by KEVIN TAYLOR & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & F & lt;/span & rom the moment when Jake Holman whispers "Hello, ship" from the darkness of a Chinese river landing, viewers join him in boarding a tawdry little gunship, the USS San Pablo, just as it gets up steam for a memorable ride.
Holman, who prefers to be left alone with the pistons and pipes and boilers of his beloved steam engine, is a troubled, prickly, grease-on-his-hands naval engineer played by Steve McQueen in this 1966 Hollywood epic.
The two-disc special edition of The Sand Pebbles, released this summer by 20th-Century Fox, is a marvelous time capsule for at least two reasons. First, it allows us to see McQueen just as he reaches full stride as an actor; he carries this movie with nuance as well as boldness.
Second, this DVD release carries bonus features that are actually informative. The features include interviews and observations by the surviving cast and crew and by McQueen's first wife. Studio head Daryl Zanuck talks bluntly about how 20th-Century Fox nearly tanked after filming the bloated Cleopatra and how, in a weird way, this allowed them to nurse The Sand Pebbles into full bloom. The studio gambled on a $200,000 replica of a gunboat and a full-size working steam engine -- and the attention to detail pays off big-time.
The movie is set in 1926 China, a time of chaos and civil war when the American gunboat sailors no longer had any idea what their mission was. They struggled under shifting rules of engagement. Hmm, sound familiar?
Richard Attenborough, the proper British actor we may remember only as the crazy old coot from Jurassic Park, is muscled and powerful as a rough-edged American sailor in a forgotten corner of the world.
The 19-year-old Candice Bergen is compelling as the na & iuml;ve mission teacher, and Richard Crenna nearly steals the movie as the captain trying to hold his disintegrating boat and crew together. Performances by lesser characters -- especially Chinese ones -- do come off as cartoonish and dated, but the supporting cast is otherwise terrific.
Thanks largely to McQueen's timeless performance -- and brilliant cinematography -- The Sand Pebbles remains fresh 41 years after its release.