Suppose They Gave A War And Nobody Came?

Director: Hy Averback
Brian Keith, Tony Curtis, Ernest Borgnine, Suzanne Pleshette, Don Ameche

In the past for this web site, I have discussed the military in general, and how I would be a really bad choice being given a role in any particular branch of the military. So I won't get back into dicussing that, at least for the time being. But there is a specific part of the military that I haven't discussed before that I think would be interesting to bring up. And that happens to be military bases. Why I want to discuss the subject I will eventually bring up, but first I want to tell about my experience with military bases. You might think that my having never been in the military before, I wouldn't have much to say about military bases. But actually, I do. My first experience with military bases came with the small town I grew up in. You see, in my town there was a bona fide military base of sorts. I use the term "of sorts", because it was (and probably still is) the wimpiest military base you can possibly think of, probably because it was Canadian. How weak was this military base? Well, for starters, there wasn't even a fence around the military base property. Any person could walk off the highway running past the fence and make their way down the various roads of the military base with nothing stopping them. Another way the military base made itself to be particularly pathetic was that it seemed all the buildings on the base were alike, from their shape to the faded paint that was on their walls. But what was worse about this military base in my home town was there was no military muscle of any kind to be displayed. I can't ever recall seeing soldiers walking down the base's roads, nor were there even any jeeps or other military vehicles. Come to think about it, there seemed to be no place for the military on the base to keep guns or other weapons in storage. In other words, very Canadian, eh?

It wasn't until many years later when I was in Korea teaching English that I got to experience a real military base. An American ex-soldier colleague of mine invited me to a nearby American military base, and it was the complete opposite of the Canadian military base in my home town. Cripes, the American base even had a Burger King on the property! But as spectacular as the American military base was, I soon learned there was a cloud with the silver lining. As I experienced more of Korea, I came across several reports of members of the American military base having clashes with the locals. Once while walking on the streets of Seoul, I came across a protestor who set camp on the sidewalk and displayed a sign listing how he had been mistreated by the American soldiers from the base. Another time, I heard some American soldiers caused a drunken ruckus in a local tavern, fled the tavern with several locals in hot pursuit, and barely managed to get to their base and in the protection of the American military, which of course upset the locals. When I came across stories like those, I did think there must be truth to what had been claimed to have happened. And it made me realize that while my hometown military base had been wimpy, it didn't apparently breed bad behavior amongst its soldiers, since I never saw in the local newspaper any stories like what I heard later in Korea. Anyway, I want to point out that there are two sides to the coin, and I heard stories about how some Koreans had lashed out against members of the American military. One story I heard was that an American solider with a Korea wife was killed by a Korean man who had taken offense at the sight of a foreigner romantically involved with a Korean woman.

Since then, I have heard more stories about clashes between members of the military with the nearby locals. It doesn't matter which country it happens, or with what nationality the members of the military happen to belong to. The stories are often interesting and insightful to me. This is whySuppose They Gave A War And Nobody Came? movies that tackle the subject (such as A Town Without Pity) often catch my eye. As you probably guessed, Suppose They Gave A War And Nobody Came? is such a movie. But what especially interested me about the movie was that it advertised itself as a comedy. After hearing many sobering stories about clashed between members of the military with civilians (and movies for that matter), I was intrigued to see if the filmmakers could handle a sensitive subject in a way that could make me laugh. The events of the movie take place in the southern United States, where a small town and a military base lie close to each other. Tensions between the small-town residents and the military base are quite intense. For example, the town Sheriff Harve (Ernest Borgnine, Sunday In The Country) likes to harass visiting soldiers for various minor infractions, and the local bank refuses to give out loans to Sergeant Jones (Ivan Dixon, Hogan's Heroes) as well as his fellow brothers in arms. The head honcho of the military base, Colonel Flanders (Don Ameche, Oddball Hall), is aware of the tensions, but in part wanting to retire soon with a clean record, he has passed the task of patching up the extreme tensions to Community Relations Officer Nace (Brian Keith, Death Before Dishonor). But Nace finds that even dealing with his superiors at the base is a handful. Making matters worse is that one of the soldiers on the base, Sergeant Gambroni (Tony Curtis, Brainwaves), is a ladies' man and is making a play for a waitress named Ramona (Suzanne Pleshette, The Bob Newhart Show) in the small town. What makes that especially bad is that Sheriff Harve is also pursuing Ramona, and will do whatever it takes to make her his and fight off anyone else trying to get her. Eventually, Sheriff Harve jails Gambroni, and this action threatens to ignite the ever-growing powder keg.

