Home > Reviews > THE SAND PEBBLES – Jerry Goldsmith

THE SAND PEBBLES – Jerry Goldsmith


Original Review by Craig Lysy

Director Robert Wise recognized the epic potential of The Sand Pebbles when he read Richard McKenna’s novel, and commissioned Robert Anderson to adapt it for the screen. He assembled a stellar cast, which included hero Jake Holman (Steve McQueen), his love interest Shirley Eckhart (Candice Bergen), his friend Frenchie Burgoyne (Richard Attenborough), the honorable Captain Collins (Richard Crenna) and his apprentice Po-Han (Mako). The film’s setting is colonial China circa 1926 where the gunboat U.S.S. San Pablo patrols a tributary of the Yangtze River. China is in tumult as Nationalists, Communists and feudal warlords all compete for land, money and power. Jake, a laconic loner and iconoclast, joins the crew and immediately clashes with the “rice-bowl” coolie system, which runs the ship. In so doing he alienates both the captain and his crewmates. He meets Shirley, a missionary, and we see a spark of romance. Yet their relationship is doomed as war against all westerners erupts and the San Pablo must fight for its life as it sails upriver to rescue missionaries at the China Light Mission. The film was a commercial and a critical success earning eight Oscar nominations including Best Score, which Goldsmith lost out to John Barry’s Born Free.

Robert Wise had originally selected Alex North to score the film, but North was repelled by the violence and declined, citing his ‘sciatica ailment’. Instead, Fox Studios pulled Goldsmith from his Grand Prix project (which would in turn be scored by Michel Legrand) and gave him the assignment. For Goldsmith, who was only five years into his career, it was an amazing opportunity given the film’s director and epic canvass. Goldsmith related “I loved Bob Wise immediately. He was wonderful to work with because he knew, dramatically, what worked and what didn’t work.” Although the film on the transpersonal level spoke to war and the clash of civilizations, it also had a potent multifactorial personal narrative centered upon love; Jake’s love of Shirley, his friend and coolie Mako, his engines, as well as Frenchie’s love for Maily.

It was upon Jake’s and Frenhcie’s loves that Goldsmith underpinned his score. Featured prominently in “Getting Acquainted” and “Jake and Shirley”, the American Love Theme is purely western and forthright in expression. Lyrical violins carry the melodic line that is augmented by French horns, which add warmth. The Chinese Love Theme, which is heard prominently in “Maily Appears” and “Frenchie’s Death”, features a blending of occidental and oriental instruments with its melodic line carried by lyrical violins and supported by gamelan. When the themes interplay, as in “The Wedding,” a sublime synergy is achieved. Additionally there are three motifs, which Goldsmith infuses his score; the dramatic and portentous French horn-born eight-note San Pablo Motif that is emblematic of the ship, the four note Bird-Call Motif, a death motif that speaks to the two times Jake kills a man, and the ten-note rhythmic wood block Chinese Motif, which provides a exotic Chinese ambiance.

“Overture” begins our journey with two versions featured on the album. Cue 1 CD2 features Goldsmiths rejected original concept, which emotes the Chinese Love Theme, while Cue 1 CD1 features the film version, which expresses the American Love Theme. Lionel Newman, Music Director of Fox Studios, found that the American Love Theme offered an opportunity of a pop hit and so ordered orchestrator David Tamkin to rework the Overture. Leslie Bricusse provided lyrics for the song “And We Were Lovers” that turns out was never used in the film. Both cues open up identically with a powerful, dramatic and portentous French horn fanfare repeating the eight-note San Pablo Motif that concludes with a sharp discordant counter by trumpet with timpani. Goldsmith repeats this opening line before providing an orchestra bridge that includes gamelan coloring to proceed into the Love Theme. Both versions have their own innate beauty, with the rejected version finding greater resonance with your reviewer. Both versions conclude powerfully with a full orchestral variant of the opening horn line. These pieces are both just astounding in the lyrical beauty and dramatic power.

