Appellate Judge Dave Ryan hangs with the Pack (or part of it) for some cuckoo nutty capers in the Burmese jungle.
Ring-a-ding-ding, the OSS is on the wing!
Although it's not a good film, Never So Few is fascinating in its own way. It's part Rat Pack film, part John Sturges/Steve McQueen action flick, and part war drama. It does none of these jobs well, yet somehow manages to be relatively coherent and watchable. Plus, you get to see Sinatra sport the absolute worst goatee in human history—that's worth the price of admission alone.
Facts of the Case
Never So Few, based on a best-selling novel of the same name by Tom T. Chamales, follows the adventures of a detachment of the World War II version of the U.S. military's "special forces." Technically, they're Army personnel, but in reality they're spies, working for the Army's Office of Strategic Services (OSS), which, after the war, became the core of the newly-formed CIA. This particular detachment is serving in the former British colony of Burma (now Myanmar), strategically located between India and the ever-advancing Japanese Army. The OSS men are deep in the Burmese jungle, near the border with China, training the local Kachin tribespeople to be "irregular" troops—they're not really part of the Army, but they're functionally under Army command.
Heading up the group is Captain Tom Reynolds (Frank Sinatra, From Here To Eternity), a headstrong and jaded warrior who's been in the field too long, but not so long that he can't appreciate a pretty girl. While back in India with his second-in-command Capt. Danny De Mortimer (Richard Johnson) getting some R&R, he meets a very pretty girl, Carla Vesari (Gina Lollobrigida, Come September). She, however, claims to be involved with the mysterious Greek magnate Nikko Regas (Paul Henreid, Casablanca), and parries his advances.
While in India, Reynolds and De Mortimer are assigned a driver who is clearly not the paradigm of the law-abiding, straight-laced G.I. Cpl. Bill Ringa (Steve McQueen, Wanted: Dead or Alive) runs the local illegal still, has no qualms about beating up M.P.s to cover his tracks, and drives like a maniac. Naturally, they love him, and arrange for him to be transferred to their Burma unit. They're also in the market for a doctor, and shanghai (against his will) the poor fellow who treats De Mortimer when he falls ill, Capt. Grey Travis (Peter Lawford, Easter Parade).
Back in the jungle, Reynolds and De Mortimer work the new guys into the rotation. (Be on the lookout for a young Charles Bronson and a pre-Disney Dean Jones as two of Reynolds's men.) They do some guerilla stuff, and those dang Japanese break up their Christmas celebration. Reynolds and De Mortimer wind up back on R&R again (with a little debriefing thrown in), this time in the Himalayas. At last, Reynolds's hurricane-force moves on Carla pay off. But HQ throws Reynolds a loop: they've assigned the Kachin troops to what appears to be a no-win (but strategically vital) mission. Will Reynolds live long enough to have cute Italian children with Carla? Will he…oh, I don't know…be forced to take a stand when Chinese warlords start killing GIs, apparently with the knowledge and tacit complicity of the Nationalist Chinese government? Only time will tell.
There are four reasons why this film holds any interest today: Sinatra, Lollobrigida, McQueen, and director Sturges. Unfortunately, it's not the best work by any of the four. By a long shot.
In its time, the film was notable for its first-ever pairing of Italian icons Frank Sinatra and Gina Lollobrigida. La Lolla had, until that point, worked mainly in Italian cinema; her "Hollywood debut" had only come in 1954 (in John Huston's Beat the Devil). By 1959, she had achieved Pamela Anderson-level fame for her classy and classic beauty, but not for her acting. Sinatra had been on a roll since his breakthrough part in From Here To Eternity, cranking out lightweight but popular fare like Pal Joey, The Tender Trap, and Guys and Dolls. Pairing these two in a big, colorful, Cinemascope feature was probably a no-brainer for MGM.
However, pairing them in a big, colorful, Cinemascope war film—and a somewhat derivative one at that—probably wasn't a good idea. (Especially if Lollobrigida could have sung…) The love triangle is almost a plagiaristic copy of Casablanca's—hell, they even cast Paul Heinred in exactly the same role. Lollobrigida is certainly as striking as Ingrid Bergman, and Sinatra gives off the same kind of relaxed, slightly worn aura (like a well-worn trench coat) that Humphrey Bogart brought to Rick Blaine. But unlike Bogie and Bacall, Frank and Gina aren't able to communicate any real passion for each other on screen. To us, it feels like Carla is just a conquest for Reynolds, albeit one he wants to hang on to for a while. For her part, Carla seems amenable to romancing by any strapping young man who comes along; Reynolds was just in the right place at the right time. Of such things classic screen romances are not made. So right off the bat, the main selling point of the film—this pairing—is largely a failure, showcasing neither Sinatra's nor Lollobrigida's skills in any department. (I was seriously hoping that the Chairman would just break out and start singing, "Myyyy kind of jungle, this Burma is…")
Okay…maybe Never So Few is a good war film. Well…not quite. It is, indeed, a war film. People are at war, and they kill each other. Mission accomplished. Heck, it's even about an interesting footnote to the war—these unsung Army officers who helped fight a jungle war in a forgotten theater. And who better to helm the film than Mr. Cinerama himself, John Sturges? Between Bad Day at Black Rock and Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, Sturges had proven that he knew how to use that big, wide "scope" aspect ratio to its greatest effect. He'd already worked with Sinatra and his gang (in Sergeants 3), so Frank would be okay with him. Surely he'd produce a fantastic war film; a visual spectacle with nonstop action, right?
