The Sand Pebbles (1966)

The Sand Pebbles (1966), produced and directed by Robert Wise.

Jake Holman's shipmates think he is a Jonah. He does have a long run of bad luck, serving on a rusty dysfunctional gunboat during turbulent times. Is any of it his fault? He has his rough side but is pretty decent, one of the few such in his crew. He insists on running the engine room his own way, which causes friction.

The ship is his home. His last words: "I was home. What happened?"

I hadn't seen this for many years; it takes some energy to sit down for a 3 hour movie which is deliberately paced (some might say "slow") between the action segments. We expect an epic scale from the location shooting, specially built replica gunboat and living history of the awakening China, with fighting between the Communists and Nationalists and expulsion of the foreign militaries.

We have all that but the epic scale is reduced to a background for unhappy personal events, a list of competing dreads. The ship itself is an unhappy family commanded by a poor father figure. The sailors are crude and terribly abusive to the Chinese, especially the women. Especially one innocent young woman.

Not much hope here. Of our four lovers only one survives. Well-intentioned missionaries: it's bad for them, too. The mutinous river navy: escape is the best they can do, suffering many casualties. Peace, understanding and amity between peoples and nations: forget it.

Our cast and characters:

Jerry Goldsmith score; he was brought in when Alex North became ill (or -- some say -- objected to the amount of violence in the film). Goldsmith had been scoring movies and TV for ten years; this was his first epic scale film.

Photographed by Joseph MacDonald -- How to Marry a Millionaire (1953), Niagara (1953), Yellow Sky (1948).

Available on Blu-ray, an early mpeg2 encoding. It is a good, unprocessed image.

Two commentary tracks: edited contributions by Robert Wise, Richard Crenna, Mako and Candice Bergen, and an isolated score with comments during the quiet parts from Nick Redman, Jon Burlingame and Lem Dobbs.

Robert Wise says: