ENSIGN PULVER was sentenced to the brig by reviewers in 1964, taking director Joshua Logan to the mast for a wan revisit to the crew of USS Reluctant, nine years after the smash success of Mr. Roberts. Co-writing the script with Peter S. Feibleman, Logan, who critics never liked, drew expected flak from them, but must have been stung when the public torpedoed his listing craft. A gross of $2,616,000 left the sloppy sequel mothballed at 73rd place for the year. Further nettling was that a big-screen version of TVs ridiculous McHale’s Navy fared better. *
As the war (#2) plays out in the Pacific, an unhappy cargo ship is anchored in the doldrums of routine, sweating out the tropical heat under the petty tyranny of ‘Captain Morton’ (Burl Ives). Philosophical but pragmatic ‘Doc’ (Walter Matthau) bears it better than most of the sailors, but squirrely ‘Ensign Frank Pulver’ (Robert Walker Jr.) is extra-frustrated. Not popular with the men, like the deceased ‘Lt. Doug Roberts’, Pulver can’t seem to catch a break on “the worst ship in the Navy.” If only some nurses would land on the nearby island, or maybe a typhoon could provide a stray gust at being a hero.
Laboring in the shadows of James Cagney and William Powell from the 1955 film, Ives and Matthau do well enough by the threadbare, often laborious, occasionally humiliating material. Ives, to his credit, is convincingly malevolent. Tommy Sands is not bad as a emotionally distraught crewman. Millie Perkins and Kay Medford have thankless gigs as nurses. Then-struggling Jack Nicholson grimaces through a small part.
The crew is filled out by actors who would have varying degrees of success later, mostly on TV—Larry Hagman, Peter Marshall, James Farentino, Gerald S. O’Laughlin, Dick Gautier, George Lindsey, James Coco, Buck Taylor, Gavin MacLeod. On shore, Al Freeman Jr. and Diana Sands endure embarrassment as “natives”.
The weak script is only partly at fault. Unfortunately, smack dab in the middle of everyone, Walker, as the guy were supposed to root for, is a major liability, overacting madly. Next to Jack Lemmon’s Oscar-winning brash freshness from Mr. Roberts, Walker mostly just flails, shouting like a kid in acting class, seemingly untethered from any restraint Logan may have provided. Reviews, dumping on the movie in general, were scathing for the 23-year-old—“pulverized” turns up a lot—, and his feature career took it on the chin, nose, elbows and shins. **
Charles Lawton’s cinematography is a plus, using Mexico’s sun-broiled beaches and waters off Acapulco to serve as the torrid South Pacific, and George Duning’s score makes nice use of the 40’s classic “Sentimental Journey”. 104 minutes.
* Logan in his autobio, “Movie Stars, Real People, and Me”: “We thought we had everyone in the picture that anyone could ask for … But we had left out the most important thing: the catalytic agent, Mister Roberts. And without him, the story falls into shreds. No one really cares about the others enough to create suspense as to the outcome.”
** Cast, adrift—earlier in his career, Matthau served in another Navy comedy-drama, 1958’s Onionhead, with Andy Griffith. Jabbering as Pacific islanders in Ensign Pulver must’ve mark a low point for young African-American talents Al Freeman Jr. and Diana Sands. That same year, Sands (1934-1973), earned Tony and Emmy nominations. Freeman (1934-2012), would eventually play Elijah Muhammad in Malcolm X. While Walker’s movie chances as a lead evaporated, he continued to work in supporting roles and on TV, passing away in 2019. Pop singer Tommy Sands fledgling film life—he’d logged Babes In Toyland and The Longest Day prior to this—went AWOL next year, partly thanks to his disastrous hamming in a serious (and lame) war movie set in the Pacific, None But The Brave.