Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
It's a good rule of thumb to avoid a movie named after a button slogan, but although Suppose They
Gave a War and Nobody Came? is a dated slacker of a comedy, in its own maladroit way it does
make some good points about home-front confusion in 1970, near the end of the Vietnam war. It plays as
if it were intended to have a much more serious ending, but was blunted into an uneven farce.
Released during the year of M*A*S*H, this is really an awkward updating of the
Operation Mad Ball- style service comedy. Against anachronistic hipsters Donald Sutherland
and Elliot Gould, poor run-down movie star Tony Curtis hasn't a chance. Viewers able to overlook some
groaning stereotypes and an infantile car-smashing finale will find that the film makes a
sincere attempt to explain discrimination against the military.
Community Relations Officer Michael Nace (Brian Keith) has no stomach for his work,
because relations between the Army base and 'The Village' are at an all-time low. The GIs are
cheated and kept from doing anything reasonable with their time, and Sheriff Harve (Ernest Borgnine)
is constantly prowling to nab soldiers on minor infractions. Nace's commanding officer Col.
Flanders (Don Ameche) just wants to retire with a clean record, and requires peace with the
intolerable locals, including the officious Mayor Calhoun (Robert Emhardt) and the local bigwig,
Joe Davis (Tom Ewell), also called "General" because of his private anti-Commie militia. Nace
doesn't get along with the snobby Captain Myerson (Bradford Dillman) but instead sides with two
enlisted men. Sgt. Jones (Ivan Dixon) wants to buy a gas station but the locals have locked soldiers
out of access to loans. And Shannon Gambroni (Tony Curtis) is a womanizing troublemaker, currently
chasing local bartender Ramona (Suzanne Pleshette).
First, the bad part: Suppose They Gave a War and Nobody Came? goes in too many directions at
the same time, each direction with its own incompatible tone. First, there's the "make peace
with the locals" theme, wherein the Army and the townies fail to get along in two meetings
and an icebreaking dance. Don Ameche is wasted as the head military man, cast probably for his
then-reputation as an un-special movie star. He'd be brilliantly used in his 80s career comeback.
Bradford Dillman's disaffected radar instructor is a fumbled character clearly placed to provide
new-Army contrast with the old-school Brian Keith. Their drunken midnight run of the obstacle
course is an okay scene idea lost to uninspired direction and the lack of a real payoff.
Lack of payoff is the film's recurring problem. Suzanne Pleshette's saucy barmaid has three or four good
tease scenes with Tony Curtis and then drops out of the movie like a hot potato. Her absence at the
conclusion prompts the suspicion that she just got sick of the job and ditched for a better gig.
Either that or there was once a different and more sobering ending that got jettisoned by worried
Brian Keith is written into a tough corner; his big character change is when he decides to chuck his
career out the window and charge into town in a tank to rescue his buddy Tony Curtis. But the
groundwork for his decision is insufficient. He never seems drunk enough or disgusted
enough to do such a destructive thing. I wonder if the film could possibly have been meant to have a conclusion
where Keith and Ivan Dixon's Sgt. Jones are killed by the townspeople. That seems completely
out of whack, but Suppose They Gave a War and Nobody Came? has the smell of a movie that had
its intention and tone diverted in mid-course. A lot of "serious" material remains.
The good parts of the movie are the detail scenes. Sgt. Jones gets told nicely that he can't get a
loan by a banker (Arthur O'Connell, wasted) who admits that the city fathers have rigged the system
so no soldier black or white can buy town property. And Jones has to admit that the problem is
bigger than race discrimination. (He gets a dose of that from a black MP, of all things.) There
are good scenes of soldiers sticking up for each other, as when a Green Beret resists provocation
from the sheriff and the abusive Tony Curtis. And a teenage dance turns out to be off limits to
soldiers, even when the few who show up are teenagers themselves. The soldiers have little choice
but to hang around bars or search out the local brothel.
