Never So Few Review
The career of John Sturges is a fine example of the virtues of craftsmanship over stylistics. Rarely a flashy director, Sturges was willing to put his considerable skills as a storyteller in the service of a good script and a capable cast. The results, when all the elements were in place, could be highly impressive – think of Bad Day At Black Rock, The Magnificent Seven and Hour of the Gun. The downside, naturally, was that he tended to be at the mercy of his collaborators and the problems caused by this are well illustrated in Never So Few. As a ‘Rat Pack’ picture – defined loosely as a vehicle for Frank Sinatra and one or more of his buddies – it’s certainly less narcoleptic than Ocean’s Eleven or Sergeants Three and as a war movie it’s reasonably diverting. But Sturges’ natural abilities as a director can’t quite overcome a mediocre and episodic script or a production which seems to have been controlled all the way by a star who sought little more than a vanity project.
Set during the Second World War, the film takes place in Burma and concerns the work of Captain Reynolds (Sinatra) and his OSS comrades in trying to train the Kachin rebels to combat the threat of the Japanese. Among Reynolds’ colleagues are the British Captain Mortimer (Johnson), wisecracking Sergeant Ringa (McQueen) and reluctant medic Captain Travis (Lawford). Things seem to be going well until Reynolds realises that jungle warfare is a lot more difficult than anyone expected, especially against a highly trained and environmentally adapted Japanese army – particularly when his unit and the Kachin soldiers – numbering only 324 - come up against a group of Chinese rebels.
This is pretty standard war movie stuff with a few subtexts about American interventionism in Asia which point backwards to Korea and forward to Vietnam – although needless to say, it’s completely convinced of the righteousness of Uncle Sam getting stuck in. With a better script that didn’t dawdle about with an unnecessary romantic sub-plot and took ages to get to the point, it might have been an enjoyable adventure movie. As it is, the real interest lies in the film’s role in making Steve McQueen a movie star, a story which has become almost mythical and is probably best told in Marshall Terrill’s biography of the actor. In 1959, McQueen was already well known on television in “Wanted Dead Or Alive” but he was hungry for more and his agent Hilly Elkins was looking out for film opportunities. Never So Few came McQueen’s way through a piece of serendipity. The film was originally meant to team Frank Sinatra with Sammy Davis Jr – also represented by Elkins - in the key role of Sergeant Ringa. However, Davis made the mistake of saying in a Chicago radio broadcast that “I love Frank but I think I’m bigger than he is.” Needless to say, he didn’t mean this in a dietary sense, and Frank, never one to ignore a slight, appears to have kicked his colleague off the picture. As Hilly Elkins has memorably put it, “Frank was Frank and you didn’t fuck with him.” Elkins adroitly arranged for McQueen to replace Davis and got him signed to a three picture deal – although he only received $25,000 for Never So Few compared to the $75,000 that was offered to Davis. Sinatra and McQueen got on almost immediately and for a while it seemed that the young actor might join the fabled ranks of the ‘Rat Pack’ until veteran columnist Hedda Hopper advised him that he should pass on the offer of appearing in Ocean’s Eleven. Instead, he made The Magnificent Seven and the rest, as they say, is history.
McQueen is by far the best thing in the picture – with all due respect to Richard Johnson’s dryly funny British officer – and he gets a great entrance, sitting in a jeep chewing gum and obviously amused with himself. Whether getting out a switchblade to challenge some MPs or recommending gin to his superiors, McQueen is very funny and effortlessly stylish – “The funny thing is, ever since the war started, I’ve led a comparatively sheltered life,” he grins, his thoughts full of possible misbehaviours. In comparison, Sinatra seems a limited and guarded actor, constantly thinking about his public persona and constantly placed at the front of every scene in which he appears. Although he was probably quite sincere about wanting to make a film that celebrates the achievements of the Kachin rebels against the Japanese in World War Two, the films seems to have been turned into a project that does little except celebrate Sinatra’s powers of heroism and, following a bit of self-analysis, command. Although this was made the same year he gave his best screen performance – in Minnelli’s Some Came Running - you can see that the laziness which characterises his later films has already set in. The other actors don’t bring much to the party either. Peter Lawford is as wooden as always and stuck with a lousy ‘noble’ role that would have sunk an actor with three times his resources and Gina Lollobrigida looks gorgeous without demonstrating much in the way of acting ability. If you omit the gorgeous bit, the same could be said of Paul Henreid. An exception should be made, though, for Charles Bronson playing a Navajo turned soldier. He’s got such fantastic screen presence that you wish he had a bit more to do.
I don’t think the film is completely mediocre. The Cinemascope cinematography of William H. Daniels is atmospheric and captures the Jungle settings with a sweaty credibility, Ferris Webster’s editing is spot-on in the action sequences and Hugo Friedhofer’s music score is often highly effective. As director, John Sturges puts the film together with his customary professionalism and, towards the end, manages to stir it into becoming reasonably exciting. Indeed, some of the action sequences are quite remarkable, filmed with a heated intensity and – for 1959 - often harrowing realism. There’s an ambush sequence about halfway through which is fantastically well staged and surprisingly brutal. The problem is that the first half of the film is largely taken up with an incredibly tedious relationship between Sinatra and Lollobrigida that seems included simply to establish that the star is heterosexual. If you can get through this without either wandering about the room restlessly or resorting to the fast forward button then you’re a better man than I am, Gunga Din. Romance was never John Sturges’ strong point and several of his best films are either dominated by men or don’t include any women at all. His 1953 film Jeopardy featuring the indomitable Barbara Stanwyck, is an exception, although it’s noticeable that he turns a potential triangular romance into a deliciously hammy melodrama.
As you’d expect from Warners, Never So Few looks pretty good on DVD. It’s not the best presentation in the Steve McQueen boxset and has a few problems but it’s certainly well above average.
The film is presented at an aspect ratio of roughly 2.40:1, reflecting the original widescreen presentation, and has been anamorphically enhanced. There’s some obvious print damage throughout and the picture looks a little too dark to my eyes. But the colours are reasonably rich and there’s a pleasantly film-like appearance with satisfying levels of film grain. Detail varies from very good to mediocre depending on a given scene. Short of a full restoration, I don’t think we’re likely to get a better transfer than this.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack is presumably wrought from the original four track Cinemascope presentation. The surround detail is largely confined to the ambient effects and the music score but dialogue is sometimes spatially located between the left and right front channels. There is nothing to complain about with this track which is very effective.
The only extra is the original theatrical trailer which, typically for the time, seems to last forever and gives away most of the plot. Although the film contains optional subtitles, the trailer does not.
Never So Few isn’t a particularly memorable film but it’s quite entertaining once Frank and Gina quit their canoodling. What makes it worth seeing is the presence of Steve McQueen, a natural star on the verge of finding his proper place in the Hollywood firmament. The DVD is generally pretty good and although it’s only currently available as part of the Warners McQueen boxset, it will no doubt receive a separate release in due course.