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.


Richard Bellamy said...

I really enjoyed this review, even though the film is interesting only in how it presents McQueen. (It also struck me that it came out a couple of years after Bridge on the River Kwai and it seems to bank on elements from that film: jungle, Burma, and commandos.) I saw Never So Few on television with my family after seeing The Great Escape in the movies, so it was only interesting to us for McQueen's presence and we lapped up each second he spent on screen.

That says something about McQueen's charisma. All it took was The Great Escape to send us scouring TV Guide for movies with Steve McQueen - and this led to viewings of Baby the Rain Must Fall, Love With the Proper Stranger, The Cincinnati Kid, War Lover and more. It sent me to the movies to see everything from The Honeymoon Machine to The Sand Pebbles.

James Yates said...

Thank you.

If I had to pick a favorite McQueen movie, I'd either go with The Great Escape or The Cincinnati Kid.

Sammy Davis, Jr. was never a great actor, and trying to visualize him in the role of Bill Ringa is almost impossible. As flawed as the film is, McQueen at least brings some muscle to the role, which is 90% of Ringa's character.

Jason Bellamy said...

Jamie: I'm glad you dug into the periphery of McQueen's career for the blog-a-thon. Thanks! I wanted to include a scene from this movie in my video essay, but it just didn't fit. McQueen's fistfight is campy, but he's quite powerful in a small role, as you note.

Even professionals have to start in the minor leagues.

True. And it's interesting to wonder if McQueen would have stayed in the minor leagues if he stuck with Sinatra. McQueen was given early consideration to be in Ocean's 11 and a few other Rat Pack flicks. Can't remember who it was, but someone gave him the wise advice that he could either be a sidekick to Sinatra all his life (and as big as Sammy Davis Jr was, that's the way we think of him, right?) or he could be his own star. McQueen held out to do the latter. Wise choice.

James Yates said...

Wow, I had no idea that McQueen was considered for future Sinatra projects. And you're absolutely right, very wise choice.

Even though we've all commented on McQueen's occasional acting limitations, the mere existence of the solitary confinement scenes in Papillon are proof that he was a great actor, even if only in stretches.

As campy as his fistfight scene was in Never So Few, it did put a smile on my face.

Jason Bellamy said...

Yeah, it put a smile on my face, too. (Same goes for Sinatra's awful goatee at the outset.)

The most McQueen-esque moment in the film is the one during the shootout when he fires that canon/mortar whatever it is from a seated position, and then after the fight waves his hand. (You've got the screenshot in your post.) That's typical McQueen. He was always inventing new ways for his character to fire his weapon -- and each of them worked. And then he always came up with strange little hand gestures, whether it was the way he shakes his hand after firing the gun, or the moment in Mag 7 when he gestures to everyone to get to their positions as Calvera is riding into town.

That reminds me ...

Since McQueen had been on Wanted: Dead or Alive, and was in the merchant marines before that, he was used to handling a weapon. Yul Brynner wasn't, and when he asked for tips on drawing a gun, McQueen intentionally taught him a draw that was as boringly straightforward as possible, thus allowing McQueen to easily upstage him. A classic McQueen move, and a great piece of Hollywood lore.

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