Well, he did. It's called The Great Escape, and he made it four years after this. This film is a Sturges anomaly—a big, widescreen, dull action picture. Many of the battle sequences are very staged and Hollywood-looking, even by 1950s standards. Tension and thrills are sporadic at best. Warfare claims several characters…and we'd probably care, if there had been any character development to let us get to know these people. Worst of all, whenever the film starts to pick up a bit of steam in the war department, Sinatra pops off to India or the Himalayas to cuddle with his Italian honey. That screeching noise you hear is the war plot grinding to a halt. Towards the end, there is a good plotline involving Reynolds and his actions with respect to the Chinese, but it's (a) more of a courtroom drama than anything else, and (b) something that probably should have been pulled out and turned into an episode of Playhouse 90. As is, it's a long wait until we get to the only really interesting part of the film, which isn't really worth the wait.
So we're left with Steve McQueen—and finally, something good about the film. This disc is being released with five other McQueen films as part of a Warner Bros. box set, The Essential Steve McQueen Collection, because it was the first big-budget Hollywood picture for which McQueen received extensive positive reviews. I wouldn't call it an essential McQueen film, because he's really a side character with a relatively limited role. (A role that allegedly was intended for Sammy Davis, Jr.—but Sammy and Frank apparently had a small falling-out (say it ain't so!), so TV star McQueen was given the role instead.) But it is an interesting role, because he stands out so vividly in this semi-mess that it's easy to see why his career quickly took off.
In many ways, the role of Ringa was just McQueen playing himself. McQueen, an ex-Marine, was a Ringa-like soldier during his tour of duty: At one point he was assigned to an honor guard for President Truman due to his heroism during a training accident; at another he was in the brig for turning a weekend furlough into a three-week vacation. Let's just say that he didn't have to go far in his psyche to apply his Method training here. What's fascinating to watch is how obviously superior he is to every other actor in the film. I don't mean to insult Bronson or Dean Jones or Sinatra, each of whom proved (in other films) to be decent actors, but McQueen was clearly on a different level. It really was our first glimpse of the star that McQueen would become in the future. For him, Ringa's lines aren't the be-all and end-all of the character. They're just the starting point. Sammy would have played Ringa as the comic sidekick, which is how the part was written. McQueen turns him into an enigma. There's clearly a lot more brewing under that insouciant exterior. His performance isn't quite "scene-stealing," as some have described it—but it's close.
Finally, the film's moral ambiguity is a bit shocking for contemporary viewers. Reynolds and his men violate the Geneva Convention early and often, and without a shred of remorse. I'm sure this is probably a historically accurate depiction of what went on in the Burma theater. But that doesn't mean I want to watch Our Hero order a Japanese soldier tortured to death for information, to the point where Ringa tells us he "split open down the middle" And he didn't mean that figuratively. Yes, I know that whatever war atrocities are depicted in this fictional account are more than trumped by the actual atrocities committed by the Japanese in China and Indochina. It's the near-flippant attitude towards them in the film that puts me off my feed a bit.
Adding to the disappointment list is the film's transfer. On the plus side, it's presented in an anamorphic 2.35:1 aspect ratio, preserving the framing of the original Cinemascope presentation. Colors are pretty good, too. But the print was clearly damaged, sometimes quite badly. I guess I can't fault Warner Bros. for that—this isn't really a film that merited restoration—but it's a shame there wasn't a better master print available. The soundtrack has been remixed into a 5.1 surround mix, but I didn't hear much coming out of the rear channels. However, it does make the orchestral score sound richer. The only extra provided is the film's theatrical trailer, which just illustrates how heavily the Sinatra/Lollobrigida pairing was promoted.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Despite all these flaws, Never So Few really isn't all that awful. It's just a film that should have taken itself less seriously—or more seriously. Its half-and-half approach—not quite a drama, not quite a fun Rat Pack-style film—just doesn't work well. Even so, it's not wholly without entertainment value. It's just a resoundingly average big-budget film—sort of like a late '50s version of the 1998 Godzilla remake, without the lizard.
Never So Few is…okay. In the end, I took only two things away from the film: Steve McQueen was a fantastic actor, and Dean Jones was a lot better looking than I thought. (Heck, he's almost as pretty as Gina Lollobrigida.) That's a disappointing haul for a big-budget, all-star Sturges picture. Oh well. You can't win 'em all.
Everyone is guilty, except for Mr. McQueen, who is beyond talented, and Mr. Sinatra, whose "friends" had a short but memorable talk with me in the parking lot.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• Theatrical Trailer
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