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Frank Sinatra was a 20th century superstar who evolved with the times. The musical idol that drove audiences to screaming frenzies in the thirties and forties matured into the masterful crooner of the fifties and sixties who reworked the American songbook in his own swinging style. The lightweight musical comedy star icon eased into a confident leading man and serious actor, winning the Oscar® for his supporting role in From Here to Eternity (1953) and earning a nomination for his starring role in The Man with the Golden Arm (1955). He became a record mogul and a film producer. By 1963, he struck a deal with Warner Bros. that made him the highest-paid actor-entertainer in America. None But the Brave (1965) was his first film under the new agreement, and with it he decided to add film director to his list of accomplishments.
The World War II drama, adapted from a story by Kikumaru Okuda (who also co-produced the film), is a familiar anti-war story of enemies stranded in an isolated locale - an island in the South Pacific long since bypassed by the war and cut-off from communications and supplies - and forced to work together to survive. Curiously, the film is narrated by the Japanese commander, Lieutenant Kuroki (Tatsuya Mihashi). A writer by profession, a soldier by necessity and a philosopher by temperament, Kuroki tries to keep morale up by having his men build a boat to reconnect their supply line, and he attempts to curb the militaristic fervor and punishing excesses of his sergeant's endless exercises and drills.
The Americans are led by Captain Dennis Bourke (Clint Walker), a battle-tested pilot who ditches his crippled transport plane on the island's beach. The veteran takes charge from the 2nd Lieutenant Blair (Tommy Sands), a green young officer full of piss and vinegar who barks out commands with jingoistic fervor. Sinatra takes top screen billing as the boozy Chief Pharmacist Mate Malloy, a veteran medic and wounded humanist still holding on to a scrap of idealism in war, but Sinatra the director lets Walker and Mihashi drive the story as their characters establish a fragile cease-fire. The two groups soon settle into a tense co-existence that slowly bridges culture and language. Sinatra the actor, all easy confidence, is content to step back and play the film's conscience, offering jaded commentary as the war inevitably catches up with them and dooms their peace.
Warner Bros. executives were initially leery of letting Sinatra direct and it took Sinatra's business partner Howard Koch to sell them on the idea. "It was an interesting experiment," wrote Sinatra biographer Michael Freedland in All the Way. "The director's role required, among other things, that he be nice to people and know all their names. The Japanese actors defeated him. He called them all 'Freddy'."
Leading the Japanese cast is Tatsuya Mihashi, who played Toshiro Mifune's secretary in Kurosawa's High and Low (1963), and later starred as Commander Minoru Genda, Air Staff Officer of the Japanese First Fleet, in Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970). American lead Clint Walker made his name in the hit TV series Cheyenne and the burly 6'6" actor fills out the requisite sense of authority by speaking softly and firmly as he towers over the rest of the cast. Sinatra resisted the urge to cast his Rat Pack buddies in the film but he gave the plum supporting role of the gung-ho platoon leader Blair to his son-in-law Tommy Sands, a pop singer who plays the role with an exaggerated drawl and a cartoonish dimension of military fervor. Eiji Tsuburaya, famed for the miniature effects of the original Godzilla (1954) and its many sequels, created the opening fighter plane dogfight and troop transport crash, and the dramatic third act monsoon. The martial score was one of the first major films for up-and-coming composer Johnny Williams, later to gain fame as multiple Oscar® winner John Williams.
The film's most dramatic story occurred off the set, during a break in the shoot. Frank was relaxing with friends and family on a Sunday break in a rented beachside house on Kauai, when Ruth Koch, daughter of Howard Koch, was carried out by a massive wave. Sinatra rushed out to save her and got caught in the powerful undertow and co-star Brad Dexter swam out to save them both. "Save Ruth, I'm finished," he was heard to tell Dexter, but Dexter fought the undertow to keep them both aloft until lifeguards paddled out on rescue boards to bring them back. Sinatra played down the incident publicly but privately he realized how close he had come to drowning. He made Dexter a confidant and arranged to have him cast in a major role in Von Ryan's Express (1965), Sinatra's next film and one of his biggest hits.
Shot on location on the island of Kauai, None But the Brave was a co-production with Toho Studios and the first American-Japanese co-production shot in the United States. Apart from the English language narration, the Japanese actors speak in their native language, often in extended subtitled sequences. While no longer novel in 1965, it was still unusual for a big Hollywood production to play so much of the drama in a foreign tongue but it's an effective technique. Sinatra mirrors the two platoons, from the thoughtful and experienced commanding officers to their impulsive seconds to the cross-section of enlisted men, young and old. The language barrier divides the two platoons, and then proves only minor impediment to working together as the opposing soldiers find ways to communicate beyond language. It's an obvious point in a familiar lesson in the futility of war, but Sinatra has an easy way with the actors and lets them carry the scenes. He isn't as effective in his imagery or dramatic tension. Though much of the film was shot on location, Sinatra frames it more like a stage production than an outdoor adventure. The set-ups are flat and the staging banal and the resulting scenes often feel constrained and claustrophobic. Even the monsoon, though at times impressive, has a decidedly small scale feel to it.
None But the Brave was a modest hit with mixed but generally favorable reviews but Sinatra never took the director's chair again. Perhaps the restless artist found the effort so all-consuming that it left little time for other work (recording, performing, producing music) and play. Perhaps he decided that the influence that he brought to the film set as an actor/producer on such films as Ocean's Eleven (1960) gave him all the creative input he needed.
Producers: Kikumaru Okuda, Frank Sinatra
Director: Frank Sinatra
Screenplay: John Twist, Katsuya Susaki; Kikumaru Okuda (story)
Cinematography: Harold Lipstein
Art Direction: LeRoy Deane
Music: Johnny Williams
Film Editing: Sam O'Steen
Cast: Tatsuya Mihashi (Lt. Kuroki), Takeshi Kato (Sgt. Tamura), Homare Suguro (LCpl. Hirano), Kenji Sahara (Cpl. Fujimoto), Mashahiko Tanimura (Lead Pvt. Ando), Toru Ibuki (Pvt. Arikawa), Ryucho Shunputei (Pvt. Okunda), Frank Sinatra (Chief pharmacist Mate)
by Sean Axmaker