Never So Few

Never So Few
Never So Few

1967 re-release film poster by Reynold Brown
Directed by John Sturges
Produced by John Sturges
Written by Tom T. Chamales (book)
Millard Kaufman (screenplay)
Starring Frank Sinatra
Gina Lollobrigida
Peter Lawford
Steve McQueen
Distributed by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer
Release date(s) December 7, 1959
Running time 124 minutes
Country United States
Language English

Never So Few 1959 CinemaScope war film directed by John Sturges and starring Frank Sinatra, Gina Lollobrigida, Peter Lawford, Charles Bronson, Dean Jones and Steve McQueen with uncredited roles by renowned Asian actors Mako, George Takei and James Hong. The script was loosely based on an actual OSS Detachment 101 incident recorded in a 1957 novel by Tom T. Chamales[1]. Sinatra's role as Captain Tom Reynolds is based on the real life of an OSS officer and, later, a Sangamon County, Illinois Sheriff, Meredith Rhule.[2][3]



Shot on location in Burma, Thailand and Ceylon, the film follows Captain Tom Reynolds (Sinatra) and his fellow OSS operatives, Captain Grey Travis (Lawford) and Corporal Bill Ringa (McQueen), leading Kachin natives in fighting the Japanese in Burma in World War II despite a lack of support from their commanders.

In 1943 Burma, a unit of American and British forces under the Office of Strategic Services joins with the native Kachin to hold back the Japanese Army. The unit, under the joint command of American captain Tom C. Reynolds and British captain Danny De Mortimer, with guidance from Kachin leader Nautaung, remains frustrated by their grueling duty, limited supplies and lack of medical care.

After an ambush mission during which the unit wipes out a Japanese squad, Tom's aid, Bye Ya, is severely wounded. Knowing that because they have no morphine Bye Ya will die a lingering, painful death, Tom shoots him, dismaying Danny. Tom then angrily contacts army headquarters in Calcutta and demands to meet with his commanding officer. A few days later in Calcutta, Tom and Danny are met by Corporal Bill Ringa, who has been assigned as their driver.

That evening at dinner, the men run into the O.S.S. regional commanding officer Col. Fred Parkson, who introduces them to wealthy merchant Nikko Regas and his girl friend, Carla Vesari. Tom is immediately attracted to Carla and asks her to dance, but she mocks his provincial American background. As he departs, Nikko invites the men to his country place at the base of the Himalayan Mountains. The next day at headquarters, Tom demands a doctor for the unit but Parkson informs him that medical officers are in short supply and it will be their responsibility to secure a doctor. After Parkson then unexpectedly orders the men to take two weeks leave, Tom refuses unless the Kachin are also officially provided leave. When Parkson agrees, Tom asks to have Ringa reassigned as his new aide, as he has grown fond of the corporal's ingenuity and fearlessness.

Tom, Danny and Ringa drive to Cowaga and upon arriving at their hotel receive a note from Nikko, inviting them to a party. At the party, Tom seeks out Carla and despite her cool attitude, asks to see her the next day. The following morning after horseback riding, Tom and Carla are joined by Danny for a tour of the Himalayan villages. During the tour, Danny falls ill and, upon returning to Nikko's house, is misdiagnosed as having typhus by military doctor Capt. Grey Travis. Danny insists that he is having a recurrence of malaria and after several tests, Travis reluctantly agrees. Nikko offers to put the men up until Danny recovers and, eager to be near Carla, Tom accepts. Noting Carla's attraction to Tom, Nikko cautions her of the unreliability of Americans.

After Nikko departs for China, Carla spends more time with Tom, but continues to refuse his romantic overtures. Upon Danny's recovery, Tom informs Travis that he has had the doctor assigned to their unit as medical officer. Tom then surprises Carla by insisting that she leave Nikko because Tom intends to marry her. Tom and the others return to the Kachin hills in time to spend Christmas with the troops, but their celebration is interrupted when the Japanese unexpectedly attack and wound Tom. Ringa learns from a captured Japanese soldier that the strike was planned with inside information. Nautaung is dismayed when he discovers that one of his men, Billingsley, and a native Shan girl have betrayed them. When Nautaung orders the two "put into the Circle" and ritutally executed in accordance with Kachin custom, Travis protests vigorously, but Tom insists that the dangers of jungle warfare demand harsh measures.

