Friday, March 26, 2010
The Kid's Break
(NOTE: This is my submission to the Steve McQueen Blog-a-Thon, being hosted by Jason Bellamy at Cooler Cinema. Please click on the above link for more information and for further links to the other submissions. The Steve McQueen Blog-a-Thon runs through Saturday, March 27th.)
I think it's appropriate to open this post with a sample of one of my favorite Simpsons dialogues:
Marge Simpson (trying to make Homer realize that he doesn't know about his son's interests): Who's your son's hero?
Homer: Steve McQueen?
Marge: Homer, that's YOUR hero!
When notes or conversations arise about Steve McQueen's beginnings, the first two names that understandably come up are The Blob and the television show Wanted: Dead or Alive. Further fame would come with his more memorable roles in the 1960s and 1970s, but a little-discussed aspect of his start is his first teaming with John Sturges in 1959's Never So Few. Perhaps the fact that this film doesn't garner much attention is because it's a movie weighed down with limitations and a generally poor script. Starring Frank Sinatra as an Army Captain leading a group of rebel soldiers in Burma, the film might have gained more attention as the first Rat Pack vehicle before 1960's Ocean's 11; Peter Lawford co-stars as an Army doctor, and the role of Corporal Bill Ringa was intended for Sammy Davis, Jr. However, the role went to Steve McQueen. Perhaps this story is apocryphal, but Sinatra told John Sturges to "give the kid a break" with specific camera shots and scenery. As a film, Never So Few is important on a pop culture level as opposed to great cinema. The teaming of the Chairman Of the Board and the King Of Cool doesn't get the attention it deserves.
Never So Few tells the story of Tom Reynolds (Sinatra), a Captain leading a band of O.S.S. operatives and Kachin rebels in the early part of World War II. After an ambush leaves some of his men dead, Reynolds is given leave, and he's picked up in India by driver/Corporal Bill Ringa. We first see Ringa as he's waiting for Reynold's plane to arrive, and it starts a recurring theme of excellent shots of McQueen that seem to last just a few seconds shorter than anticipated, especially if it's true that McQueen was supposed to be featured more prominently:
Even from the beginning, Ringa's charisma is evident. While picking up Reynolds and Captain Danny De Mortimer (Richard Johnson) from an evening out, he's stopped by an M.P. for public drinking. Reynolds and company watch as Ringa beats up his intended captors before resuming his duties as a driver. When asked to explain his actions, he offers a simple "cops make me nervous." The comedic effect is one of the film's better scenes, and works as an excellent example of McQueen's penchant for characters who thrive on trouble and potential tight spots. Reynolds and De Mortimer are impressed.....
....but they're even more impressed by Ringa's admission that he makes his own gin to sell to his fellow soldiers. He violates the rules, but as the film shows later on, Reynolds has no aversion to rule-breaking himself, and Ringa's candor and fearlessness makes him an intriguing potential asset to the cause in Burma. In addition to hinting at McQueen's driving scenes in future films, the screencap below is a better example of McQueen dominating the screen. Also, from a pop culture standpoint, we have two of the most famous pairs of blue eyes in film history, sharing the screen:
I'm glossing over a lot of the plot points in order to focus on McQueen, but it's for the best. Never So Few is also supposed to be a romantic film, with a love/hate relationship between Reynolds and wealthy socialite Carla Vesari (Gina Lollobrigida). Not only is their romance poorly and hastily introduced, but Sinatra and Lollobrigida have some of the worst chemistry in film history. In their scenes, Sinatra does what McQueen would be criticized for in later years: not acting, but posing. Despite a handful of genuinely terrific performances (From Here To Eternity, The Man With the Golden Arm, The Manchurian Candidate), a lot of Sinatra's films are marked by body language that says "I really don't give a shit." In the romance scenes, the horrible dialogue ("I know what kind of man you are! So brave in battle, but so afraid of life!"), combined with Sinatra's lack of care, is unintentionally laughable.
Before returning to the field, Reynolds demands a few things for his trip: a doctor, better medical supplies, and the services of Ringa. There's a wonderful line that can be read as a precursor to McQueen's future box office appeal. Reynold's superior balks at his request to take Ringa along. "He's a baby-faced kid." To which Reynolds replies: "We want him." This proves wise, since Ringa proves himself valuable in another ambush, firing a mortar with ease:
McQueen's final scenes are the best at establishing his screen presence. Chinese rebels have killed American soldiers, and Reynolds orders the killings of prisoners as revenge. He hands the reigns off to Ringa, first ordering him to kill the prisoners, and then effectively giving him command of the unit, since he realizes that his orders will likely mean a court-martial.
It's just as well that McQueen was never really noted for his dialogue or memorable monologues, and Never So Few is no exception. All around, if the dialogue isn't bad, it's offensive (Reynolds admonishes a soldier for referring the Japanese as 'gooks,' but later tells Lollobrigida that he wants to keep her pregnant if they get married). The film is beautifully shot, and hints at Sturges' ability to film stunning scenery shots just as well as he shot tight, enclosed scenes in The Great Escape.
From another cultural angle, Never So Few features Charles Bronson in a small role, as well as an uncredited extra role by a pre-Star Trek George Takei:
In hindsight, can Never So Few be considered McQueen's breakthrough? Possibly, if one just goes by his visual scenes. As poor as the film is, said hindsight is 20/20. Even professionals have to start in the minor leagues. Culturally, the film is a memorable hint of things to come (McQueen, Bronson, and Sturges would reteam four years later in The Great Escape), and what could have been. With a little more focus and education, Sinatra and McQueen could have been considered among the greatest actors of their respective generations. While this isn't the worst film ever made, it does show the necessity of craft devotion and strong scripts. Even the star power wasn't enough to elevate this movie, but it's a great piece, even if viewed through a lens of revisionist film history or a more basic cultural filter.