Seeing Bullitt on my birthday whet my appetite for more Steve McQueen, so I decided to check out his breakout role in John Sturges’ World War II film Never So Few (1959). This first McQueen-Sturges collaboration would lead to two far more successful ones—The Magnificent Seven and The Great Escape—but unfortunately that’s the most noteworthy thing about it.
The film’s headliner is, in fact, Frank Sinatra, who portrays the roguish Captain Tom Reynolds, who leads an O.S.S. military outfit in one of World War II’s forgotten theaters, Burma. With a unit of native Kachin soldiers under his command, Reynolds wages guerilla campaigns against the encroaching Japanese army with remarkable success. But the work takes its toll, sending Reynolds back to India to demand more resources from his superiors. During the trip, he develops a smoldering attraction to the beautiful Carla Vesari (Gina Lollabrigida), which becomes a fraught romance as he bounces back and forth from the harsh realities of jungle combat to the fleeting joys of R&R.
Never So Few is a structural mess, with a rather incoherent storyline that ambles through several disconnected episodes that ends in a, well, ethically weird face-off against ruthless Chinese mercenaries. Throughout, the film over-relies on a chemistry-free romance between Sinatra and Lollobrigida, whose “courtship” consists of hostile verbal sparring and Reynolds’ grabby demands. It hasn’t aged well in other ways, either, particularly its awkward mix of casual racist epithets and white-savior character dynamics. All in all, not terribly satisfying.
What it does have is McQueen, who effortlessly steals scenes as slick, trouble-making corporal Bill Ringa, recruited by Reynolds during one of his Calcutta retreats. It’s easy to see how McQueen’s quirky, understated cool put him on the map here and led to bigger and better things. The location work in southeast Asia also leads to fine, eye-popping cinematography. I wouldn’t exactly recommend it, but it might be of interest to film historians as a warm-up for the upcoming McQueen-Sturges war epic The Great Escape.