Never So Few (1959)

Never So FewWith 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.

In other smaller supporting parts, look for Brian Donlevy, Robert Bray, John Hoyt and Whit Bissell. Also keep out for George Takei, Mako and James Hong in quick parts.

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): ***/****

Advertisements

The Sand Pebbles (1966)

the_sand_pebbles_film_posterIn a film career that spanned 24 years, Steve McQueen earned a reputation as one of the coolest actors to ever grace the screen. He had style and a cool, badass factor that was on display in movies like Bullitt, The Great Escape and The Thomas Crown Affair, among others. What’s lost in the shuffle? As downright cool as McQueen was, he was just as strong an actor. Nowhere was that more on display than 1966’s The Sand Pebbles.

It’s 1926 in China, and sailor Jake Holman (McQueen) is arriving at his newest ship, the San Pablo, a US gunboat from the Spanish-American War. Holman has a bit of a track record, transferring from 7 ships in 9 years in the navy. A more than capable sailor, Holman has little use for military tradition, the rigidity of military life, and the thought that he should be ready to die for a cause he doesn’t believe in. Instead, he wants to be left alone in his engine room, taking care of the ship’s engine like few can. Holman wants to mind his own business and not be bothered, but as China tears itself apart, the San Pablo finds itself fighting for its life.

From director Robert Wise, ‘Sand’ is a true epic in an era and decade that was full of big, gigantic, roadshow epics. Based off a bestselling novel from author Richard McKenna, it’s a gem. It clocks in at 182 minutes and streamlines the novel (which is 520-plus pages) to the essential character, story and history. It was filmed on-location in Taiwan and Hong Kong and looks and feels authentic. You feel like you’re there in 1920s China, a powderkeg just waiting to blow up. Composer Jerry Goldsmith‘s score earned an Oscar nomination as well, mixing the booming, epic touches with quieter, more emotional moments and then some Chinese influences too. Listen HERE for an extended sampling of the score.

In his only Oscar-nominated role, McQueen absolutely brings it, showing off his acting chops in every scene. What’s most impressive is that he doesn’t ham it up, get too theatrical, or try to steal his scenes. He just does it, delivering his most human performance as Jake Holman, the US sailor/engineer who only wants to do his job. Talk about a tragic character, Holman gets one thing thrown at him after another. All he wants is to find his place in the world, but all the while, he’s pulled in 100 different directions. It’s an incredibly emotional part from the first time we meet Jake through all his trials and tribulations. Underplayed and perfect, nowhere is that more evident than Jake introducing himself to the San Pablo’s engine, stating “Hello, engine…I’m Jake Holman.” Criminally perfect, McQueen’s soft smile filling up the screen. Here is a man at his happiest.

McQueen leads an impressive ensemble, but his scenes with 2 characters especially carry the movie. The first is the love interest with Candice Bergen‘s Shirley, a young, idealistic and naive missionary who sees all the good in tortured Jake. Their scenes together are quiet and moving, two disparate souls brought together in unlikely situations. The other key relationship is between Holman and Po-Han (Mako, an Oscar-nominated part), a young Chinese man who Holman takes under his wing, teaching him all about the science of the engine. The scenes of the experienced engineer teaching Po-Han are the heart of the movie, bringing Jake and Po-Han to life, a brotherly relationship, a father-son dynamic, a teacher and student, but it all works.

So much more cast to mention! Reuniting after 1963’s The Great Escape, Richard Attenborough has an excellent chemistry with McQueen, playing veteran sailor Frenchy Burgoyne who clicks immediately with Jake. Frenchy’s subplot with a young Chinese girl, Maily (Emmanuelle Arsan) is especially heartbreaking. Richard Crenna delivers an incredibly underrated performance as Capt. Collins, the San Pablo’s much-maligned commander. Stiff, rigid, a patriot, intelligent but constantly worrying, Collins must find a way to get the San Pablo to achieve its mission, keeping countless plates spinning at all times. The crew includes Charles Robinson, Simon Oakland, Ford Rainey, Joe Turkel, Gavin MacLeod and Barney Phillips. Also look for Larry Gates as a devout missionary who won’t let anything stop him from achieving his mission.

