The Sand Pebbles Blu-ray Review

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by Chris McEneany Jun 17, 2008 at 12:00 AM

  • Movies review

    The Sand Pebbles Blu-ray Review
    SRP: £24.79


    After Patton's glorious image - DNR'd to hell and back, yet still looking absolutely ravishing despite what the experts have now said about its transfer - it is great to state that The Sand Pebbles is another scintillating presentation of an older movie bestowed a wonderful MPEG-2 makeover for 1080p. And, in view of what the professionals have been saying about Patton, it is doubly rewarding to note that Wise's film has not been the unlucky recipient of such detail-swallowing DNR. Yep, there is still plenty of grain to this 2.35:1 image, but of that entrancing finite variety denoting a purely filmic picture that does not look over-processed, waxy or bereft of the very structure that goes into producing an image on celluloid. So, with all this in mind, there should be no dissenters and no disappointment at all with regards to Fox's handling of this terrific transfer.

    Detail is considerably more apparent than on any of the previous versions of the film that I have seen. Uniforms, sets, the machinery down in the engine room, weaponry and the various boats and junks bobbing about on the river all display plentiful new visual information. People scurrying about cramped decks and loitering about the dockside - just check out the scene when the Chinese mob draped over the wooden pier taunt the sailors going about their parade duties early on - possess plenty of eye-catching little nuances. Distant shorelines and the great sweeping vistas of the foothills and the San Pablo chugging down the centre of two great banks of rolling foliage have moments that really shine with detailed beauty - but this is not always so consistent, as they are also occasions when such far away sights can soften and become slightly blurred. Close-ups, however, remain incredibly sharp and finite throughout. McQueen's and Crenna's faces are both unique and offer up heaps of revealing clarity. The crowd scenes and the action set-pieces also benefit hugely from this added definition, with lots more activity plainly rendered and opened-up to scrutiny.

    Whites can veer slightly hot - Crenna's dress uniform in the sunlight, for instance - but otherwise colours and contrast are pretty impressive. The blood on show looks nice and bright, the blues of McQueen's eyes and the weathered gleam of the brass pipes and dials down in the engine-room are authentic and natural, the various shades on the bustling streets and the earthier hues for the scenes set inside the brothel are tangible and convincing. A shot of Crenna barking jingoistic speeches to his men as he stands in front of a wind-blown Stars And Stripes looks absolutely ravishing - if you can get past the edge enhancement that can make this particular image look almost superimposed, that is. The surreal image of a mini-rainbow caused when the crew turn their hoses on the blockade is nicely caught on disc, too. Blacks and midnight blues are good enough to provide convincing weight and depth to the night-time scenes without swamping objects and characters within. A previous R1 edition that I saw of the movie had terrible black levels that all but destroyed the atmosphere of interiors and nocturnal scenes, especially the tense final skirmish, but this transfer succeeds admirably and provides the finale with deeply etched definition of characters in their white uniforms against a surprisingly detailed cloak of night.

    Perhaps inevitably there are some tiny elements creeping in that betray the film's vintage. Contrast can waver in slight flickering portions of the image - inherent in the film, itself, and certainly not a fault of the transfer - and there are very occasional little flecks dotted about here and there. But, overall, this is a majestic transfer that, barring some slight edge enhancement, looks absolutely amazing. Fans will be overjoyed at the love and attention bestowed upon it. We aren't taking The Searchers here, but this is close enough.

    The Sand Pebbles Picture


    Now again, there are those who don't like their older films remixed with surround channels, but The Sand Pebbles, as far as I can hear, doesn't make any of those errors you would normally associate with bogus 5.1 makeovers with its new DTS-HD MA track. It is true that some of the discrete effects thrown around the speakers may not sound all that natural, but nor do they draw undue attention to themselves and they certainly add to the immersive quality of the film.

