AN IMPREGNABLE FORTRESS… AN INVINCIBLE ARMY… AND THE UNSTOPPABLE COMMANDO TEAM.
I loved this movie when I was a kid. I had good taste. Some of the cherished childhood memories one chooses to revisit turn out to be a disappointment, but not this film. It was part of a contemporary trend of expensive, colorful war movies and it has become the most beloved. The reason? Well, it’s straight-forward, imaginative, very exciting and the actors are some of Hollywood’s favorite sons. The use of locations on Rhodes provides a lot of flavor.
Two huge guns on an island
The film takes place in 1943. On the Greek island of Kheros, 2,000 British soldiers are waiting for evacuation, but it won’t happen unless something is done about two huge guns on another island, Navarone. They are operated by the Germans and any attempt to pass the strait leading to Kheros is doomed. The only part of the island that the Germans are not watching is a cliff that simply cannot be climbed. So, in a desperate attempt to rescue the 2,000, British authorities decide to put together a team led by the finest mountain climber in the world, Keith Mallory (Gregory Peck), and send them off on a suicide mission.
Just traveling the Aegean Sea undercover as Greek fishermen turns out to be a challenge; they encounter a German patrol as well as a fierce storm. Once they reach Navarone and begin to climb the cliff that can’t be climbed (as the winds of the storm torment them), it turns out to be just the beginning of a mission made even more dangerous because of the traitor in their midst.
A psychological edge
It’s a classic Alistair MacLean tale; plenty of action supporting a story with a psychological edge. The script deals with the problems that come with one of the team members being seriously hurt; what should be done about him, would it be OK to leave him behind for the good of the mission? And then there’s the traitor. Who is it? And how should this person be dealt with? On paper one might think that the women who are introduced later on are less interesting. They never appeared in the novel and their presence is likely the result of somebody realizing that this all-male cast needs a challenge or two in the shape of women. Fortunately, the filmmakers find ways to make their parts important to the story.
Equally significant is the locations. There is no Navarone nor Kheros in real life, but the film was partly shot on Rhodes. The filmmakers never have us wondering which sequences are shot there and which come out of Shepperton Studios; they mix in a convincing way. Director J. Lee Thompson keeps the action going, delivering a series of thrilling sequences, aided by the award-winning special effects. And how about that cast? David Niven provides some comic relief as Corporal Miller, the cynical explosives expert who refuses to be promoted; Peck is a perfect hero (even though he plays an Englishman with an American accent) and Anthony Quinn is also effective as the Greek freedom fighter who has sworn to kill Mallory once the war is over.
One of Dimitri Tiomkin’s later efforts, his music received an Oscar nomination and has become one of the most classic, memorable action scores ever written.
The film is essentially a companion piece to Where Eagles Dare (1968), the other great MacLean adaptation. One shouldn’t compare these films unfavorably to the sort of WWII pictures that portray the war as grimly realistically as possible. These two are sheer entertainment, pitting the ultimate good guys against the ultimate bad guys. There is certainly room, and even need, for that type of adventure as well.
The Guns of Navarone 1961-Britain-U.S. 157 min. Color. Widescreen. Produced by Carl Foreman, Cecil F. Ford. Directed by J. Lee Thompson. Screenplay: Carl Foreman. Novel: Alistair MacLean. Music: Dimitri Tiomkin. Visual Effects: Bill Warrington. Cast: Gregory Peck (Keith Mallory), David Niven (Dusty Miller), Anthony Quinn (Andrea Stavros), Stanley Baker, Anthony Quayle, James Darren… Irene Papas, Richard Harris, Bryan Forbes.
Trivia: William Holden was allegedly considered for the part of Mallory. Alexander Mackendrick started directing the film, but was replaced by Thompson. Followed by Force 10 From Navarone (1978).
Oscar: Best Special Effects. Golden Globes: Best Motion Picture (Drama), Score.
Last word: “Those commandos were performing miracles. Five or six commandos outwitting a whole German regiment, getting right into the middle of them, stealing their uniforms and masquerading as Nazis. Well, to do that, you have to do with the Nazis what Mack Sennett did with the Keystone Kops. There were 550 chances for them to kill us before we even set foot on the island, but we had to do it with total conviction, even though we were aware that it was flirting with parody.” (Peck, “Gregory Peck” by Michael Freedland)