. Even so, it does not detract from the film — it seems quite appropriate.

    There are film artefacts, but they are surprisingly few in number. The ones I recorded include a hair at 88:45, some light marks at 41:14 and 42:57, and a blue mark at 109:51 — the rest are tiny. For a film of this age, this is an excellent effort. The artefacts don't detract from the experience.

    There's not a lot of aliasing, possibly because there are a lot of shots. There's no significant moire. There's no shimmer. There are no MPEG artefacts, save for a bit of ringing around foreground objects that's only visible when you're looking closely (it's not edge enhancement, even though it looks like it on occasion).

    In all, the video is really rather good, given the age of the source materials and the conditions under which they were shot.

    There are subtitles in thirteen languages, including English. The English subtitles are labelled as hearing impaired, and there is some mention of sound effects, but not a lot. The English subtitles are well-timed, quite accurate (albeit somewhat abbreviated), and easy to read. I do wish they were placed lower, in the black bar below the movie, rather than on the movie itself.

    The disc is single-sided and dual layered, formatted RSDL. The layer change is at 89:12, in the middle of a black frame with no sound that is part of the intermission. It could not be better placed, and is effectively invisible.

Video Ratings Summary
Shadow Detail
Film-To-Video Artefacts
Film Artefacts


    This disc has two audio tracks. The first is the film's soundtrack, presented in Dolby Digital 4.0, formatted LCRS (that's left, centre, right, and mono surround) at 384 kbps; the second is the commentary track, presented in Dolby Digital 2.0 mono, at just 96 kbps. The soundtrack is rather well-made, considering the quality of recording in 1966 — there's no significant hiss or other analogue recording artefacts, but dynamic range is somewhat less than we'd see on a modern film.

    The dialogue is clear and easy to understand. There are no audio sync problems, but there are some obvious moments of ADR — it's quite obvious when the reverberation alters dramatically for a line.

    The score, from Jerry Goldsmith, is adequate, although a bit strident in places. It was nominated for an Oscar, too.

    The surrounds don't get a heap of directional sound (that'd be hard with a mono surround signal) — this is basically a frontal soundstage, but the sound is nicely spread across the front.

    The subwoofer is not provided with a signal from this soundtrack, but your amplifier's bass management may redirect bass from the other channels into the sub.

Audio Ratings Summary
Audio Sync
Surround Channel Use


    This film is old enough that its primary advertising was by radio, rather than television, or that's the impression one gets from the extras.


    The menu is static and silent, with an interesting design that doesn't make it any harder to navigate.

Feature Commentary

    This is an excellent commentary, but it sounds very much like it was assembled from separate pieces of commentary by the various participants. Among the people who I could identify speaking are producer/director Robert Wise, actors Richard Crenna, Mako, and Candice Bergen; there are other voices, but they don't identify themselves. Because this is such a long film, there's a heck of a lot of commentary content — there are very few gaps in the commentary. Some of the content is scene-specific, but the majority has been edited together so different commentators' views on a subject come one after another — that's a sensible idea.

Theatrical Trailer (3:10)

    A fairly classic example of the type of trailer common in the 1960s.

Radio Documentaries

    Two documentary pieces prepared, by the sounds of it, for British radio. They play over a still photo. The first runs for 13:33, while the second runs 9:43.

Radio Spots

    Three radio spots advertising the film, running 1:06, 0:34, and 0:39.

Still Gallery

    Thirteen still photos taken on location.

R4 vs R1

NOTE: To view non-R4 releases, your equipment needs to be multi-zone compatible and usually also NTSC compatible.

    The Region 1 is listed on the IMDb as having both anamorphic widescreen and pan-and-scan transfers, all on a single-sided single-layered disc. That seems utterly unbelievable for a film of this length. Other sources suggest that the disc is dual-layered, and only has a widescreen transfer. If this is true, then the R1 disc is essentially identical to the Region 4 disc, because it has the same extras. The transfer sounds like it is pretty much the same quality as ours. Call it a draw between the two.


    The Sand Pebbles is a well-made intelligent film presented well on DVD.

    The video quality is quite good.

    The audio quality is very good.

    The extras, particularly the commentary, are interesting and worthwhile.

Ratings (out of 5)


© Tony Rogers (bio-degrading: making a fool of oneself in a bio...)
Monday, February 10, 2003
Review Equipment
DVDPioneer DV-S733A, using Component output
DisplaySony VPH-G70 CRT Projector, QuadScan Elite scaler (Tripler), ScreenTechnics 110. Calibrated with Video Essentials. This display device is 16x9 capable.
Audio DecoderBuilt in to amplifier/receiver. Calibrated with Video Essentials.
AmplificationDenon AVC-A1SE
SpeakersFront Left, Centre, Right: Krix Euphonix; Rears: Krix KDX-M; Subwoofer: Krix Seismix 5

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classic anti-war film. - wolfgirv REPLY POSTED
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