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"Never So Few" fails in so many ways; as a treatment of the Burma
campaign in World War II; as a tough-nosed action picture; as an
involving melodrama; and most especially, as a vehicle for star Frank
Sinatra was too busy playing soldier and practicing his cool look to bother constructing an interesting character; a strange bitter vibe hangs over his performance. Oddly, it was another actor who managed to take the little "Never So Few" had to offer in the way of career advancement: Steve McQueen. Up to this point, he had done "The Blob" and TV, but his comfortable natural bearing around Sinatra's star wattage shows he could hold his own with the big boys, even when the script gave him little to work with.
McQueen is Sgt. Ringa, a jeep driver who finds himself drafted for more dangerous duty when commando leader Tom Reynolds (Sinatra) takes a shine to his street-smart ways. Reynolds leads a small band of Kachin fighters in the hilly jungles of Burma, continually harassing a Japanese force many times its size.
"A regular Abe Lincoln in North Burma" is what rich merchant Nikko Regas calls him. Regas is part of the other story in "Few", the man whose girl (Gina Lollabrigida) Reynolds wants. The exotic Lollabrigida and the world-weary chain-smoking Sinatra are clearly meant to invite comparisons to Rick and Ilsa, and Paul Henreid cements the impression by playing Nikko as much the same character he was in "Casablanca".
None of this comes together, though. In fact, the two parts fail to co-exist at all. You get 20 minutes of war followed by 40 minutes of earnest love talk, then back to the war. The war scenes are about as competently directed as an episode of "The Rat Patrol", with idiotically sequenced insert shots (like soldiers shooting up at people we then see falling in a river) and noble, servile Kachin dying with meek apologies to "Dua" Reynolds. War is hell for Tom, who loses both his monkey and his favorite gun caddy, a faithful Kachin who hands him a new automatic every time Reynolds empties a magazine on the enemy.
The romance is even worse. Sinatra and Lollabrigida have no chemistry, she can't act, and director John Sturges' idea of story advancement is to focus on her bustline and hope you don't notice the dialogue. And what dialogue!
Him: "I hanker for you alone."
Her: "Why don't you go back to the hills and play with your popguns!"
Henreid warns Lollabrigida he won't let her go then disappears for the rest of the movie, leaving Lollabrigida and Sinatra to kiss like dead fish in front of bad process shots.
The film generates a bit of interest an hour or so in, when Reynolds and his men discover the Japanese are not the only force they have to fight. But the resolution of this angle is both trite and ugly, involving the wholesale slaughter of captured prisoners while the camera focuses on Sinatra, looking so sad his previously disapproving medic (Peter Lawford, better than usual here) has to pat his shoulder to let him and the audience know it's alright.
McQueen at least mines his on-screen time to showcase his talents as an action man, and occasional scene stealer with the aid of handy props, like a slice of watermelon or a mortar. Competing with Charles Bronson, Brian Donlevy, and Richard Johnson as Reynolds' monocle-wearing British pal, McQueen hardly has to break a sweat.
The worst performance here is Sinatra's, who just drips with self-importance, whether wearing an ugly goatee (Mitch Miller must have really got to him) or trying to sound like Hemingway with stiff lines like: "You have tasted the pain of wound in combat." Sinatra was not just good but great in parts where he allowed himself to project insecurity. But too often, when permitted to coast, he gave performances like this one, showcasing the boor he could be in life from time to time.
"Never So Few" drags for more than two hours, long enough to listen to four of his Capitol albums. Guess which is a better investment of your time.
Although the profile mentions that Sinatra's character and his fellow
are members of the OSS, this could use some elaboration. This movie is
clearly an attempt to dramatize certain portions of OSS Detachment 101's
exploits in the CBI during WWII. This is the only film I've ever seen
deals with a story involving the OSS that is based on any sort of factual
series of events. Detachment 101, formed very early in WWII as an OSS
Operations Group (OG), was responsible for hamstringing Japanese
in the China-Burma-India (CBI) theater along with the Kachin Rangers,
people whom they had trained and equipped and a host of other Allied
operations type units, many of which contributed to the lineages of later
special ops units, especially in the US (Merrill's Marauders = 75th Ranger
Regiment and Det. 101 being the root of lineages of both CIA covert
operations units and Army Special Forces).
