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The Sand Pebbles
  • Composed by Jerry Goldsmith
  • Intrada / 2011 / 109:28 (score 70:22)

Jerry Goldsmith scored some notable stinkers during his career; on many occasions he seemed to work on projects that were considerably beneath him.  But he worked on a number of wonderful films too – Patton, Papillon, Chinatown, Alien and of course Rent-a-Cop.  Arguably best of all is the superb The Sand Pebbles, Robert Wise’s powerful film set in China during its turbulent revolution of the 1920s.  The film focuses on an American gunboat, the San Pablo, which finds itself caught up in the conflict, and deals with issues of tolerance for other cultures in an incredibly mature way, with all its Vietnam allegories.  The production was very expensive and every dollar is there to see on the screen – the recreation of China is particularly impressive.  Steve McQueen gives arguably his finest performance and receives able support from, amongst others, Richard Attenborough and Richard Crenna.

The film was by far the highest profile that Goldsmith had scored up to that point.  Alex North was originally slated to score it but recommended his young apprentice when he pulled out, considering the violence too much for him (it is a harrowing tale at times).  Goldsmith took to the challenge of scoring the complex film with relish, boosted by an unusually long period allowed to him for composing the score (three months).  He used the time well, fashioning a score which works on the surface as a great romantic adventure score but which on closer inspection reveals extraordinary emotional complexity.

Jerry Goldsmith in the 1960s

Jerry Goldsmith in the 1960s

Often considered (much to his own disdain) as a composer best-suited to “hardware films”, throughout his career Jerry Goldsmith actually tried to focus on the emotional side of each film he scored; he saw The Sand Pebbles as a multi-faceted love story and scored it accordingly.  There are two wonderful love themes here – the most famous (heard during the Overture and a mainstay of Goldsmith’s concerts throughout his life) is a fairly traditional Hollywood romantic piece turned into the song “And We Were Lovers”, recorded by literally hundreds of different artists in the years following the film’s release.  For me, the piece works well in the large-scale form heard during the Overture; but it really comes into its own when the composer plays it in more intimate variations over the course of the score, often reducing the orchestra to a handful of strings and a reed or two.  The second main theme, dubbed the “Chinese Love Theme” on the album, is one of the composer’s great “westernised oriental music” pieces.  Its introduction in “Maily Appears” is one of the score’s most striking moments.  What’s wonderful is the way the composer frequently contrasts the two themes – one notionally “American”, the other notionally “Chinese” – to musically represent the mixture of (and sometimes clash between) the two cultures.  Both also find their way into action music – “My Secret” is particularly noteworthy, the Chinese theme at first forming the core melodic material of the aggressive piano-led action material before appearing in a gutwrenching romantic arrangement during the cue’s second half.  The other most notable piece of action is the breathless, brilliant “Repeal Boarders”, one of the most exciting of the composer’s career (and that’s saying something).

For me, the most moving musical moment of the film – one of the most moving musical moments of any film – is “Death of a Thousand Cuts”, an incredible piece of music that accompanies four of the most harrowing minutes in mainstream cinema history, as a Chinese crewmember of the boat is tortured on shore by his countrymen; McQueen’s character takes it upon himself to end the agony by shooting his friend and colleague dead.  Intrada’s Douglass Fake has noted that the theme the composer bases the piece around is reprised just once, towards the end of the score when McQueen kills another man, this time in combat; and yet this piece is the one Goldsmith chose to play over the film’s opening titles, showing the depth of thought that the composer put into this.

Julie Kirgo astutely notes in her liner notes that the film wasn’t as successful as it deserved to be because the American audience just didn’t want to hear the message it was being told.  Goldsmith’s score also doesn’t really get the recognition it deserves; it is so rich in its emotional complexity, it challenges the listener to uncover its wealth of qualities.  This is music which really is worth the time exploring in great detail; far less celebrated than the only other collaboration between this composer and director (13 years later, Star Trek: The Motion Picture) in many ways it is just as rewarding.  There have been three CD releases of The Sand Pebbles – in 1997 Varese Sarabande issued a re-recording of the highlights of the score with Goldsmith conducting the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, then in 2002 the same label released the majority of the score.  Almost a decade later, Intrada’s presentation is undoubtedly the definitive one – the sound is greatly enhanced throughout, but most notably on “Repeal Boarders”, a pivotal cue that was damaged on the previous release.  It’s one of the crowning achievements of Goldsmith’s career, a must-have for fans of serious film music.  ***** |

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  1. Roman Martel (Reply) on Friday 21 December, 2012 at 01:49

    Another great review James. Thanks for keeping us up on all the great Goldsmith releases. I picked this one up based on your older review. I completely agree with you, my first couple listens, I enjoyed it, but didn’t see what the fuss was all about. But with additional listens and really spending time delving into the music, it becomes a truly impressive work. Any plans on reviewing the expanded “Masada” release? I’m curious to hear your take on Steven’s work on that score.

  2. Maarten (Reply) on Friday 21 December, 2012 at 23:15

    Hello James, compliments for your great reviews, I’ve been enjoying them for years.
    I’m hesitating to pick this one up, I already own the Varese version (and the rerecording too). Is the sound that much better, apart from Repeal Boarders?

    • James Southall (Reply) on Saturday 22 December, 2012 at 09:58


      Roman – I didn’t actually buy the Masada release so don’t have it. I love the old re-recording so much I just didn’t prioritise it. How do you think the original recording compares with the old album recording?

      Maarten – there is a noticeable improvement in sound throughout but to be honest, unless you’re a particular audiophile, it might not be worth the upgrade.

  3. Roman Martel (Reply) on Monday 24 December, 2012 at 16:45

    James – Actually I’ve never had the original release, so the expanded version of “Masada” was my first exposure to it. Great score! Goldsmith’s material is really excellent, but Steven’s material really surprised me. He does some wonderful things with Goldsmith’s work. The final episode score is really top notch stuff. For me it was worth picking up, but I have to say the highlights from Goldsmith’s section of the score look like they were covered in the original release.

  4. Yavar Moradi (Reply) on Monday 7 January, 2013 at 19:43

    Hi James — you NEED the complete Masada. It’s not some 90s action fluff, it’s one of his *greatest* scores, and all of the material omitted from the (excellent) re-recording is ACE (particularly a fantastic semi-source version of the main theme featuring hammer dulcimer, following The Road to Masada). Plus, none of Morton Stevens’ also excellent material was included on the re-recording, so really, this score was more in need of a complete release than even The Shadow!


  5. IT 2 IT (Reply) on Sunday 26 April, 2015 at 05:26

    GREAT score. GREAT film.

    NOTICE, in 2015, as RED CHINA handover surges forward,
    Hollywood continues to obediently’overlook’ the awesomely relevant
    ——————————–KOREAN WAR———————————