    Considering all the truly bombastic stuff that I usually have blasting out of up to 7.1 channels, it is somewhat surprising that it was The Sand Pebbles that had me running afoul of the neighbours. Indeed, whilst the mix isn't the most flamboyant, loud or dynamic around, once the fireworks do start and the big battle rages on through the final act, the sound of the gunfire from small arms and machine-guns becomes pretty damn forceful and aggressive. When McQueen strafes enemy positions the sub comes to life and the bullets really spew across the soundstage with vigour. The copious screams and impacts, and the raucous laughter or shouting of crowds stretch out a little bit, but the effect is still somewhat dated in its range. Separation across the front is decent without being striking and dialogue can occasionally sound a little brittle and dwarfed by the rest of the track - though never to a detrimental degree. A great little element is the sound of the engine room - its steam valves, pipes and cogs twisting and turning and chugging around the set-up - and also the sound of the river lapping against the hull. Nothing spectacular, but a great new slice of atmospheric scene-setting, just the same.

    By far the greatest contribution made by the new mix is to Goldsmith's score, which delivers the music with considerable warmth and width across the entire soundscape. As you will see in the extra features section, much is made of the score, so it is not surprising that the transfer is clear and clean enough to allow you to pick out individual instruments and their placement within the aural environment. There is a majestic sweep of the brass and the strings and, at times, the score literally engulfs the room - which, to me, is not a problem, although some could say that the music is given a little too much prominence in the mix.

    It should be noted that there is also a very small degree of hiss on the soundtrack, but I had absolutely no problem with this at all. The Sand Pebbles has never sounded so good, or so fresh. There is also a DD 4.0 mix on offer, but I have to say that I preferred the DTS, which sounded fuller and more evenly distributed.

    The Sand Pebbles Sound


    As with Patton and The Longest Day, Fox have stuffed The Sand Pebbles with enough extras to sink a battleship, let alone a little gunboat rust-bucket like the San Pablo.

    Starting with the commentaries, we have a terrific piece-meal co-operative from Robert Wise, Richard Crenna, Candice Bergen and Mako. With the participants recorded separately, there is plenty of room for each to supply their memories of the production and a few anecdotes - but it really would have been marvellous had they been able to banter with one another and enjoy the reminiscence together. However, this is one of those tracks it is both worth staying the distance with, or just dipping into as and when. Crenna, God bless him, is the most entertaining of the bunch and often pitches in some fun stories. He and Wise are undoubtedly the most engaging on the track and their accounts are both scene-specific and hugely illuminating.

    However - and feel free to call me weird - the chat that I loved best was the one that is interspersed between the isolated score from Jerry Goldsmith. Now, regular readers will know that I am a soundtrack collector and have covered quite a few for the site. They will also know that Jerry Goldsmith is my absolute favourite composer and it is always a joy to hear more and learn more about his methodology and decisions when creating a score. This track, fronted by Nick Redman who fields the questions to soundtrack authority and writer Jon Burlingame and film/score historian Lem Dobbs attempts to probe beneath the crotchety veneer that the composer tended to hide behind when asked to discuss his film scores. We learn how much this particular score meant to Goldsmith and his career and of the magnificently simplistic tack he took to creating it - and virtually all of his outstanding scores, for that matter - and, in a great little treat, we even get to hear from him in an excerpt from a candid audio interview that took place in 2000. Another nice little bonus is the fact that Redman, a score producer of some considerable acclaim, himself, and co. have also seen fit to incorporate several cues into this track that were cut from the finished film, thus making this the most complete version of legendary The Sand Pebbles score available - since none of these extra tracks appear on any of the official album releases. However, this will inevitably be a tired old slog of a commentary for those not smitten by either the score or the composer, and many patches are also left quiet when the gaps between the musical cues are too short for the three to engage in conversation before getting cut off. The track is presented in 2-channel DD and the score shines through with crystal clarity, warmth and detail.

    There is also a Trivia Track for the film, adding in more detail and factoids about the production, the era in which it is set, the actors and the story.