The “Main Title”, which plays as a threnody, plays as the opening credits roll and is in my judgment a masterpiece cue, one of the most compelling openings in film score history. Goldsmith establishes a truly dark and portentous ambiance by opening to a repeating triplet of violins tragico with a temple bell counter. He then introduces the tragic four-note Bird-call Motif on ruan. A gamelan bridge returns us to the repeating triplet with the temple bell replaced with a powerful resonating bass chord and the ten-note rhythmic wood block Chinese Motif. A plaintive solo oboe with kindred woodwinds establishes the melodic line as the deep bass chords and wood block percussion continue. When violins assume the theme the music swells and conveys a painful pathos that is just heart wrenching. We come to a diminuendo closure upon woodwinds adorned with a sparkling crotales flourish.

The following three cues are thematic in that they feature the American Love Theme in different guises. “Getting Acquainted” reveals Jake meeting the idealistic missionary Shirley. We see a spark of attraction, but it is clear that romance has yet to blossom. As such Goldsmith shows the Love Theme with subtlety born upon solo flute, oboe and violins that play atop the Chinese Motif. Embellished with harp, sparkling crotales and repeating gentle bass chords, this tender and beautiful passage is a score highlight. “The San Pablo” is a portentous cue that displays Jake boarding the San Pablo. Goldsmith sets the mood using a restrained San Pablo Motif opening that gives way to repeating line of deep bass chords with a violin sustain echo. “Hello, Engine” reveals Jake’s introduction to his new engines, which Goldsmith illustrates using a subtle woodwind carried variant of the Love Theme that ends tenderly in the strings with chimes. Lastly, in “A Matter Of Ideals” we feel a disarming tenderness as the melodic line shifts to and fro like a sunset breeze between solo flute and gentile piano. Soft flowing violins and the rhythmic beat of the Chinese Motif join us on a wondrous journey.

“Maily Appears” reveals Maily’s introduction to the San Pablo crew at the brothel. Goldsmith captures the sadness of her life through the Chinese Love Theme, which is carried by dolorosa violins and sparkling crotales. The cue “The Student” shines with a Chinese sensibility and is brilliantly conceived. Goldsmith speaks to the nascent friendship of Jake and Po-han by utilizing a solo flute, first for Po-han and then Jake for a wondrous duet.

“Repel Boarders” displays the tension of the crew defending the San Pablo from Nationalist Chinese. This is a richly complex, discordant and potent action cue. We open with alarm that is raised by violins and snare drums that emote the San Pablo Motif, which is soon fortified by horns. Fierce strings and snare drums propel the cue and interplay with contrasting gamelan to speak to the clash of cultures. Wow, this is inspired action writing! In “Chang-sha Dock” Jake meets Shirley a second time when she boards for their trip to the missionary at Changsha. This is an ambiance cue, which features interplay of fragments from the Love Theme with an extended display of exotic Chinese woodwind and percussive textures.

“Death of a Thousand Cuts” displays a horrific crucifixion scene that is difficult to watch. We see Po-han captured by a Chinese mob, strung up on a cross and then slowly sliced to death. Too far off shore to intervene, a desperate and distraught Jake violates the Captain’s hold fire orders and shoots his friend to ease his passing. Goldsmith does not score the crucifixion scene, but instead its aftermath, which plays as a lamentation. Strings tragico open and replay the first two notes of the Main Title triplet before introducing the stark Bird-call Motif, which plays only twice in the score, at times when Jake kills. From here Goldsmith uses a solo oboe, strings and kindred woodwinds to provide interplay of the Bird-call Motif with a fragment of the Love Theme. The passage contains an unbearable grief that cannot be assuaged. Goldsmith would later comment, “The cue is one of my favorite pieces of all my work – it really tears your heart out.” I agree – a masterpiece cue.

“My Secret” concerns Frenchie’s and Maily’s flight from the brothel to save her from auction. The cue is wondrous and highlights the Chinese Love Theme. We open with a frenetic piano-propelled dissonant passage emoting the urgency of flight. We hear within the kinetic phrasing variants of the Love theme. At 1:30, when safety is achieved, solo flute introduces the Love Theme. Expressed with a gentile and fragile beauty the theme reaches its most sublime expression in this cue. “Jake And Shirley” reveals Jake and Shirley on a date and the blossoming of their love. Goldsmith responds with an extended expression of the American Love Theme. Interestingly enough it opens with Chinese ambient textures, which after a flute and xylophone bridge usher in the theme on strings. This cue reveals the Love Theme at long last fully romantic and unabashed in its expression. Tender and hopeful it is another fine example of Goldsmith’s genius is supporting a film’s emotional narrative.