While the story and historical setting are essential to the movie’s success, the true essential is the characters and how the history impacts them. Go along for the ride, regardless of your knowledge of Chinese history (I know pretty much nothing). There isn’t much action until the final 30 minutes, the San Pablo battling its way through a well-guarded boom defended by Chinese nationalist troops. The finale itself is far more small-scale, a moonlit plaza serving as the backdrop between several San Pablo sailors and some well-hidden Chinese troops.

And that ending…my goodness, that ending. As tough as it is, McKenna’s novel is actually much more harsh! The final line is a doozy, one that will no doubt stick with you long after viewing. McQueen at his absolute finest — up there with Papillon as his strongest performance — in this epic historical story with a great cast, well-developed story and memorable musical score. A must-see!

The Sand Pebbles (1966): *** 1/2 /****

Bullitt (1968)

Let’s cut away all the fluffiness and cut right to the bone. Steve McQueen is maybe the coolest actor to ever work in Hollywood. An underrated actor who had an incredible on-screen presence, he had his biggest success and popularity in the late 1960s. The Cincinnati Kid, Nevada Smith, Thomas Crown Affair, The Sand Pebbles, all excellent parts in good to great films. Nowhere was McQueen more at his coolest than 1968’s Bullitt.

A respected and hard-edged San Francisco detective, Frank Bullitt (McQueen) has been tasked with a somewhat dull but essential task from ambitious politician Walter Chalmers (Robert Vaughn). Prepping for a Senate hearing about a Mafia takedown, Chalmers has enlisted a key witness (Felice Orlandi), and Bullitt and two other detectives must babysit him over a weekend until the hearing. Instead, the witness is killed by two assassins, forcing Bullitt to find out what’s going on. Something doesn’t fit together as he examines the clues and evidence, but the pressure is on. Chalmers needs a scapegoat, and Bullitt seems like the perfect target to take the fall. Knowing he’s been backed into a corner, Bullitt has an extremely limited window to find out exactly what’s going on.

The late 1960s were one of the most influential periods in Hollywood history, changing the way films were made and more importantly, the stories that were told. From director Peter Yates, ‘Bullitt’ is a police/cop movie like none before it. It is a smart, stylish cop drama/thriller that gets better with each viewing. For starters, it was filmed in San Francisco, setting the stage for Dirty Harry, McQ and a whole cop genre to move into the city. It is an ideal backdrop for the story; a polished, good-looking city that is nonetheless hiding secrets. The score from Lalo Schifrin is a good mix of quiet, soothing jazz and faster-paced, more traditional yet still exciting musical cues (listen HERE). The style in an almost documentary-like fashion reflects some of the French crime thrillers that I’ve really come to appreciate, giving ‘Bullitt’ a different edge more than just the same old, same old cops and robbers story.

That starts with Steve McQueen as Detective Frank Bullitt, a veteran cop who always gets the job done but usually how he wants to do it, not how he should do it. That basic write-up is as cliched as the countless cop movie stereotypes that have been done to death in the years since, but McQueen gives the lead performance a different edge. Never one for huge dialogue scenes, McQueen’s Bullitt is a huge presence whenever he’s on-screen. He does more with a look here or there than many actors could do with an entire monologue with the camera trained on them. There’s a self-assured confidence in the part, a quietness about it too. Bullitt is an expert at what he does, but he’s not interested in fame or accolades. He does it because he’s really good, so good that he’s become almost desensitized to the violence he sees on a daily basis. McQueen = cool.

Okay, so we’ve talked about the plot, Steve McQueen’s badass-ness (is that a word?), and hhhmmm, what else? Oh, right, the cars. Some 45 years since its release, ‘Bullitt’ is still remembered fondly for an infamous car chase that opened the door for countless knockoffs, remakes and retries. Driving his 1968 Ford Mustang, McQueen pursues two assassins (driver Bill Hickman, killer Paul Genge) in, around and through San Fran, two muscle cars going at it for everything they’re worth. Schifrin’s soundtrack is left by the wayside, just the sounds of the two engines doing battle providing all the soundtrack that’s needed. Looking back on it now, it isn’t a flashy sequence, but it is clear how much it has influenced just about every movie car chase since. It is an extended sequence that runs about 10  minutes total (near the film’s halfway point), one that will definitely get the adrenaline pumping.

