Cinema Retro has received advance copies of the forthcoming restored roadshow version of Robert Wise's 1966 epic The Sand Pebbles. The film, which was widely praised at the time of its released, has basically been snubbed by the critical establishment ever since. In fact, it is one of the greatest films of the 1960s- and if you doubt why, just sample this Fox special edition DVD. The film is a tremendous achievement on all levels and has fanatical grass roots support among movie fans. In fact a web site dedicated to the film (www.thesandpebbles.com) has lobbied for years for the restoration of the movie. Happily, that goal has now been fulfilled magnificently. There may be a more impressive DVD release of a classic film this year, but I'll believe it when I see it.
Every aspect of this special edition DVD is letter-perfect. We have only reviewed the advance "check discs" and do not yet have the final product. However, we feel comfortable saying that the restoration is a truly impressive achievement. (We only wish Fox had struck some new theatrical prints to precede the video release.) First, readers should know a bit of background about the film. Director Robert Wise had picked up the screen options to Richard McKenna's bestseller about the lives and loves of crew members on a U.S. Navy gunship in China during the tumultuous year of 1926. Wise chose Steve McQueen to star in the film, even though he was not a major name in films at the time. Happily for Wise and 20th Century Fox, that would change by the time the movie went into production thanks to McQueen's major success in The Great Escape. The massive production would afford McQueen the best role of his career and his only Oscar nomination.
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The logistics of bringing the novel to the screen were daunting on every level as the production schedule stretched to nine months. Filming took place in Taiwan (known then as "Free China") as Mao's regime prohibited American movies from being made there. (This was a decade before President Nixon's historic trip to China that led to warmer relations between the countries). Wise is generally defined by his huge successes with West Side Story and The Sound of Music, but The Sand Pebbles is his true masterpiece. Perhaps because the film is a relative "downer" (tragedy befalls every major cast character), the story doesn't evoke the "feel good" atmosphere of Wises's musicals. However, this film- along with The Haunting- showcase Wise's often under-rated skills as a truly great director. Much has been made about the movie being an intentional parallel the (then) on-going war in Vietnam, but those aspects are coincidental. The book was published in 1962, the same year Wise bought the screen rights and the Vietnam debacle had yet to escalate to the controversial proportions that would define the conflict a few years later. Indeed, in watching the film today, you can see plenty of parallels to the present war in Iraq- an indication that America's attempts at gunboat diplomacy, though well-intentioned- are often misguided.
After the film's run at New York's Rivoli Theater, the studio cut about 14 minutes of footage from throughout the movie. None of the scenes were vital to the story, but they do help embellish the characters and their motives. For many years, these sequences were considered lost until Fox archivists recently found them. (For comments from the restoration team, see Cinema Retro issue #8) Thankfully, most of the missing footage has been restored for this DVD edition.
Here are the highlights of the double disc set:
Both the regular release and restored roadshow versions are included
archival interviews with Robert Wise and Fox production head Richard Zanuck (who calls the film his greatest achievement during his time running the studio)
audio commentary by music historians Nick Redman, Jon Burlingame and Lem Dobbs who pay tribute to composer Jerry Goldsmith, for whom The Sand Pebbles is arguably his greatest achievement
a wealth of brand new production featurettes that cover every aspect of the production and include new interviews with Candice Bergen, Richard Attenborough, stunt coordinator Loren Janes and others- along with Neile McQueen, Steve's ex-wife. These new featurettes showcase a wealth of very rare behind the scenes production stills showing the cast and crew in variable moods affected by the boredom of being kept on a remote location for so many months.
original, lengthy Fox production featurettes from the film's initial release
radio promotional programs and radio spot ads
souvenir program replica
extensive still galleries with artist Dong Kingman's superb paintings used in the marketing campaign and rare foreign posters from the collection of Cinema Retro staff writer Roger Nash
Mad magazine parody and pressbook reproduction
sleeve featuring the Kingman poster art
If I have one fault with Fox's DVD marketing team it's that they remain too restrained in extolling the virtues of their releases. The consumer has to read the miniature fine print on the reverse of the sleeve to see any indication that this edition restores footage missing for over forty years. Additionally, the sleeve doesn't mention that the set includes a complete collectible reproduction of the film's original souvenir program (provided to Fox by Cinema Retro from our archives) When video packaging is this creative, Fox shouldn't try to keep it a secret!
If you're among the few classic movie fans who have never seen The Sand Pebbles, I almost envy you for having the joy of experiencing this great film for the first time. For those die-hard fans of the film, this is as close to heaven as you're going to want to get anytime in the near future. - Lee Pfeiffer