The story which most clearly sticks out here is the episode involving the discovery of warrants issued by the Chinese Nationalist government authorizing local bandit warlords to confiscate goods from anyone, including Allied forces. Although not quite right in the movie, these bandits attacked a group of Kachins, which brought the attention of US OSS agents. These agents, with their Kachin Rangers, attacked across the Chinese border, discovered the warrants and almost caused a major diplomatic incident between the US and Chinese governments, especially after the OSS agents turned a blind eye to the execution of the Chinese bandits by Kachin Rangers.
All in all, not a spectacular film and the love interest aspect a little odd in the middle of a war-zone, but still notable as the only film dealing with the subject of OSS OGs in a semi-factual way.
Frank Sinatra looks like an outdoors department store mannequin most of
the time and the usually reliable action director John Sturgis (The
Magnificent Seven, The Great Escape) is at a loss to get things moving
in this World War Two drama that claims to have been shot in Burma and
Thailand (exposition shots perhaps) but is dominated by exterior scenes
shot on indoor stages.
Sinatra is Captain Tom Reynolds commander of an elite force sent to Burma to train and support locals against the Japanese. He's there to get a job done by any means possible and his methods causes rifts within the unit as he bends the rules. In between helping liberate the Burmese people and committing atrocities he spends his r&r in clinches with English challenged, futuristic looking Gina Lollibridgida.
Sturgis is hard pressed from the outset to build suspense and urgency into his film with Sinatra's casual acting style in the pivotal role. He's all Vegas cool and insolence and it's a bad fit to lead the likes of characters played by real rough and tumbles Steve McQueen and Charles Bronson who shine amid a lack lustre cast. It's a passionless performance (even in his clinches with Gina) as he downs a fair amount of scotch and sleepwalks through his role.
Sturgis for his part has a hard time trimming and putting scenes together to give the film any life or power. The dialog is cliché ridden and the acting flat most of the time which Sturgis attempts to remedy by punctuating with action and sneak attacks that are themselves poorly staged and edited.
Legendary B&W cinematographer William Daniels never did grasp color in the same way and he glaringly displays it here with distracting compositions that look artificial and lit like football stadiums. Hugo Friedhofer's score attempts to convey the gravity of the situation but instead heightens the overall mawkishness.
In similar more successful treatments you have Errol Flynn's inspirational leadership in Warner's suspenseful Objective Burma before and Lee Marvin's tough, no nonsense commander in The Dirty Dozen following raising the question is Never So Few worth a watch? The first word of the title says it all.
This is a typical "Rat Pack" (minus Deano, Joey and Sammy) theatrical
romp; big on action and small on fact based substance, but entertaining
The big surprise is Steve McQueen, appearing in one of his first major films. Up to this point, he has come to prominence in the TV series Wanted, Dead or Alive, but has yet to make the jump to film star. "Never So Few" is his springboard. A spat between Sinatra and Sammy Davis, Jr. gets McQueen the supporting role that launches his movie career under the direction of John Sturges (who later directs The Magnificent Seven and The Great Escape).
McQueen plays Corporal Bill Ringa (Why'd they pick that name...a pseudonym for "Ringer" maybe?), a self promoting "SGT. Bilko" type con man making a few fast bucks "in the rear with the gear" of the CBI. When Ringa is assigned as OSS Capt. Tom Reynold's (Frank Sinatra) jeep driver, during the latter's visit to the rear area headquarters, he impresses the officer with his unorthodox approach to selling illegal whiskey and fighting with MPs (anyone that hates MPs has got my vote). Reynolds gets Ringa transferred to his outfit and the two go about smashing the Japanese and renegade Chinese warlords.
McQueen shows the strong almost overpowering "2d in command" role he perfects in The Magnificent Seven a year later. His on-screen presence in these two films propels McQueen to leading man status thereafter.
Not a very historically accurate film, and some of the acting is overplayed, but McQueen is strong throughout and the film is fast paced and entertaining.
Never So Few finds Frank Sinatra as co-commander with Britisher Richard
Johnson of a behind the lines detachment of Kachin native tribesmen,
conducting harassing actions against the Japanese in the China-Burma-
India Theater of World War II. Sinatra is working out of the Office of
Strategic Services which in this case is run by General Brian Donlevy
playing William J. Donovan in all, but name.