The next three cues are thematic in that they all feature the Chinese Love Theme. “The Wedding” is a score highlight that joins the Chinese and American Love Themes in a beautiful interplay, one so moving as to bring your reviewer to tears. We behold a secret marriage ceremony that joins Frenchie and Maily with Jake and Shirley bearing witness. The cue opens with solenne viola that usher in a tender duet of cello and oboe. The duet surrenders to solo violin and harp, which introduce the Chinese Love Theme. Soon the American Love Theme enters carried by solo flute and tremolo strings with a portentous undercurrent of dark bass and harp, which speaks to the ill-fated destiny of Jake and Shirley’s love. The emoting of the San Pablo Motif on flute reinforces the inescapable reality that Jake cannot abandon his duty to join Shirley at the mission. Never the less, the lovers pursue there heart’s desire and we are treated to a sumptuous string carried passage of the American Love Theme. We conclude with a heartfelt and tender expression of the American Love Theme on flute with gamelan accompiament. I thank God for composers that can compose music such as this. “Frenchie’s Death” is a supremely emotional cue. He disobeys orders by leaving the ship, swimming in frigid waters to rejoin Maily landside and die in her arms from hypothermia. Is there anything more romantic than a man facing his mortality to rejoin his love! Goldsmith was up to the task and penned a masterpiece cue. Most compelling is that the same viola line that ushered in the wedding ceremony begins our death cue. Folks, this poetic concept offers testimony to Goldsmith’s genius. Refulgent strings join to create a religioso ambiance. Dolorosa solo flute with tremolo strings and harp emote the Chinese Love theme with a heart-rending finality. I cannot understate the tragic and aching beauty of this cue! We conclude with the “Chinese Love Theme” carried sumptuously first by lyrical stings and then woodwinds with Chinese textural accents. This cue represents the most unbridled and in my judgment, sublime expression of the love theme, which is almost unbearable to endure. Goldsmith earns his inclusion in the pantheon of film score gods with this cue.

In “Restless Months” the San Pablo is trapped by low winter waters in Paoshan harbor and forced to wait for the spring thaw to free the ship. There is tension among the crew as they are forced to endure long months confined in cramped quarters. The cue features the American Love Theme as Jake contemplates his life apart from Shirley. Woven within its expression is a pervasive melancholia carried by harpsichord, woodwinds and subtle Chinese textural percussion, which speak to the dread of confinement. The “Restless Months (Alternate)” on CD2 is in my judgment a more beautiful cue. It is more lyrical and attenuated to the film in that it features both Love Themes, there-by speaking to the loneliness of both Jake and Frenchie.

In “Final Mission – Commence Firing” the Captain resolves to violate orders and sail upstream to rescue the missionaries. The scene speaks of redemption; for the Captain who seeks to regain his honor and that of the San Pablo, and Jake who seeks to rescue Shirley for love, but to also regain his standing with the crew. We open with the repeating first four notes of the San Pablo Motif supported by snare drum percussion. This dramatic motif will animate the cue, which will culminate with the outmanned and gunned San Pablo attacking a Chinese barricade. This is a very tense cue in which Goldsmith propels the action with fierce strings and aggressive percussive rhythms that are countered by Chinese percussion. It is very well conceived. Unlike the film version, the unedited and alternative variants on CD-2 are presented as stand alone cues.

