Rat Pack out West
In the wonderful world of the Western, Dean Martin made eleven features and did one episode of Rawhide. A Dinorama is coming soon, a few words on his overall career in the saddle, but first a look at a few of his oaters individually. Today and next time we’ll dispose (pretty rapidly) of two of the worst he did, the early-60s Frank Sinatra projects he probably joined out of loyalty but equally probably regretted.
They were both helmed by ‘big name’ directors, John Sturges and Robert Aldrich, but you wouldn’t know it. Sinatra and buddies (Sinatra was also producer, with Howard Koch) were cynically bashing these pictures out for their own amusement and profit after Ocean’s Eleven, and Sinatra insisted on one take only, regardless of how bad the scene was. I don’t think he was easy to direct. The New York Times film critic remarked of Sergeants 3, “Mr. Sturges does not seem to have had as much effect on his principals.” Dennis Schwartz has written that “It’s one of those questionable camaraderie pics where the actors seem to be having a better time than the viewers.”
Sergeants 3, despite lack of any credit to that effect was notionally based on a Rudyard Kipling poem, though it was an insult to Kipling’s shade, and is essentially a trashy 60s remake of Gunga Din, with Sinatra in the Victor McLaglen role and Dino and Peter Lawford taking over from Cary Grant and Douglas Fairbanks. Koch and Sinatra only discovered after filming (doh) that they needed to secure the rights to the original story, and they were obliged to cough up a substantial fee to the copyright owners before the film could be released.
WR Burnett (The Westerner, Yellow Sky, Colorado Territory) wrote the screenplay. You’d think that with Kipling and Burnett as writers and Sturges as director, with cinematography by four-time Oscar winner Winton Hoch, 112 minutes of Panavision Technicolor, a decent budget, nice Kanab and Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah locations, it would be good. It wasn’t.
It was a Rat Pack vehicle, in fact the last time that Sinatra would team with Martin, Lawford, Sammy Davis Jr and Joey Bishop all together, because out of pique, after March 1962 Sinatra would no longer speak to or work with Lawford following the abrupt cancellation of a visit by Lawford’s brother-in-law, President John F Kennedy, to Sinatra’s Palm Springs house. Sammy Davis, as usual the long-suffering butt of the jokes, played the Gunga Din figure as a freed slave who attaches himself to Sinatra to work “for my keep” (i.e. become a slave). It’s equally offensive to Native Americans.
One thing though: Sammy Davis wears the great hat John Wayne sported in Rio Bravo. Duke loaned it to him.
Phillip, Dennis and Lindsay Crosby, Bing’s sons, also appear. The New York Times critic said, “To their credit, it must be noted that they appear to be either bored or bewildered”.
It’s a really stupid plot in which a huge threat is posed by the Ghost Dancers, Indians of unspecified tribe who practice what is called “a religion of death” (I suppose to make them resemble Kipling’s Thugee). We are told the date is 1873. The Ghost Dance of course became widespread in the 1890s. It may be 1873 but they have Colt New Service revolvers, introduced from 1898, and 1892 model Winchesters. Oh well.
These Indians attack the town of Medicine Bend (unspecified state or territory). Three US Army sergeants (Sinatra, Martin and Lawford) are sent to investigate and they find the town completely deserted of whites – the film makers never bother to explain how or why. Then, after too long searching the empty town (the pacing of the movie is very poor), the Indians attack again, led by Henry Silva, and the clichéd stunt scenes that follow seem endless as Indians fall from rooftops and so on.
There are various ‘gags’, such as Dean Martin finding some fireworks which he uses against the Indians, then mixes them up with sticks of dynamite. Nothing funnier than throwing dynamite at Indians. Another time he plays poker with a blacksmith, raising him some tongs and being called with a monkey wrench. These gags fall flat. There’s a saloon brawl, obviously, how could there not be?
But actually much of it is played ‘straight’ and not blatantly for laughs. If we are supposed therefore to take it seriously, the cast and crew were onto a loser. It falls flat on its face between the two stools of comedy and cavalry Western.
For such a healthy budget the scenes on the rope bridge and in the cave (the Indians’ lair) look very cheap and fake.
Silva’s dad, the big chief of all the Ghost Dancers, is Australian Michael Pate – again, obviously. Pate played Indians of every stripe for years and years.
Honors go to Dino, naturally. Even when on autopilot (i.e. usually) he was great.
I did however like the music, by jazz trumpeter Brian May who worked quite a bit with Sinatra and also did the score for Tony Rome.
The picture is too long, meandering and sprawling, and the plot is too weak to sustain the overlong minute-runtime. The attack of the Indians on the town is interminable and should have been cut vigorously.
The movie got lousy reviews, justifiably, but did surprisingly well at the box office, grossing $4.3m. Sinatra said, “Of course they’re not great movies. No one could claim that. But every movie I’ve made through my own company has made money.” Honest, I guess.
Of the acting, the New York Times said, “Mr. Sinatra, as the top-kick and brains of the outfit, is, except for brief spells of animation, casual in the extreme, as is Peter Lawford, the suave and educated member of the trio. As the zany sergeant, Dean Martin is relaxed, most of the way, to the point of lethargy. Sammy Davis Jr., as a freed slave, who adoringly attaches himself to these ‘Sergeants 3’, is spirited, if not entirely convincing. Ruta Lee, as Mr. Lawford’s fiancée, is merely decorative. And, Joey Bishop, as a straight-laced sergeant major, is, except for a mildly comic drinking bout, as stony-faced as any Sioux.” That about nails it.
Variety was in fact moderately polite: “Sergeants 3 is warmed-over Gunga Din a westernized version of that screen epic, with American-style Indians and Vegas-style soldiers of fortune. The essential differences between the two pictures, other than the obvious one of setting, is that the emphasis in Gunga was serious, with tongue-in-cheek overtone, whereas the emphasis in Sergeants is tongue-in-cheek, with serious overtones.”
Dennis Schwartz wrote, “It soon becomes a drag.” I agree with Brian Garfield who, in his fine guide Western Films, called it “asinine”. It is one of my least favorite Westerns of the 1960s (well, apart from the spaghettis, obviously). One thing I will say, though: it was better than 4 for Texas.