Re-channeling his stockade sergeant from
From Here to Eternity, Ernest Borgnine
nails his trite redneck sheriff character, threatening recruits who spit on the sidewalk and relishing
every opportunity to bust one of our rebel heroes. Borgnine's character
as written has no depth, a complaint which goes for all but a few top roles. We're set up for a
racial confrontation that doesn't happen, and we expect Tony Curtis to be beaten almost to death
but that doesn't happen either. Curtis has a couple of excellent verbal foreplay scenes with
Pleshette, who knows just how to tease him about his middle-aged paunch. Their entire subplot
gets squelched when it comes time for the tank to start rolling. Curtis's rebellious streak never
I'm not proud to say that at age eighteen I thought the tank scenes were great. Comedy destruction
was big in the 60s because realistic car stunts and real destruction was a rare occurrence in movies,
even the crushing of the repainted used cars seen here. With all the irreverence toward the
Army, it's a wonder that cooperation was extended to Suppose. Perhaps the present system of
vetting scripts to see if they favored the Armed Forces didn't happen until later in the 70s. On
the other hand, perhaps the script the Army saw was more serious ... some parts of the
finished film are very sympathetic to Army problems.
When a garishly uniformed Tom Ewell appears in a yellow helicopter to command his corps of American
patriots the movie goes right down the tubes. Everything previous had been fairly realistic,
but this half-hearted re-run of the Ed Begley character from Billion Dollar Brain has no
real purpose except to provide some easy targets for Brian Keith to run over with his tank. 1
The casting is lazy, with perennial slimeball Robert Emhardt as the mayor, and whiney John Fielder
(The Odd Couple) as an Army underling who finally takes charge as if directed to emulate
M*A*S*H's Radar O'Reilly. Grady Sutton is almost invisible as a dodo parson and Christopher
Mitchum makes no impact as a green recruit who sleeps through Bradford Dillman's radar class. Poor
Dillman looks particularly lost, saddled with an unwritten character.
The pace stays lively, although the direction is unusually lazy. The dances are laced with closeups of wiggling
teens looking like they wandered in from television. The second unit's work with the highway demolition derby
isn't bad, but it's not integrated well with the character footage. The town is the same Warner/TBS lot
seen in everything from Bye Bye Birdie to
The Chase, with the wild west street
redressed to look more modern. Note, however that some of the town streets are paved and others aren't.
Vietnam is mentioned only in passing. None of the soldiers is concerned, almost as if the script
had been written as a service comedy set completely in peacetime. Brian Keith does mention having served as
a Vietnam observer in 1956, though.
Although there's no nudity we can tell that everyone's eager to demonstrate how much bad language
can sneak through and still receive a PG rating. Ivan Dixon keeps his dignity intact considering
the racial epithets that are tossed at him, mostly by his 'good buddy' Tony Curtis. Actor Dixon had
it all worked out, however; in three years he produced and directed his own film, the notorious
The Spook Who Sat by the Door about a token black CIA agent who gets career-sidelines as a
token receptionist. He quits to organize a Panther-like militant group along similar lines. The
movie almost never gets shown, and I hear it's strong stuff.
MGM/ABC's DVD of Suppose They Gave a War and Nobody Came? is a surprise; it's 16:9 enhanced
and nicely framed throughout. Colors are a little blah, especially skin tones. There are no extras,
not even a trailer.
Audio is fine, but those looking for an interesting Jerry Fielding soundtrack need not make the
effort; it's not his finest hour by a longshot. The cover collage does a good job of making the
film seem like a screwball comedy in the vein of
The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Suppose They Gave a War and Nobody Came? rates:
Movie: Fair ++
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: August 17, 2004
1. We searched high and low
for an M3-Lee Tank to use in 1941 and ended up getting a ruined Priest tank very similar to the
vehicle seen in Suppose They Gave a War and Nobody Came? Automotive expert Pat Carman retooled
the entire drive train of the tank, found new treads for it and the effects men torched off the top half
and built a fiberglass M3-Lee substitute. At the time I'd forgotten that I'd seen this picture, or
we certainly would have investigated it.
James Garner made a similar lower-budget film called
Tank (how creative) in 1980. It had the same basic idea, except Garner plays a Sergeant using his
tank against a redneck jail holding his kid on a trumped-up drugs charge.
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson