Wednesday, October 17, 2018

Never So Few (1959)

John Sturges’ Never So Few (1959) is part WWII drama and part exotic melodrama. Inspired by true events, it follows the story of American and British troops in Burma (now Myanmar) working on an attack on the Japanese but are in turn attacked by Chinese guerrillas. The troop is led by Captain Reynolds (Frank Sinatra), a fearless leader who isn’t afraid to make difficult decisions under the duress of war or to question the authority of his superiors. His troop is a motley crew of personalities including hard drinking but lovable Sergeant Norby (Dean Jones), macho man Sergeant Danforth (Charles Bronson), semi-incompetent army doctor Captain Travis (Peter Lawford) and Reynolds’ right hand man Captain Mortimer (Richard Johnson). Then there is Ringa (Steve McQueen), Reynolds and Mortimer’s driver, who quickly proves his worth and becomes an important aide to the troop. He’s always got a stash of booze somewhere for the drinking and shares Reynolds’ distaste for authority. Together this band of soldiers works with Kachin leader Nautaung (Philip Ahn) as they make their way through the jungles of Burma. Injected into this war drama is a love story between Reynolds and the glamorous Carla (Gina Lollobrigida). Carla is traveling with her beau, wealthy merchant Nikko Regas (Paul Henreid), but the rough and tough Reynolds quickly sweeps her off her feet. Can Reynolds infiltrate the guerrilla group that is putting his men in danger and still get back safely to Carla?

Never So Few is an adaptation of Tom T. Chamales' novel of the same name, Chamales, an army veteran who served during WWII, based his story on a controversial event that he personally witnessed and wrote about extensively. According to both the AFI and The Hollywood Reporter, the incident involved Chiang Kai-shek’s government authorizing “warlords to cross borders and kill [American and British troops] indiscriminately,” something the Los Angeles Consul General for the Republic of China vehemently denied. MGM bought the rights to the novel in 1956, year before its publication. The novel was adapted to the screen by writer Millard Kaufman. It was filmed on location in Myanmar (then Burma) as well as India, Sri Lanka (then Ceylon) and Thailand with some scenes shot on the MGM lot. The film was made for $3.5 million. It was a hit at the box office making $5.27 million gross worldwide. While audiences flocked to the movie, critics gave it mixed reviews.






I don’t know about you but I’m a sucker for all-star casts and Never So Few delivers on that front. So many of my favorites are in this movie including Gina Lollobrigida, Frank Sinatra, Steve McQueen, Peter Lawford, Paul Henreid, Charles Bronson, Brian Donlevy and I loved watching scenes with actors I’m fairly unfamiliar with like Dean Jones, Kipp Hamilton (who plays a fun loving army nurse) and Richard Johnson. It’s a male heavy cast but there is enough of Lollo and some other feisty women to give the film a bit of balance. The much beloved George Takei has a small role as a soldier in the hospital scene. This was one of my favorite moments in the movie when Sinatra’s Reynolds stands up to a higher ranking captain because the hospital is feeding the Burmese soldiers an American diet that is causing them dysentery. Reynolds’ character defies racial prejudice and shows compassion that’s lacking among the American/British authorities. Actor James Hong also has a bit part as the corrupt General Chao. Hong and Donlevy have a fantastic showdown which gives the film a satisfying and patriotic ending.

Many members of the cast and crew were war veterans. Here is a snapshot:

WWII experience:
Army: Tom T. Chamales
Army Air Corps: John Sturges, Charles Bronson
British Navy: Richard Johnson
Marine Corps: Steve McQueen, Millard Kaufman, Robert Bray

WWI experience:
Flying Corps: Brian Donlevy



The stand out in Never So Few is relative newcomer Steve McQueen. This was his first big budget movie and the first of his trilogy with John Sturges which includes The Magnificent Seven (1960) and The Great Escape (1963). The role of Ringa was originally intended for Sammy Davis Jr. At this point in Sinatra’s career, he often had members of the Rat Pack in his movies. Davis and Sinatra had a falling out and Sinatra demanded that Davis be replaced. According to McQueen biographer Wes D. Gehring, Sturges and Sinatra watched several episodes of McQueen’s TV show Wanted: Dead or Alive and were impressed with what they saw. Sinatra set his sights on McQueen and requested that the role of Ringa be expanded to showcase the newcomer. The two got along on set and even pulled pranks on each other. McQueen and his wife Neile Adams quickly became part of the Rat Pack’s social circle. However, McQueen was hesitant about becoming an official member of the Rat Pack (or The Summit as Sinatra called it). McQueen thought it would hold him back in his acting career and he even turned down a part in the classic Rat Pack movie Ocean’s Eleven (1960) so he could distance himself a bit from the group.

Never So Few is an important drama because it looks at a lesser known moment in the history of WWII. The film is well-worth your time for the excellent cast and is essential viewing for any Steve McQueen fan. The story does drag on a bit and I felt Sinatra and Lollobrigida had a little chemistry but not enough to make their romance believable. There is a particular scene when Sinatra and Lollobrigida are about to kiss and Lollobrigida is talking about goat’s milk. It really “soured” the moment for me. And I would be remiss to not point out the very odd opening credits. It features vignettes of all the primary cast members with the exception of the two main stars. When I first watched it I thought I’d missed something and replayed it. Nope. We see Sinatra and Lollobrigida’s names in big letters but no vignette. I thought this a very odd choice.





Never So Few (1959) is available on Blu-Ray from the Warner Archive Collection.When you use my buy link you help support this site. Thanks!

The film looks fantastic on Blu-Ray. You can hear the WAC trio discuss the film on their podcast All's Fair about 4 minutes in. D.W. Ferranti calls the film "half a courageous war movie and half a vengeance movie."


 Warner Archive Wednesday - On (random) Wednesdays, I review one title from the Warner Archive Collection. Thank you to Warner Archive for sending me a copy of Never So Few (1959) on Blu-Ray for review!

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