“Never So Few” tries to justify its existence by musing over the morals of war in a scene later on where Captain Tom Reynolds (Frank Sinatra) faces legal troubles for his actions in a raid on a Japanese air strip and later on some Chinese, led on by an off-screen warlord. The nasty business of war is extrapolated, but where’s the justification for the rest of this uninspired picture?
There’s some reason by way of the rest of a cast more flavorful than Sinatra: Richard Johnson as Reynolds’ British counterpart, Peter Lawford as a doctor hesitant to drop down into the north Burma battle, Dean Jones as the radio man of the outfit, and Charles Bronson as the nicknamed Hiawatha. They are all O.S.S. operatives during WWII in Burma to train the Kachin natives against an encroaching Japanese army and as much as “Never So Few” belongs to Sinatra, this is a good group, especially Jones in one moment where there’s an attack on the camp and he fires his gun ever so calmly, a young man who knows his place in the war and knows what’s expected.
The trouble with “Never So Few” is its inability to keep up any wartime drama, opting instead to insert Johnson and Sinatra into Calcutta for some relaxation at a well-furnished lounge, where he comes upon Gina Lollobrigida, an untimely interruption by way of the screenplay’s machinations as well as her acting. Playing the simpering sultry seductive woman, she strikes up a romantic dalliance with Reynolds, while Paul Henreid as her supposed richer lover doesn’t notice all that much and even if he did, he doesn’t seem like the type to care. The romance brings “Never So Few” to two crashing halts as both parties express their love for one another and even think up an imaginary future aboard a ferry. It’s hard enough to listen to the mawkish dialogue, but to watch both actors hamming it up even more is bad enough when there’s a war on that requires more time, especially with the actors involved. Later included in that band of brief brothers is Steve McQueen as Bill Ringa, the driver of Colonel Fred Parkson (Robert Bray), who’s brought along for the long, winding road of violence, and is a welcome, but all too brief presence as Sinatra obviously preferred himself on-screen longer.
But for those moments that McQueen is there, he exhibits the beginnings of what would define his image: A cool tone toward life, living it as it comes along and not according to any societal mores, just his own. In the case of Bill, it’s all about strong gin that’s made and marketed by him, and simply good humor. Had Charles Bronson, McQueen, Dean Jones gotten their chance for more time, there might have been a more compact, dramatically intriguing film. John Sturges’ trademark of considering social issues throughout the course of the movie is gone, pushed towards the end of the movie, therefore not carrying the full weight of him. Just a picture in passing, in between “Last Train from Gun Hill” and “The Magnificent Seven”. It’s entirely disappointing.
The DVD, available separately and as part of The Essential Steve McQueen Collection box set, contains the trailer which plays up the Sinatra/Lollobrigida romance angle as hard as possible and downplays the war. This ends up being more of a showcase than anything remotely engrossing.