“Almost Home – Part I” the following four cues underscore with poignant eloquence the unbearable and tragic ending of the film. As Nationalist troops attack the Mission, Jake kills another man, which elicits the sorrowful Bird-call Motif. The motif opens with a sharp blast of writhing violins countered with a dark resonating bass chord, which is reflective of Jake’s inner state. This tortured descending four-note motif continues to repeat and reinforce Jake’s inner pain. In “The Sniper”, Jake is hunted by a sniper who is determined to prevent his escape. This textural cue features a repeating line of bass chords with percussive low register piano and snare drum accents as Jake seeks to escape. Yet all is lost in “End Title (Almost Home – Part II)” as the sniper cuts Jake down. As he cries out against his fate and his life passes we hear doloroso violins countered by a bass chord and tolling bell, which intone a tragic lament. As the camera pans away from the mission we see the others escaping to the San Pablo whose motif sounds on trumpets. The cue ends as it began with the opening lament, which slowly fades to nothingness. We conclude the film with “Cast Credits (Almost Home – Part III)” which features homage to Jake. We hear a last reprise of the San Pablo Motif, which concludes with a flourish. On CD-2 the “Almost Home (Edited Version)” offers a unified cue expression of the final scene, that Goldsmith rewrote. We conclude with “And We Were Lovers (Exit Music)”, which provides a pop rendering with all the usual embellishments of the American Love Theme.

This 2-CD presentation of the complete score in pristine 96k/24 bit quality is a dream come true. I commend Nick Redman and Mike Matessino for yet another classic score restoration. Goldsmith provides an inspired multi-thematic score augmented with several powerful motifs. The twin love themes are timeless and when joined offer a sublime listening experience. We are also treated to a wondrous synergy of occidental and oriental colors and textures as well as potent action writing. Goldsmith’s native gift in attenuating his music to the film’s narrative is on grand display here as he perfectly expresses the wide spectrum of emotions expressed in this complex and tragic story. I highly recommend this score as an essential addition to your collection.

Buy the Sand Pebbles soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Overture (2:17)
  • Main Title (2:56)
  • Getting Acquainted (3:52)
  • The San Pablo (1:02)
  • Hello, Engine (1:24)
  • Trial Run, Part I (0:24)
  • Trial Run, Part II (0:22)
  • Death of a Coolie (0:57)
  • Maily Appears (1:07)
  • The Student (0:40)
  • Repel Boarders (2:39)
  • Chang-Sha Dock (2:04)
  • Death of a Thousand Cuts (4:07)
  • Not in Vain (0:59)
  • Chang-sha (Entr’acte) (1:02)
  • Unfriendly Welcome (0:53)
  • My Secret (4:00)
  • Jake and Shirley (4:22)
  • A Matter of Ideals (2:01)
  • The Wedding (6:10)
  • Coolies Jump Ship (1:50)
  • Restless Months (4:35)
  • Frenchie’s Death (2:18)
  • Maily’s Abduction (2:49)
  • Worried Captain (0:33)
  • Final Mission/Commence Firing (6:11)
  • Fire Aft! (2:13)
  • Almost Home, Part I (1:46)
  • Night Mission (0:34)
  • The Sniper (0:58)
  • End Title – Almost Home, Part II (0:59)
  • Cast Credits – Almost Home, Part III (0:38)
  • Overture (Original Version) (2:53)
  • Trial Run – Part I (Alternate) (0:25)
  • Trial Run – Part II (Alternate) (0:25)
  • A Crushing Affair (Music & Effects) (1:35)
  • Unfriendly Welcome (Alternate) (0:48)
  • Jake And Shirley (Alternate Ending) (0:49)
  • Restless Months (Alternate) (4:37)
  • Final Mission (Unedited) (3:36)
  • Commence Firing (Alternate) (2:14)
  • Almost Home (Edited Version) (3:01)
  • Chinese Love Theme (2:27)
  • And We Were Lovers (Exit Music) (2:39)
  • Toot Toot Tootsie (Source Music) (2:03)
  • Five Foot Two (Source Music) (1:25)
  • Stumbling (Source Music) (1:48)
  • Sleepy Time Gal (Source Music) (3:25)
  • I’ll See You In My Dreams (Source Music) (1:59)
  • Linger Awhile (Source Music) (1:59)

Running Time: 106 minutes 50 seconds

Intrada MAF-7116 (1966/2011)

Music composed by Jerry Goldsmith. Conducted by Lionel Newman. Orchestrations by David Tamkin. Score produced by Jerry Goldsmith. Album produced by Nick Redman and Michael Matessino.

  1. Faleel
    May 11, 2015 at 10:40 am

    You mention a 4 note Bird-call motif appearing in the Main Title, are you talking about 0:15-19? Isn’t that just the American love theme?

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