Sinatra keeps the hipster persona down to a minimum and delivers a good performance as the rather unorthodox commander of native troops. Of course he's confronted with a rather unorthodox situation when warlords with warrants from the Chinese Nationalist government in Chungking massacre Americans and Kachins for their supplies. Purportedly these were our allies.
In all of this Sinatra finds time to romance Gina Lollabrigida the kept woman of Paul Henreid a most mysterious person of influence and nurse Kipp Hamilton. Gina is a most entertaining diversion, but the real story is about the Chinese actions in World War II.
During the Fifties Chiang Kai-Shek was a godlike creature, a noble exile from Communism on Taiwan running the government we still recognized. Never So Few was a daring film for its time, fresh from the McCarthy years for daring to suggest the Nationalist Chinese were less than noble.
Actually what is described in Never So Few, independent warlords making deals with both sides is old business in the Orient. It was something our culture couldn't grasp, still can't in many ways.
Never So Few boosted the careers of three men in Sinatra's and Johnson's command. Charles Bronson, Steve McQueen, and Dean Jones all of whom went on to substantial careers. For McQueen it was his first role of substance in a major motion picture.
I recall reading years ago that Hedda Hopper who always boosted Steve McQueen's career when she could in her column, claiming that while this was a good career move, he should avoid dependence on Frank Sinatra for his employment. McQueen being an independent sort of fellow anyway, probably would have come to that same conclusion on his own. Nevertheless he certainly did carve his own legend out in film history.
Never So Few is a decent war film of a little known theater of war for Americans and should be seen.
This is a most unheralded Hollywood vehicle and yet it contain enough heavy weight stars to garner an entire shelf at the Academy Awards. The movie deals with that portion of World War II in and around what was then called Burma. (Today the world calls it Myanmar) Nevertheless, the small native Kachin tribe have been called upon to engage the Japanese army. Along with American forces they are a small, but formidable contingent who despite their numbers, become the banner of the film. "Never So Few" is the story of the Kachin and the American commander Capt. Tom Reynolds (Frank Sinatra) and his able assistant Capt. Danny Mortimer. Combating the superb Japanese forces and their attempts to conquer Indochina, creates many losses among the allies and prompts a need for a medical officer. Capt Grey Travis (Peter Lawford) joins their group as does a spirited Hell's Kitchen warrior, named William Ringer (Steve McQueen). Betrayed by the Chineese Government after they massacre American forces, Reynolds defies his own government, kills captured prisoners and invited a court-martial. During this same period he falls for beautiful Gina Lollobrigida who plays Carla Vesari a protégé of Nikko Regas (Paul Henreid) a rich entrepreneur. Brian Donlevy as Gen. Sloan orders Reynolds to come to headquarters to explain his defiance of orders. Dean Jones is Sgt. Jim Norby and Charles Bronson as Sgt. John Danforth along with Philip Ahn (Kung Fu) as Nautaung are superior in this movie. Each adds excellence to their respective characters, creating the cornerstone of a true Classic. Well done! ****
Great early look at a young Steve McQueen and Charles Bronson. Lots of big names otherwise, with Sinatra, Gina Lolabrigida, Peter Lawford, Paul Henreid and Brian Donlevy.
Underlying story idea is a good one: a semi-factual recreation of OSS operations in Burma during WW2. Would be nice to see a modern remake of this movie due to the interesting subject matter.
McQueen's first big movie role. Acquits himself well and his performance certainly helped propel him to his future starring roles.
Gina Lolabrigida can't act worth a fig, but she sure is a whole lot of woman to look at.
I didn't buy Sinatra in the role for a minute. The casting of this pompous lounge lizard as a charismatic special forces officer is an insult to all veterans. Sinatra reportedly pressured the producers into kicking his good buddy Sammy Davis Jr. off the picture. This is ironic, because Davis actually served in WW2, while Ol' Blue Eyes was humping every starlet he could lay his hands on.
And what was up with that Aussie-style hat Sinatra wears? The guy is living in a tent in a steamy tropical jungle mowing down scores of Japs with a machine gun and there's not a single smudge, sweat stain or wrinkle on his hat. It looks like he just picked it up off the rack in the Flamingo's tourist shop. I can just imagine the director, John Sturges, begging Frank to beat the thing on a tree stump for half an hour to make it look realistic and Sinatra refusing because the wanted a slicker look.
