Never So Few

Never So Few is a 1959 CinemaScope Metrocolor war film, directed by John Sturges and starring Frank Sinatra, Gina Lollobrigida, Peter Lawford, Steve McQueen, Richard Johnson, Paul Henreid, Brian Donlevy, Dean Jones, Charles Bronson, and Philip Ahn, and featuring 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.[3] Sinatra's character of Captain Tom Reynolds is based on a real OSS officer and, later, sheriff of Sangamon County, Illinois, U.S. Navy Lt. Meredith Rhule.[4][5]

Never So Few
Theatrical release poster by Reynold Brown
Directed byJohn Sturges
Produced byEdmund Grainger
Screenplay byMillard Kaufman
Based onNever So Few
1957 novel
by Tom T. Chamales
StarringFrank Sinatra
Gina Lollobrigida
Peter Lawford
Steve McQueen
Music byHugo Friedhofer
CinematographyWilliam H. Daniels
Edited byFerris Webster
Distributed byMetro-Goldwyn-Mayer
Release date
  • December 7, 1959 (1959-12-07)
Running time
124 minutes
CountryUnited States
Box office$5,270,000[1][2]


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 (Richard Johnson), with guidance from Kachin leader Nautaung (Philip Ahn), 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 aide, Bye Ya, is severely wounded. Knowing that because they have no morphine Bye Ya (Guy Lee) will die a lingering, painful death, Tom shoots him and then angrily contacts army headquarters in Calcutta and demands to meet with his commanding officer. That evening at dinner, the men run into the OSS regional commanding officer Col. Fred Parkson (Robert Bray), who introduces them to wealthy merchant Nikko Regas (Paul Henreid) and his girlfriend, Carla Vesari (Gina Lollobrigida). 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 (Peter Lawford). 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 girl to be shot and Billingsley to be "put into the Circle" and ritually 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 an officer from Washington, 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.


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 theatrical poster (see infobox above), only Sinatra and Lollobrigida were top billed. As illustrated to the right, in the 1967 re-release McQueen's credit was moved in front of Peter Lawford's and above the title, and he was featured prominently in the artwork.[6]

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, Kennedy's choice as host for his visit. Sinatra never spoke 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."

Box office

According to MGM records the film was popular, earning $3,020,000 in the US and Canada and $2,250,000 elsewhere, but because of its high cost resulted in a loss of $1,155,000.[1]


  1. The Eddie Mannix Ledger, Los Angeles: Margaret Herrick Library, Center for Motion Picture Study.
  2. Domestic deals - "Rental Potentials of 1960", Variety, 4 January 1961 p 47. Please note figures are rentals as opposed to total gross.
  3. "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2012-07-21. Retrieved 2010-03-12.CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
  4. "Special Forces - Roll Of Honour". Retrieved 2013-05-21.
  5. "Michigan War sTudies Review : Barney Rosset" (PDF). Retrieved 2013-11-26.
  6. Harris, Roger. "Never So Few". Steve McQueen Film Poster Site. Retrieved 2013-03-10. It is interesting to note that on the original US one sheet poster, only Sinatra and Lollobrigida get above the title billing. Steve's picture does not even appear. Steve was originally billed below the title. However this has changed by the time of the re-release, which was well after the release of 'The Magnificent Seven' and 'The Great Escape' which had made Steve a star (incidentally the director of this film, John Sturges, also directed those films).
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