Now sometimes at the expense of the film’s style is the film’s story. It took me 3 or 4 viewings to really get everything down just right. Not to throw this out there as a cop-out, but an understanding of the story isn’t a must here. You watch for the style. Some reviewers/critics have an issue with the pacing, some point-blank stating that it’s a boring movie. It isn’t an action-packed movie, that’s for sure. ‘Bullitt’ takes its time but always knows where it wants to go. A chase through a hospital is subtle and underplayed but incredibly full of tension, as is the finale at the San Francisco airport as Bullitt chases a suspect across runways in use. We see little departures into San Fran with Bullitt’s girlfriend, Cathy (Jacqueline Bisset), on dates and at work, to Bullitt’s apartment, to follow up with witnesses. It’s rarely flashy, but there’s something charming just the same about that assured style.

Backing McQueen up, Vaughn does what he does best; gentlemanly slimy to perfection. His Chalmers is smooth and suave, but he’s really a snake waiting in the grass to strike. Don Gordon (a longtime, close friend of McQueen) is nicely cast as Delgetti, Bullitt’s longtime partner with Simon Oakland and Norman Fell as their superiors. Also look for Robert Duvall in a small but key (and effective) part as a cab driver whose help Bullitt enlists as he tries to figure everything out.

One of my favorites, an iconic flick from the 1960s, and one of Steve McQueen’s all-time bests. Haven’t seen it? What’s wrong with you?!? Highly recommended.

Bullitt (1968): ****/****

The Great Escape (1963)

I have two favorite movies, neither of which I’m able to pick one over the other.  I love them both, and all other movies come after it, first is 1960’s The Alamo which I’ve reviewed before and then there’s 1963’s The Great Escape. Introduced to it at a young age when I showed an interest in history, I’ve probably seen it 25 or 30 times straight through, and another 75 or 100 catching bits and pieces. For me, it is that rare perfect movie. Great story, impressive cast, exciting action, and one of the best soundtracks ever. You can’t ask for much more.

In World War II, both the Allies and Axis forces had to deal with how to handle prisoners of wars. In Germany, the Luftwaffe, the German Air Force, was placed in charge of these Allied prisoners, placing them in P.O.W. camps all over their occupied territory. These prisoners — as was their sworn duty — tried countless escapes over the length of the war in typically small groups, sometimes getting as many as a dozen out. But one true story set the bar for heroism and courage among the prisoners, the true story of 76 prisoners escaping Stalag Luft III in March 1944. Literally hundreds of prisoners were involved in the effort as the escape even had an impact on D-Day some three months later.

It’s 1943, and a new prison camp has been built. The German Luftwaffe has taken the worst prisoners from all their camps and thrown them in this new camp that features all the security aspects they’ve learned from previous camps.  In this “perfect” camp, the Germans (Hannes Messemer is the commandant) intend to watch these men very carefully. Leading the prisoners is Roger Bartlett (Richard Attenborough), dubbed ‘Big X’ for his leadership at the top of the ‘X Organization,’ a team of prisoners working together to bust out as many captured soldiers as they can. Bartlett has bigger plans though this time around. Instead of just getting two or three prisoners out, he intends to get 250 out of the camp with a large-scale plan that includes three extremely long tunnels under the barbed-wire fence. The plan seems impossible, but the prisoners go to work, slowly working their way toward escape.

Do you know the line ‘They don’t make them like they used to?’ This movie applies. Director John Sturges (one of my favorites and an underrated filmmaker overall) turns in his all-time best film, one that stands at or near the top in the lexicon of World War II movies. It is based in fact, sticking to the details and truths in the story, without getting bogged down.  There is action, humor (never overplayed, just natural humor arising from the situation), and characters you love and are generally rooting for. Composer Elmer Bernstein turns in a score that is one of the greats, especially the main theme, listen HERE. Bernstein’s score both drives the story as needed and keeps it grounded in the quieter, emotional scenes (including one where a tunnel is discovered and its tragic consequences).  Sturges filmed in Germany — as his assistant said, ‘Germany looks like Germany.’ An entire camp was built, an exact duplicate of the actual camp, bringing this 1963 epic up another notch in terms of realism and authenticity.