The Sinatra role felt like it was written for Humphrey Bogart. This is especially apparent in what is supposed to be clever Bogie/Bacall style repartee between Sinatra and Lolabrigida. The casting of Paul Henreid, who starred with Bogie in Casablanca, seems no accident.
I can imagine that Sinatra bullied his way into a role that was way, way over his head. As much as I would like to blame Sinatra entirely for this movie's failure, it should be noted that the script is the main culprit, especially the excruciating attempt at "snappy patter" between Sinatra and Lolabrigida. I don't think even Bogart could have saved this movie, but these two acting cripples have absolutely no chance.
Sturges went on to direct a fantastic film, "The Great Escape" a couple of years later, so we'll have to cut him a break on this one.
Reminds me of another star studded stinker, "The Way West", an unwatchable 1965 western that starred Kirk Douglas, Robert Mitchum and Richard Widmark. That also had a director, Andrew McLaglen, who went on to do much better work.
Bottom line: this is a great example of how important a script is to a movie. Here you had a panoply of big time stars and talent, a solid director, but the movie stinks anyway. Also, if your leading man is an actor of very narrow ability, you better make sure you cast him in a role that suits him.
One striking point in 'Never So Few' flavor is the luxurious Gina
Lollobrigida, cautious, conventional and very careful, who is something
to look at from any angle or any side... She displays an array of
revealing gowns, and a full and shapely figure... And don't think the
lady doesn't know it... With her, temptation is an art, and a
titillating bath is an aesthetic maneuver... The signorina racks up
quite a score... She exudes real charm and, contrary to expectation,
the exotic locations of Burma, Thailand and Ceylon (exquisitely
photographed in Technicolor and CinemaScope) are tentatively
'Never So Few' is an undistinguished war film... Its stars are much more important than the story, but there is plenty of action...
Sinatra is heroic, tender, and rebel... A hard-drinking, hard-bitten army captain swinging with the plot from mild-mannered soldier so brave in battle, to an officer and a gentleman so afraid of life... He leads his men against the Chinese although it means crossing the Chinese frontier... In a captured Chinese village he orders all prisoners shot, wiring his superiors to 'go to hell.' He finds American supplies, and licenses issued to warlords by Chungking to raid Allied troops and sell the booty to the Japanese, splitting the take with Chungking!
The supporting cast is filled with familiar faces and each reacts to the situation differently:
Peter Lawford is the surgeon pushed out over the hills who is treating Captain De Mortimer for malaria... He advises Sinatra not to cross the border...
Steve McQueen looks good as the reckless, casual GI corporal who overpowers two 'guardians of law & order' so neatly that Sinatra gets him transferred to his outfit... McQueen gives his best screen performance, and it led to his being chosen as one of 'The Magnificent Seven' as Yul Brynner's first recruit and second-in-command...
Richard Johnson is Captain Danny De Mortimer ordered with Tom Reynolds to take a two-week "holiday" in Calcutta to obtain a surgeon and medical supplies for their men...
Paul Henreid is a war profiteer who buys and sells things in seven languages, at all hours...
Charles Bronson is the tough and edgy Sergeant John Danforth...
Dean Jones is the sergeant who clearly delivers the message: 'Do not move any attack. Rearm and release any prisoners you may have taken.'
Robert Bray is Colonel Parkson who warns Reynolds not to attack the Chinese village...
Brian Donlevy is General Sloan who backs up Reynolds and puts off the Chungking representative...
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Now, when I sit down to watch a war movie, I expect a bare minimum of
glorious carnage. Sadly, none of the ingredients of a fun-filled
afternoon - mountains of mutilated corpses, napalm rain lighting up
screaming peasants, flak guns tearing through the flesh of the
unworthy, crania grinding underneath triumphant Panzer tracks - are
present in this so called "war movie".
Seriously, where IS the war? There are some partisans and Japanese soldiers shooting at each other a couple of times, and a few grounded planes blowing up during a raid. That's about it. The little combat there is, is of such low intensity or urgency that it makes the opening blurb (about the heroes in Burma saving democracy from untold numbers of evil imperialist minions) look a little confusing, to say the least. Indeed, this movie never misses an opportunity to leave the scene of action for a trip into town. As soon as a modicum of martial tension is built up, Sturges instead chooses to wind down completely.