    Road Show Scenes allows us to peruse a total of thirteen deleted and/or extended scenes that were once incorporated into the touring version of the movie. A couple of these are quite worthwhile - such as the fleshing out of the romance between Holman and Bergen's missionary, Shirley. And a little bit more action on the boat is presented too, though there is really nothing vital that is missing from the finished film. The full selection runs for 14 minutes.

    The various featurettes are nice to see but, barring the great Making Of The Sand Pebbles (which can be found in amongst the Road Show Scenes menu), have that over-the-top zeal of self-praise and back-slapping that will detract from repeated viewings. For instance, under the heading of Side Bar, we find a series of three little featurettes. Steve McQueen Remembered (10:45) which looks at the career of Steve McQueen via the recollections and thoughts of his colleagues, including Bergen and Attenborough and filmmakers Richard Zanuck and Norman Jewison; Bob Wise in Command (10:38) which is a quite disappointing retrospective of the legendary filmmaker with some banal comments from the likes of Julie Andrews and some dry anecdotes from the man, himself; and China 1926 (12:54) which examines the potent history of China around the period during which the film takes place and its hotbed of political and sociological unrest. Although initially interesting when you see them listed as extras, I don't believe that they actually offer much in the grand scheme of things. But The Making Of The Sand Pebbles, which runs for a very satisfying 63 minutes, is the real meat and potatoes of the bonuses, offering a very detailed and comprehensive look at the production of the movie. Charting the story's underlying messages and the motives of the characters, the budgetary concerns of the elaborate shoot, the casting and the locations used, this documentary more than delivers the goods about a film that proved quite a feat to get underway ... and to keep afloat.

    Under the heading of 1966, we can another couple of vintage featurettes. A Ship Called San Pablo (14.28) is narrated by Richard Attenborough and chronicles the building on-location of the replica vessel used in the movie. The Secret Of The San Pablo (8.52) is hosted by Richard Crenna and fits snugly in as a companion piece to Dickie's offering, with a look at the locations and the sets used for the film. Purely promotional stuff of course, but a lot better than many of the more modern EPK drivel that festoon so many releases. Also to be found here is the theatrical trailer, which is in variable quality and runs for a lengthy 3.18 mins.

    Then we move onto the Radio Documentaries (Narrated by Richard Attenborough). Here we have two entries - Changsha Bund and the Streets of Tapei and A Ship Called San Pablo. Playing over vintage photographs from the picture and lasting for around twenty minutes, these cover the film's production in more detail, especially, once again, with regards to the actual boat and the location work.

    And this isn't all. We also get to hear three Radio Spots that hail from the time of the film's release and are purely promotional - but still quite quaint.

    Overall, this is a great set of features. The commentaries are what deal with the characters and the ideas behind the script, whilst the featurettes cover the shoot, the sets and the props in great detail. Well worth your time.

    The Sand Pebbles Extras


    Deliberately slowly-paced, The Sand Pebbles still works up to a terrifically dramatic and suspenseful final act. But the journey to get us there is still immensely rewarding regardless of its leisurely amble. With an excellent star turn from McQueen and great support from Bergan, Attenborough, Mako and even Crenna, the film feels immersive, character-driven and quietly unpredictable. For a big-screen, militaristic spectacle, this wallowing in psychology, attitude and the social and moral ambiguities of the era, the location and the crucial politics of the period is a refreshing experiment for a thoroughly lavish A-picture. Boasting an extraordinary tableau and a situation that few really know about or understand, the complex tale is skilfully woven via intricate development, a slyly evolving scenario and a screenplay that never once condescends.

    The BD release contains a fabulous visual transfer and new audio that makes some effort to involve you in the drama. The extras certainly go the distance and provide heaps of information and anecdote to keep you entertained for hours more. All in all, this is a classic package for a beautiful and hugely underrated movie that is eminently ripe for re-evaluation. Very highly recommended.

    Suggested retail price when reviewed: £24.79

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