With his role on TV’s Wanted: Dead or Alive playing bounty hunter Josh Randall, Steve McQueen introduced himself to American audiences in a big way. And though he had starred in several feature films — The Great St. Louis Bank Robbery, the cult classic The Blob — he got his first true big break in a major studio release with 1959’s Never So Few. It’s a good — if flawed — flick, but the star power is evident, even in a supporting role with an all-star cast.
It’s 1943 in Burma with Captain Tom Reynolds (Frank Sinatra) and Capt. Danny DeMortimer (Richard Johnson) command a small group of OSS operatives leading a unit of Kachin resistance fighters. Less than 1,000 men are holding back some 40,000 Japanese troops, Reynolds, DeMortimer and the native Kachins leading raids all over the country. They’re outnumbered, undersupplied and constantly fighting an uphill battle. The duo earns a leave, both officers enjoying a break. First up on their list? Find a doctor for the wounded men and then go to HQ to demand the support the guerilla fighters so desperately need. In the meantime, Reynolds finds some time for romance, seeing a beautiful Italian girl, Carla (Gina Lollobrigida), currently with an arms dealer.
I love WWII movies, love Sinatra and love McQueen, so when I stumbled across this 1959 war drama from director John Sturges years ago, my first thought was simple. How the hell had I missed this flick for so long?!? The answer is pretty simple. It’s a mixed bag of a final product. ‘Few’ is an above-average war flick when…it focuses on the war! Go figure, right? Far too much time — at least half of the 124-minute running time — is spent on a chemistry-less “romance” and “love triangle” among Sinatra, Lollobrigida and an underused Paul Henreid as the arms dealer. It goes absolutely nowhere and is almost uncomfortable to watch. Sinatra gives the old college try, but it’s a romantic subplot that’s DOA.
The unfortunate part is that the war story aspect of ‘Few’ is pretty dang good. It’s based on a true story concerning the fighting in Burma before the Allies retook the country in late 1943 and into 1944. It’s not a romantic portrayal of war. We see blood in the firefights. The action isn’t graphic but can be startling. Reynolds has to mercy kill one of his men, a gutshot soldier with no relief in sight. It’s an at-times bleak, downright cynical portrayal of guerrilla fighting. The most interesting angle taken? A third act issue with American forces battling both Japanese infantry and Chinese troops supposedly on the Allied side. It gets some interesting points for going down a road (and story) not often addressed, especially as early as 1959.
So here’s a shocker; the director of classics The Great Escape and The Magnificent Seven (among several other very good to near-classic films), Sturges is able to helm a damn exciting WWII adventure with an impressive all-star cast of some badass dudes. Sinatra always played variations on his own charming, confident persona, and that’s no different here. His Reynolds is a capable, tough as nails officer who knows the task he’s been given is near impossible. Johnson is a scene-stealer as DeMortimer, Reynolds’ second-in-command, a very British officer (who favors a monocle) but is coolly efficient under fire. They have an excellent Batman-Robin, Butch-and-Sundance vibe, that of two men who have been to hell and back in combat.
And then there’s that McQueen guy. What a presence on display, McQueen stealing scenes left and right with his physical presence and his quick-firing line delivery. You see the little touches McQueen would become famous for, stealing a scene with a quick movement, a twitch here and there. As for Reynolds’ team, also look for Peter Lawford as Travis, the surgeon, Dean Jones as Norby, the radioman, Charles Bronson as Danforth, the Navajo code-talker and Philip Ahn as Nautang, the ranking Kachin. There is a camaraderie and a bond among these men that carries the war scenes through the much slower romantic portions of the story.
Filmed on location in Thailand, Burma, India and Sri Lanka, ‘Few’ has a great authentic look with a great backdrop to the story. Composer Hugo Friedhofer turns in an excellent score as well, give it a listen HERE. As for the action, what’s there is choice. Three separate battles are well-handled, loud and chaotic and crazy, the highlight being an attack on a heavily-guarded Japanese airfield in the dead of night. It’s a flawed film overall — a bit of a two-face — but what’s good overpowers the bad, weaker parts. Know those flaws going in, and you should enjoy it.
Never So Few (1959): ***/****