Sturges’ movies were famous for their male-dominated ensemble casts, but this may be his most impressive. Start with Steve McQueen as Hilts, the motorcycle-riding ‘Cooler King,’ the role that shot him to international stardom. Then there’s James Garner as Hendley, the scrounger, and Attenborough as Bartlett, the prisoner’s top man, a brilliant mind who comes up with this improbable plan. Not bad, huh? Oh yeah, there’s also James Donald as Ramsey, the senior British officer, Charles Bronson and John Leyton as Danny and Willie, the tunnel kings, James Coburn as Sedgwick, the manufacturer, Donald Pleasence as Blythe, the forger, David McCallum as Ashley-Pitt, “dispersal,” and Gordon Jackson as MacDonald, the intelligence officer. Other prisoners include Nigel StockJud Taylor and Angus Lennie in a small but essential part as Ives, Hilt’s progressively wire-happy partner. A more impressive cast could be impossible to assemble.

What is amazing is that even with all those stars — some on the rise, some already established — is that they all register, they all make a lasting impression in a positive way. More on McQueen later, but Attenborough delivers a career-best as Big X, the driven even obsessed leader who wants to take the war back to the Germans, not sitting out the war comfortably as his captors intend. Garner’s Hendley bonds with Pleasence’s Blythe in some of the movie’s most touching scenes, two very different people forming a friendship. Bronson and Leyton as the tunnel kings certainly make an impression, carving three tunnels out of the Earth 30 feet below the surface. Bronson is at his best, a Polish flyer with claustrophobia who hides his fear of small, enclosed spaces and digs. Coburn doesn’t get a ton to do compared to the others, but is his usual, laconic self. There is not a weakness in the cast from top to bottom.

When movie fans think of The Great Escape, they usually go right to Steve McQueen, a rising star who got his crack at the big time here and didn’t disappoint.  His Capt. Virgil Hilts is one of his most iconic roles, the loner, trouble-making American prisoner who attempts escape attempt after attempt.  What’s funny is that his character basically disappears for vast stretches of the movie, only to reappear after a stint in the cooler and steal every scene he is in. This is McQueen at his laid back, scene-stealing best. With all the notable actor’s actors around him, he is the unquestioned star thanks in great part to the finale, a motorcycle chase across Germany with his captors in hot pursuit. It is one of the greatest chases sequences ever, caped with one of the most impressive stunts ever, a 7-foot jump by stunt man Bud Ekins over a high-strung barbed-wire fence. McQueen is my favorite, but this is always his best to me.

With a final run-time of 2 hours and 53 minutes, Sturges’ true story doesn’t have to rush along at a lightning pace…but does anyway. The first 105 minutes or so focus exclusively on the escape attempt, putting all the little details together that need to happen. The first and biggest of course is the digging of the tunnels, 30 feet down and over 300 feet straight out. A track is built to transport prisoners/diggers, and wooden boards are needed to shore up the entire length of the tunnel. Up above, forgers create documents, tailors make clothes, Intelligence gathers information, all part of an elaborate system of security and watchmen to make sure nothing is discovered by their ever-vigilant German guards. It would have been easy for this movie to get bogged down in these details, but The Great Escape revels in them, making the mundane and possibly boring, exciting at a breakneck pace.

It is a movie called ‘The Great Escape’ though, and it is at its most exciting once the prisoners do escape, 76 of them in the dead of night spread out all over the German countryside. The escape attempt covers the last hour of the movie, an incredible extended sequence that is hard to top. It is almost entirely dialogue free, Bernstein’s score playing over the action the whole way. Finally free of their camp, the prisoners make their efforts to hopefully reach freedom, some by train, some by bikes, others by planes, and in Hilts’ case, a stolen German motorcycle.  Sturges was an action master, and this may be his tour de force sequence.

I could go on and on with this movie, and I’ve already sort of done so. My head is full of little tidbits of information that I’ve picked up over the course of repeated viewings.  Above all else through the drama, the facts, and the action is that Sturges gets the tone right from Paul Brickhill’s source novel, and most importantly, the true story it is based on. These men did the impossible in an impossible situation. Knowing their chances of escape back to freedom were slim, they plodded on when they could have just as easily quit. If you didn’t know and just read the details — check out the Wikipedia entry HERE for more details — you would say there’s no way this happened, but somehow, some way, it did. The ending hits you square in the stomach as it should, but the movie ends on a positive note; McQueen’s Hilts once again in the cooler, bouncing his baseball off the wall.  You may capture him again, but you’ll never stop him from trying.

A perfect movie, one of the best around, and one of my two favorite movies.

The Great Escape <—trailer (1963): ****/****