Travis then sends Tom and the other soldiers wounded in the attack to the air base hospital in Calcutta to recover. There, Parkson gives Tom new orders to destroy an airfield in Ubachi, near the Chinese border. When Tom objects that his small unit lacks the supplies to make a successful attack, Parkson assures him they will receive supplies from their Chinese allies. Later, Carla visits Tom and invites him to stay with her when he has recovered. The day before returning to the hills, Tom goes to see Carla, but is disappointed to find her in a luxurious hotel, which she admits is at Nikko's expense. Tom criticizes Carla's inability to put aside her desire for luxury and departs hurt and angered.

Tom rejoins his unit and they proceed on their mission. When the supply convoy fails to arrive at the designated time, Tom decides they must go ahead with the attack anyway. Although the mission is successful, Nautaung and several Americans are killed. While making their way back, the unit comes across the destroyed convoy and finds evidence that indicates that renegade Chinese from across the border were responsible. Tom decides to pursue the renegades, despite Danny's protest. The men find the Chinese camp at nightfall and locating their supply tent, come upon several dozen American dog tags and personal effects. Shocked and outraged, Tom realizes the renegades have been killing American soldiers. Danny translates one of several Chinese warrants from the Chungking government authorizing independent military forces to defend China in and outside their borders against all foreign intruders, and stating that all confiscated materials will be split with Chungking.

Tom rouses the Chinese in the camp and holds them under guard, but when he radios headquarters to report, he receives a message ordering his immediate return as the Chinese have lodged a complaint about his unit's incursion. While Tom consults with Danny about the prisoners, a Chinese soldier surprises them and kills Danny. Tom sends a message back to headquarters rebuffing their demand and orders Ringa to execute the prisoners.

Upon returning to Burma, Tom promotes Ringa to Second Lieutenant and places him in operational command of the unit, then proceeds to Calcutta where he is placed under house arrest on a charge of murder. Carla visits Tom and confesses that she could not tell him earlier that Nikko is with intelligence and she is his assistant. Carla advises Tom to say that battle fatigue caused his defiant incursion into China, but he refuses. Later, Parkson and his commanding officer, Gen. Sloan, visit Tom, who shows them one of the Chinese warrants. Sloan advises Tom not to mention the warrants and demands that he apologize to the representative of the Chinese government. Tom refuses and offers Sloan the American dog tags found at the renegade camp as his answer to anything Sloan and his people might say. A team of military psychiatrists are then brought in to examine Tom for a possible mental discharge, but Tom refuses to cooperate and admit to anything.

The Chinese representative then arrives, and Sloan unexpectedly sides with Tom, demanding that the warlord who has killed American servicemen be reported and an apology issued from China to the U. S. Stung, the representative departs and Sloan reveals that the Chungking government had already sent an apology with a promise to investigate the murders. Exonerated, Tom is freed and reunites with Carla before returning to his Kachins.

The film diverges from the novel here, in that Reynolds dies in the book but survives in the film and will presumably go on to marry Carla at some point after the war. This is a turn-around from another Sinatra war film Von Ryan's Express, in which Sinatra dies in the last scene of the film, racing to catch the departing prisoner train, but survives in the book.


Steve McQueen

Rat Pack cohort Sammy Davis, Jr. was originally slated to play McQueen's role, but Sinatra yanked it away after Davis mildly criticized Sinatra during a radio interview. McQueen was mainly noted at the time for the television series Wanted: Dead or Alive and the horror movie The Blob. Never So Few marked his introduction to working with director John Sturges, who went on to cast McQueen in his breakout role the following year, as second lead in The Magnificent Seven, and later as the motorcycle-jumping lead in the classic The Great Escape.

On the original US one-sheet poster, only Sinatra and Lollobrigida were top billed, but in the 1967 re-release, McQueen, whose film career had surpassed that of the other cast members, moved above the title.

In a similar move, Sinatra later recast the role of Rat Pack colleague Peter Lawford after Lawford failed to deliver his brother-in-law President John F. Kennedy for a stay at Sinatra's house, giving Lawford's part in Robin and the 7 Hoods to Bing Crosby. Sinatra would never speak to Lawford again.

Critical reception

Opening to middling reviews, Never So Few was praised for its action sequences, but criticized for a romantic sub-plot that bogged the film down. Newcomer McQueen garnered the bulk of the film's good notice. Variety commented that "Steve McQueen has a good part, and he delivers with impressive style."


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