Brian Kieth, Tony Curtis, Ernest Borgnine, Ivan Dixon and Suzanne Pleshette Star in a Different Kind of Anti-war Picture.
DIRECTED BY HY AVERBACK/1970
BLU-RAY STREET DATE: MARCH 19, 2019/KINO LORBER STUDIO CLASSICS
Lackadaisical if not motionless, director Hy Averback’s (I Love You, Alice B. Toklas!) Suppose They Gave a War and Nobody Came? is a subtly subversive comedy deeply rooted in its very specific time (1970). Considering the marketing surrounding this film, even now, the latter part of that is likely no surprise, while the former words about subtlety and lackadaisical qualities might seem surprising.
Suppose They Gave a War is a movie that is, for the bulk of its running time, lethargically out of step with itself. And yet, in the final stretch, it manages to make everything pay off. Released more than six months after Altman’s M*A*S*H hit the scene, Averback’s film shares the same underlying military internal disenfranchisement, though rather than unhinged anarchism, it subtly cultivates a questioning and damaged spirit of melancholy. Few of any verbally bold pronouncements are made by the protagonists (Brian Keith and Ivan Dixon), instead placing all the bluster in the mouths of the antiquated authoritarians, the primary one being Ernest Borgnine’s pompous and wound-tight sherif. Rather, their climactic action, a low-speed trek across town to rescue an imprisoned Tony Curtis, says everything. Along the way, a fleet of police cars and quirky militia vehicles meet their crumpled fates. It’s not exactly The Blues Brothers, but those looking for Army action in this movie will only find it here.
For having such a long title, Suppose They Gave a War and Nobody Came? is a considerably small film. Those waiting for it to live up to its caricature poster art will be disappointed that is never gets “wacky”. Those waiting for it to live up to its bandying of the peace sign on its poster and in its opening minutes will be disappointed that it never goes recognizably “counter-culture”. But on that last note, look closer…
Tony Curtis, though no longer heating up the box office in 1970, is biggest movie star on hand. His presence is underplayed in the film’s marketing, perhaps due to the fact that his performance is ridiculously out of step with the rest of the film. Curtis, playing an older serviceman ladies man, plays it manic, spastic, and loud. It’s as though someone told him that he’s in a comedy, to he said, “Got it, thanks!!”, without inquiring about just what type of comedy this might be. Supposedly a sexy older man in uniform, he’s also weirdly clumsy and a troublemaker. But mostly, he’s just grating, giving credence to the local law enforcement’s (headed up by a taking-no-guff Borgnine) rampant dislike of the enlisted men. Borgnine, meanwhile, with considerably less screen time, is top billed.
Though prominently featured on the cover of this disc, Suzanne Pleshette is the only female character in this movie, and she’s woefully underused. Her playfully feisty bartender is a competently flirtatious treat for her few scenes, though director Averback makes the mistake of treating her like eye candy, going as far as to follow the wiggle of her rear in closeup as she struts down the street in a miniskirt. Playing hard to get is one thing, but there’s no point in giving this sparklingly funny woman such reasons to remain at a distance.
Suppose They Gave a War never broadcasts its point. In fact, it buries the lead. The eventual tension- and it does get there- lies in within the most level-headed of soldiers, older men in uniform who are no longer sure why they’ve devoted their lives to the service to a government which the most dyed-in-the-wool civilians seem to want to overthrow. No such goal is ever spoken, nosiree; yet the vibe successfully fostered within the film leads to such a conclusion.
In an eyebrow-raising bit of contemporary political synergy, the true adversarial ideology in the film is Libertarianism run amok. In this frozen-in-chipped-ember small town, even the typically beloved (even overvalued) U.S. military is not to be trusted, for it’s thought to be infected with communists (or some such, utterly unfounded). So, it is said, is the F.B.I. And while we’re at it, so is the U.S. government on the whole! Paranoia is an underlying given. No surprise, then, that the leader of the local militia (played by a portly Tom Ewell) offers the hilarious gobbledygook mission statement, “We want to be true Americans devoted to a more American America.” Were that pronouncement just a little bit more shored up, “Make America great again” might have some real competition as the Trump presidency’s tagline.
On their shared audio commentary track, film historians Dr. Eloise Ross and Dr. Dean Brandum do a fine job of sharing their findings and observations on this forgotten film. It is amusingly informative to hear them riff on how this hails from a brief era of long, long winded “question mark” movie titles, and how that had to be murder on the poor kid whose job it was to update the movie theater marquee, letter by letter. But the pair are incorrect out of the gate when they say that Suppose They Gave a War is not an anti-war film. While it’s true that there’s no blatant anti-war pronouncements, any film that hinges on such deep seated malaise of longtime military officers that arrives during the Vietnam era can’t help but be reflective of the overarching negative cultural sentiment. Yes, the story’s source of the discontentment may be different than, even opposite to the youth-baiting counterculture of the time. But who’s to say that ostracized Army Personal can’t be disillusioned, too?
Lest we forget that the film’s title itself transcends it’s 1960’s anti-Vietnam appropriation, dating back to the 19th century and at one point passing through the subverting hands of Berthold Brecht, who reversed any pacifist with just a few added words: “Suppose they gave a war, and nobody came? Why then, the war would come to you!”, then continuing to build a case that to resist the fight only strengthens one’s enemy. Oh, the tangled web. Averback’s film doesn’t earn a title as loaded with question and contradiction as this, but in moments, it comes close.
Kino Lorber Studio Classics, the outfit that’s seen fit to release this film on Blu-ray, has done a splendid job of presenting this title in fine fashion. They may be supposing, what if they put out this disc and nobody came. Perhaps a valid concern, though film fans should know that this is a fine effort and not a bad film. For those so incline, it’s altogether worth showing up for.
Images used in this review are used only as visual context for the film. Thanks to Kino Lorber for providing a Blu-ray review copy.