SERGEANTS 3—-it must have seemed like a good idea at the time: the Rat Pack in an action comedy. At the height of their popularity in clubs and flush from the box-office hit Oceans 11, a confluence of movie nostalgia, hipster ego and gambler’s odds put this 1962 western farce in motion. Leader of the Pack Frank Sinatra had been in one western, the 1956 flop Johnny Concho, a sore point for the Board Chairman as well as a ribbing nub from best pal Dean Martin, who had recently counted classic cowboy coup with Rio Bravo. Impressed by director John Sturges’ The Magnificent Seven, Sinatra presented Sturges with the idea of remaking Gunga Din, substituting frontier Utah for India of the British Raj and the evil thuggee cult with genre-ubiquitous Native Americans as targets. The volatile star and no-bull director had worked together before (the enjoyably pulpish Never So Few), and Sturges had a soft spot for the 1939 original, having cut early career teeth as assistant editor on the George Stevens favorite.*
As it is, the backstory, and the location hi-jinks of Frank’n crew are more interesting and provided more fun than the movie, which got baseball-batted from critics of the era, and makes for ear-aches today with its outdated attitudes. The rap for the screenplay tarnishes the otherwise stellar record of W.R. Burnett.
Frank, Dean, Sammy Davis Jr., Peter Lawford and Joey Bishop play cavalrymen (sure, I’ll bite,) who brawl comically with mountain men, make time with dance hall broads (don’t blame me, I didn’t write the script), ) and mow down Henry Silva’s fanatical ‘Ghost Dancer’ braves (Sturges at least mounts a not-bad, mid-sized, horse-fall dusty battle at the end).
Frank saunters unconcerned, Martin hams it best, Bishop is not all that bad. Davis is given embarrassing racial shtick, and Lawford looks ill-at-ease. Co-star Ruta Lee’s comment on the frazzled Sturges, basically ignored by the goof-off boys: “I felt sorry for the man. Trying to control this group was like wrangling rabbits. They were like children, attention-deficit children. Cherry bombs flying all the time.” The director’s grounded ideas and Frank’s clownish ones pulled in different ruts, producing an overlong 112 minute muddle, but audiences slurped it up to the tune of a $4,300,000 gross, coming in #17 for the year.
With Buddy Lester, Hank Henry, Michael Pate, Mickey Finn, Eddie Little Sky and three of Bing Crosby’s unhappy kids: Philip, Dennis and Lindsay.
*Sinatra produced this as well. Gunga Din had been remade back in 1951 as Soldiers Three, and no doubt Kipling’s poem will be trotted out in the future, with a politically correct cast and subtext: I can’t wait (not). Pleased with the grosses, and undeterred by Squaresville critical fleabites, Frank & Dean followed up with another comedy-western a year later, the even more laborious 4 For Texas, turning the blood pressure screws that time on director Robert Aldrich. Frank revisited the genre only once more, in 1970s Dirty Dingus Magee. Best bud Dino was fond of saddles and six-guns and starred in seven more westerns of mixed quality. Rat #3, Sammy Davis Jr. (in this movie wearing the Duke’s lucky hat, on loan—the fellow Rats trashed it) was one of Hollywood’s fastest quick-draw artists. Frank, Dean & Sammy (with Bing Crosby) did genre mixing much better in Robin And The 7 Hoods. For clarification of the record (so a piano should not fall on my head) and edification of the Youth of Tomorrow, let it be understood that the guys did not refer to their thing as the Rat Pack, but as ‘The Summit’ or ‘The Clan’ . Dig, clydes?