30 May 2004 | raymond_chandler
Perfect in every respect, "The Sand Pebbles" defines great storytelling.
I am watching the DVD of "The Sand Pebbles" for the first time. I originally saw this film as a child, during its theatrical run. Even though I have watched the P&S VHS tape many times, the DVD takes me back to that unforgettable first viewing so many years ago. This film is the definitive example of how pan and scan (laughably called "fullscreen") is nothing less than a desecration of the work of those who make movies. Thank goodness there is finally a faithful transfer of this unforgettable story.
I love movies, some much more than others. Even in the films that I love the most, the ones I consider "the best", I can always find flaws or weaknesses. I can not find a single thing to criticize in "The Sand Pebbles". The cinematography, as many others have noted, is exceptional. The detail of the sets, the ship, the costumes, the panoramic vistas, all are very convincing. As Crenna points out in the DVD commentary, there is no visual trickery, everything on the screen is real and three-dimensional. I have not read the source novel, and I am woefully ignorant of the political realities in China in this period, although I understand that the book was based on real incidents. The fact is, the story told here is compelling, and it does not matter to me how true to history it is, the world depicted in "The Sand Pebbles" is real and believable. Robert Anderson's script provides sufficient grounding in the political events to keep the audience engaged, without becoming all awkward exposition or political treatise. Of course, the characters express certain strong views, and therein the conflict arises.
Robert Wise is a first-rank director ("West Side Story", "The Haunting", "The Sound of Music"), and his work here is superlative. This film is a blend of epic-scale scenes and intimate, poignant moments of emotional realism. The camera placement, the use of extras and props, the blocking of the actors, the use of natural light, the tracking shots of the boat, all are in service of the story. Wise lets that story breathe and the characters emerge, and the result is a three-hour movie. How ironic that the main criticism leveled at "The Sand Pebbles" is that it is "slow" and "boring". Excuse me, but this is called "character development", and it sets compelling moviemaking apart from the mediocre variety. The pacing is what draws you in to this world, where the actors can give their characters life and create empathy in the audience. I can only feel sadness for the modern, ADD-afflicted viewer who is trained to respond to manipulative tricks, and can not appreciate a realistic depiction of human behavior.
Much has been said in these comments about the acting, and I agree with those who feel McQueen and Crenna stand out. The character of the captain could have been a rigid cliche, but Crenna gives us a person, a man to whom duty and service is everything, yet who is keenly aware of the needs and temperament of his crew, and who yearns to leave his mark in history. As for McQueen...his physical presence dominates the film. His understated style is perfect for Holman, a man who only wants to be left alone to do his work, and yet who will fight against injustices done to others. His facial expressions, especially in his eyes, allow us to share his thoughts and feelings throughout the movie.
The most memorable element in "The Sand Pebbles" for me is the musical score by Jerry Goldsmith. Alternately stirring and heartrending, it complements each scene absolutely brilliantly, and is the most evocative score of any motion picture I have ever seen. Unfortunately, the 1966 Oscar went to "Born Free", a mediocre picture whose title song was a hugely popular hit.
I feel privileged that I was able to see "The Sand Pebbles" in a theatre, where it is meant to be seen. This DVD version finally does justice to what I regard as an unparalleled achievement in filmmaking. There are other films that I have a stronger attachment to for various reasons, but none of them hit a home run in every department the way that "The Sand Pebbles" does.
"Water belong dead stim -all same dead stim"