The screenplay, by Hal Captain (who did no other films) and another onetime actor, Don McGuire, seems to be aiming for a tone and pacing similar to Norman Jewison's commercially and critically successful The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming (1966), to the point of casting one of that film's stars, Brian Keith, as one of the leads. In other respects, Suppose They Gave parallels in odd ways the 1953 classic From Here to Eternity, more about which later.
To its credit, it's not dull and has some good moments, and several of the performances are very good. (The picture chokes with great character actors.) It's a misfire generally, but it's also easy to see how those behind it thought the material had potential.
In the vaguely Southern (though Southwest-looking) town of Anderson, relations are strained with the nearby U.S. Army base, apparently some kind of missile defense training installation. The movie is set during the present, near the height of the Vietnam War, though that conflict is only cryptically alluded to here and there.
The movie opens with the arrival of Warrant Officer Nace (Brian Keith), who's assigned by ambitious Col. Flanders (Don Ameche, in his last film until Trading Places many years later) to take charge of the troubled community relations. Nace assigns two friends to assist him: no-nonsense African-American Sgt. Jones (Ivan Dixon), and incorrigible tomcat Sgt. Gambroni (Tony Curtis).
Nace's efforts do little to defuse tensions. Leading citizen Billy Joe Davis (Tom Ewell) is a stereotypical rightwing blowhard, a member of a virulently anticommunist, John Birch Society-type organization who leads a homegrown militia, while the town's everyday problems are left to sadistic Sheriff Harve (Ernest Borgnine), who hates everyone associated with the base. Tensions flare further after Gambroni persuades local bar girl Ramona (Suzanne Pleshette) into a date and Harve, who's been unsuccessful trying to woo Ramona himself, finds them making out in the back seat of a car. Harve has the prolific if middle-aged lover arrested.
The film (with a "?" at the end of its title in all the ads but not on the film itself) is a disjointed mélange of concepts and characters. Ewell's Billy Joe is an outrageous caricature, more extreme than Paul Ford's corresponding part in The Russians Are Coming in that Billy Joe commands a heavily armed militia complete with grenade launchers, a fleet of armored cars and even a helicopter, all curiously painted taxicab yellow. Ford's character in Russians was funny because he was so foolishly paranoid, but Billy Joe is merely cartoonish and toothless, even though the writers seem to position him as a semi-serious threat.
Indeed, while the film brushes with myriad contemporary social problems like bigotry, the Vietnam War, police brutality, racial discrimination, anticommunist paranoia, etc., everything is obliquely and tenuously introduced, as if the filmmakers were worried about offending the wide, mainstream audience they it targets. (It didn't work. The movie flopped spectacularly, losing over $4 million at the box office.)
Weirdly, Suppose They Gave a War and Nobody Came parallels From Here to Eternity in myriad ways. In that earlier film Burt Lancaster played a world-weary career soldier working directly under an officer who uses him to win a late-career promotion, as happens here. Ivan Dixon's character isn't much like Montgomery Clift's, but each plays a character spiritually beaten down by an unjust system. In From Here to Eternity, Frank Sinatra's Italian-American enlisted man comes into conflict with an M.P. who, after arresting him on trumped-up charges, beats the "Dago." In Suppose They Gave, Tony Curtis plays an Italian-American enlisted man comes into conflict with the local sheriff (played in both films by Ernest Borgnine) who, after arresting him on trumped-up charges, beats the "Dago."
Curtis is miscast, his established irreverent but indefatigable lover persona similar to his character here in some ways, but too "Hollywood" for the semi-realistic tone the filmmakers seemed to be after. The character certainly doesn't mesh with Ivan Dixon's more authentically real sergeant. Sgt. Jones dreams of building a gas station along the busy highway between the town and base, only to be turned away from a bank loan by its embarrassed, apologetic president (Arthur O'Connell), whose bound by Billy Joe's anti-military policies.
Ivan Dixon essentially plays the third lead in the film, and it's one of his best parts outside of Nothing But a Man (1964), certainly richer than the entirety of his five seasons as one of Hogan's Heroes. The film certainly kept a lot of character actors employed for several weeks. Besides those already mentioned, John Fiedler (as a mousy major), Robert Emhardt (town mayor), Christopher Mitchum (hippy draftee), Grady Sutton (local pastor) and others appear. One of the film's few genuinely funny bits is provided by Cliff Norton, playing an exuberant clarinetist at a local dance. The IMDb doesn't realize that John James Bannon, playing an M.P. threatening Dixon's sergeant with arrest, is actually actor Jack Bannon, later part of the cast of Lou Grant.
Video & Audio
Suppose They Gave a War and Nobody Came was produced by the television network ABC's short-lived theatrical film division, which released most of its product through Cinerama Releasing Corporation. (Original logos for both companies are retained for the Blu-ray version.) The 1.85:1 video transfer is sourced from a new, 4K remaster, though the movie itself has the flat look of a made-for-TV movie. The DTS-HD Master Audio (2.0 mono) is fine, and supported by optional English subtitles. Region "A" encoded.
The supplement here is an audio commentary "hosted by Dr. Eloise Ross and Dr. Dean Brandum." Despite the pretentious billing, their talk is reasonably informative, though the audio is terrible, is if they were recorded from adjacent phone booths.
After the opening scenes, I was expecting a grueling 113-minute viewing experience, but Suppose They Gave a War and Nobody Came is fairly involving despite its many flaws, and not so off-target that one can appreciate its aspirations even if it cannot meet them. Rent It.