After a brief opening scuffle with the Japanese, Captain Sinatra and his second leave for city HQ to request a doctor, or whatever. They go to a nightclub, where Frankie boy falls in love with the trophy companion of a local bigshot. She does not seem impressed at first, but we, of course, KNOW that she will not be able to resist the charm of Ol' Blue Eyes. After completing their phoney, bogus, bastard excuse for a "mission", the two soldiers - still in the city - receive two weeks leave out of the blue, which Sinatra of course spends on sweeping the young lady off her feet. When they finally get back to the jungle, an hour of the movie has already transpired. Frankie is immediately wounded, which means back to the city for more sweet lovin'. And it goes on like this.
Even as a romance, the movie is a complete joke. Not only is there zero chemistry between the lovers, the concept of Lollobrigida's rich "owner" being the jealous type - which is strongly hinted at - is also completely disregarded. This would probably have moved the movie even further away from its front as a "war movie", but really, it had already abandoned the pretense of being a war movie long before that potential idea could be explored. During the first half of the romance, the lovers exchange snide remarks ("Go back to the jungle, soldier boy!", "You're just a piece of furniture!", etc.), whereas the second half consists of the two sitting around talking about how many children they will have. Excuse me while I look away.
The flick transforms into courtroom drama towards the end, which is also the only remotely interesting plot-detour in the entire movie, but it comes too late to make any difference. Apparently, Sturges remembered that Sinatra was supposed to save democracy as well as looking good in a suit, so Frankie goes defying some international law. He is indicted, but since his actions exposed the forces of evil, he is cleared of all charges and democracy wins. Hooray.
I respect Sinatra as an artist, but I have yet to see him make an impact as an actor. He seems to lack the gravitas for the "officer" part of his character here, and comes off as arrogant most of the time. Bronson and McQueen shine in their supporting roles, but are not on screen long enough to save this mess, and Lollobrigida is almost as pathetic an actress as Sophia Loren (who also tumorously thrived on roles like this).
An allied guerrilla unit led by Capt. Tom Reynolds (Frank Sinatra)
deals with the Japanese army and warlord controlled Chinese troops out
in the Burma jungle.
"In the hills of North Burma, gateway to the vast prize of Asia, less than a thousand Kachin warriors, fighting under American and British leadership of the O.S.S., held back 40,000 Japanese in the critical, early years of World War II. It has been said NEVER have free men everywhere owed so much to SO FEW".
Killer Warrants and The Unprecedented War.
Directed by John Sturges and featuring Steve McQueen, Charles Bronson, Peter Lawford, Brian Donlevy, Gina Lollobrigida, Richard Johnson and Paul Henreid. Never So Few it's fair to say has a iffy reputation, originally conceived as a rat pack war film, it has some great strengths and some annoying weaknesses. The story itself is great, a part of the war that deserves to have been portrayed on the big screen, but why the makers didn't exorcise the whole romantic thread remains not just a mystery, but nearly a film killer.
As lovely as Miss Lollobrigida is, her whole character arc, and the relationship with Sinatra's stoic Reynolds, is surplus to requirements. It serves absolutely no purpose to defining other characters or for narrative invention. This strand of the story carries the film to over two hours in length, without this strand it's a film of 90 minutes focusing on the brave souls who fought in the Burmese conflict. Which is what it should have been.
When dealing with the conflicts, both outer and inner, the film does excite. The wily Sturges knows his way around an action scene and all the efforts here are gripping. Cast are fine and dandy, with McQueen dominating his scenes, Johnson the class act on show, while Sinatra, once he gets rid of the fake beard, shows his knack for tortured emotion to the point you just can't help but root for him even when he's being pig-headed (not a stretch for old blue eyes of course).
Tech credits are mixed, the studio sets are easily spotted, but conversely so are the real and pleasing location sequences filmed in Ceylon. The Panavision photography (William H. Daniels) is beautiful, a Metrocolor treat, but Hugo Friedhofer unusually turns in a lifeless musical score. All told it's not hard to see why it's a film that divides opinions, it's very episodic and that romance drags it something terrible. But still strong merits exist and it at least gets the core of the real story out in the public domain. 6/10
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