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Suppose They Gave a War and Nobody Came?

Suppose They Gave a War and Nobody Came?
MGM Home Entertainment/ABC
1970 / Color / 1:85 anamorphic 16:9 / 112 min. / Street Date July 6, 2004 / 14.95
Starring Brian Keith, Tony Curtis, Ernest Borgnine, Ivan Dixon, Suzanne Pleshette, Tom Ewell, Bradford Dillman, Arthur O'Connell, John Fiedler, Don Ameche, Robert Emhardt, Vince Howard, Christopher Mitchum, Grady Sutton
Cinematography Burnett Guffey
Production Designer Jack Poplin
Film Editor John F. Burnett
Original Music Jerry Fielding
Written by Hal Captain and Don McGuire
Produced by Fred Engel
Directed by Hy Averback

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 producers.

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 gels either.

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 Coming.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Suppose They Gave a War and Nobody Came? rates:
Movie: Fair ++
Video: Good
Sound: Good
Supplements: none
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

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