Although I sat down to watch this movie with the main objective of getting a good number of laughs from it, as I illustrated earlier I was also interested in the movie's serious side. I wanted to know the filmmaker's viewpoint of what may cause friction between civilians and the military, especially since this movie was made at the height of the Vietnam war where the military and civilians clashed. But believe it or not, there is no mention of Vietnam at all in this movie, save for a couple of very brief moments when Officer Nace recalls his time being an advisor to French troops in Vietnam in the 1950s. So I had to look elsewhere for any insight as to why the military and civilians may clash, but despite looking hard, I really couldn't find all that much. On the civilian side, the Sheriff does show at times that he feels the military might be a threat for his position of power, which he freely abuses such as collecting bribes from a local house of prostitution, or finding any excuse to arrest soldiers off duty. And the local banker who refuses to loan money to Sergeant Jones says that the town's governing people feels that it's a risk to loan money to members of the military, though it's never made clear why the local government feels that way; explaining this prejudice would have gone a long way into clearing up the situation. But it might also be because the military at times treats the civilian population in a contemptuous manner. There is one scene early in the movie where the Sheriff confronts Nace, and Nace responds with a lot of fancy and big-worded talk that both confuses the Sheriff and makes him even more angry with the military for making him feel like he's a fool.

As it turns out, there is a lot more focus on the military than the civilians in Suppose. With more time devoted to them, we do see that they are really no much better than the civilians. Colonel Flanders is ineffective and doesn't want to get involved, and for that matter Officer Nace seems reluctant many times to try and make waves. Sergeant Jones faces prejudice within his circle from MPs who interrogate him and ask for his identification, and Sergeant Gambroni at one point uses a nasty slur to describe Jones' ethnicity. There also also some quite unPC jabs towards homosexuals, and in one scene the discussion of rape among the army authority is treated almost as a joke. But these and other scenes involving the army brass don't really give that much insight as to why they are that way. Too bad - it could have given Suppose much more bite, though there really isn't that much in other aspects of the movie. Probably the most disappointing aspect is that the movie isn't all that funny for the most part. Until near the end, the movie rarely bubbles beyond a surprisingly casual feeling, and when the movie gets to its climax, it seems to be aping the spirit of It's A Mad Mad Mad Mad World, which really doesn't fit with the mostly low energy feeling before it. However, those sporadic bubbles before the tone goes off the wall actually do at times generate some laughs. Most of these laughs come from the subplot of Sergeant Gambroni courting Ramona. It's not a love at first sight kind of romance, instead involving considerable work for Gambroni to get Ramona really interested in him. During the courting, and the subsequent scenes where the two characters start dating, their dialogue has been written to have a lot of zing and genuine humor, which makes these scenes islands in sea of mediocrity.

The comic dialogue in these scenes wouldn't have worked as well if actors Curtis and Pleshette not been full-throttle in their roles. Both give pretty enthusiastic performances, with Curtis showing his trademark cheeky and sarcastic spirit while Pleshette showing she can more than easily hold her own against the aggressive Curtis, eagerly snapping off one-liners and a strong will with ease. However, Pleshette can't do anything about the fact that towards the end of the movie when things turn even darker than before, her character suddenly disappears and is never seen or heard from again. The whole love triangle she has with Curtis' and Borgnine's characters feels nowhere resolved. Speaking of Borgnine, he gives it his all, perfectly portraying his sheriff character as a real lout, but with a somewhat cheeky attitude that makes him all the same amusing. Though the script ultimately lets him down as it did with Pleshette, since the problems his character is causing for various people is resolved in a matter of seconds just before the end credits start rolling, so quickly and not in-depth that it comes across as not only fleshed out enough, but quite frankly insulting for an audience that would no doubt prefer him to have a longer and darker fate. For that matter, while actors Dixon and Ameche play it fairly straight throughtout to quite a good effect, the fates of their characters is left up in the air at the very end, just adding to the feeling that this screenplay was just a first draft instead. There are definitely seeds of a potentially great, biting, and social-commenting comedy to be seen in Suppose They Gave A War And Nobody Came?, but few have been nurtured to not only sprout, but to blossom. Apparently, the general public thought the same way as I did, because the box office results for the movie I uncovered during my research revealed that when the movie played in theaters, nobody came.

(Posted July 2, 2024)

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Check for availability of Ernest Borgnine's autobiography on Amazon (Book)

See also: All's Fair, Private Popsicle, Weekend Warriors