The Guns of Navarone Review
Alan has already covered the US edition of The Guns Of Navarone. But here's my take on the classic Boys-Own adventure with this review of the UK region-free edition of the movie from Sony.
It is 1943, and over two-thousand British troops are trapped on the island of Kiros, in the Aegean Sea. They are exhausted and cut-off. The Axis wants to make a grand statement of its might and invincibility – and to do this it wants to annihilate them in a show of merciless power. The Allies need to get those men off the island death-trap before the net closes. But their ships can’t get near to evacuate them due to the presence of two looming, demonic guns that dominate the entire area from their eagle’s nest vantage point in a cave atop the mountain cliff of the occupied Greek island of Navarone. The solution – a do-or-die commando mission to knock out the guns in time to mount the large-scale rescue operation before Hitler's iron fist smashes down upon Kiros.
The military top brass, in the formidable form of James Robertson Justice, as Commodore Jenson, has a plan. He needs a group of professional saboteurs to sneak around the back of Navarone and to climb up the impossible cliffs on the Germans’ blind side. Once they’ve accomplished that unnerving task, they must negotiate miles of enemy-held territory, make contact with the Greek Resistance and infiltrate the Nazi fortress … and blow those damned guns to kingdom come. It’s a job that only a handful of elite men stand a chance of achieving. And since Arnie and Sly Stallone are still in diapers, the mission falls to a previous generation’s action-heroes.
Gregory Peck plays Mallory, one of the world’s leading mountaineers and now an expert in covert military operations. It is his job to get the hand-picked team up the cliff. Anthony Quayle is going to get an opportunity to put his nickname of “Lucky” to the test, as the ostensible commander of the crew. He knows that if anyone can get up that bloody mountain, it’s the appropriately named Mallory. But to harass the Germans and ensure the target is demolished, he has also recruited David Niven’s wily Corporal Miller, an explosives expert, Stanley Baker’s Pvt. Brown, the mechanic and radio operator, and two Greek partisans who know the land and the locals and have a healthy disrespect for anything even remotely Teutonic – Anthony Quinn’s determined Colonel Andrea Stavros and James Darren’s valiant Spyros Pappadimos. But, as with any kamikaze squad of heroic crusaders, there are rifts and doubts and suspicions. It doesn’t help that Mallory and Stavros are already sworn enemies. Earlier in the war, Mallory’s inadvertent and merciful actions led directly to the deaths of Stavros' wife and children at the hands of the Hun. Now Stavros has pledged to kill Mallory after the war is over and there are no more Germans to get in the way. Miller can’t stand authority and takes great pleasure in moaning and mocking strategies, wittily sniping from the sidelines. Brown is strangely quiet and nervous, and an early blunder throws serious doubts over his ability to get the job done.
There’s not much small-talk on the fishing boat they use to make the treacherous crossing to Navarone, that’s for sure. A pesky German patrol boat and a ferocious storm almost end the mission before it has even properly started, and things will only get worse once they scale those dreaded cliffs. Accidents, betrayal and plain old misfortune plague the group. But these guys are made of stern stuff … and two-thousand souls are depending upon them to stick together and do their bit.
“Sir, I've inspected this boat … and I'm afraid I can't swim.”
A typically pitch-perfect quip from Niven's droll dissenter.
Blacklisted during the McCarthy witch-hunts of the fifties, Carl Foreman languished in British Cinema, making a name for himself with screenplays for A Hatful Of Rain, Bridge On The River Kwai, The Virgin Soldiers and Young Winston. He reworked the original screenplay based on MacLean’s bestselling book and he added women to the plot. But he didn’t do this for any soppy love story interludes. Quite the opposite, in fact. Impressed by images of women fighters in both the Spanish Revolution and the Greek Resistance, he opted to bring in two female freedom fighters to help add some moral complexity to an already murky yarn. Rather than weighing the plot down with sentimentality, this inclusion provides the real meat of the matter as it twists our emotions and values throughout a series of increasingly desperate dilemmas that ensnare the team as they make their way across the island of Navarone. And with someone of J. Lee Thompson’s calibre at the helm – the man who had brought both emotion and action to 1959's Tiger Bay and the immortal war-time classic Ice Cold In Alex (BD reviewed separately) – there was no chance that such disparate and exotic ingredients would bubble-over into ripe old parody or overly starched patriotism. Although Foreman was very definitely a hands-on producer – a frustrated director, you could say – Thompson was a deliberate tactician and a man possessed of a singular vision. He knew precisely where he was going to take the movie, despite only coming to it after the initial director, Alexander Mackendrick, was jettisoned from the project and literally reading the script as he went along.
The Guns Of Navarone would have its cake and it would eat it too. There would be action and adventure. There would provocative island-hopping and exotic landscapes. There would be big name stars in Peck, Niven and Quinn, as well as amazing character-actors such as Quayle, Baker and Greek-born Irene Papas who would give impressive depth, compassion and command to her role as Pappadimos' valiant sister, Maria. There would even be something for the kids in American pop-idol James Darren, and the nebulous allure of Scouse export Gia Scala, as Maria's conflicted and mysterious comrade-in-arms, Anna. The story would take a few deviations from the well-worn path and toss in the odd curve-ball that, like a hand-grenade, would send all the characters and allegiances you thought you knew and understood into a dizzying kaleidoscope of shrapnel. It would take a rather typical and formulaic tale and give it a wonderful degree of mythos … in the very land where myths were first forged. It would be the sort of movie that frequently gobbled-up Sunday afternoon television when I was a boy, the sort of thing that you watched with your Dad.
And, amazingly, the sort of thing that always seems to remain as fresh and as exciting as when you first encountered it.
“Pappadimos, have you got your silencer?”
“Then use it. Shoot the laundry boy.”
MacLean loved to have his heroes go undercover behind enemy lines. See also Where Eagles Dare for more good guys dressing up as Nazis in order to bash the Bosh. Whilst Peck, who would go on to portray Dr. Mengle in The Boys From Brazil in a “Man From Del Monte” white suit, looks the part as a German officer, David Niven, alas, does not. With that rakish 'tache and devoutly English debonair gentility, he is about as convincing a Kraut as a goose-stepping Martian. But this is all part of the fun, isn't it? And charade is the name of the game in the now-classic scene when the great actor that is Anthony Quinn is compelled to resort to some terribly bad acting in order to pull the wool over the eyes of their German captors. MacLean also loved the theme of treachery, and his stories would tend to have a traitor in the midst, or a spy in the camp. It is unlikely that even those coming new to the film will not suss out who is tipping off the enemy, but the real crux of the unveiling is the effect that it has on the rest of the team. As Stavros, himself, puts it early on when he senses somebody listening behind their door, he trusts “no-one … that is why I've stayed alive so long.” And in this business that has got to be the best policy.
Quinn is magnificent – indeed, he is “The Mighty Quinn”. His split-second counter-attacks in three scenes – the fishing boat ambush, the mountainside diversionary tactic, the masquerade for their Nazi captors – are standout moments in a film already littered with such archetypal devices. He has the physicality of a bear and the rich, florid variety of a Machiavellian. Although Peck is the biggest star on the screen, you get the distinct impression that Quinn's Stavros could probably succeed in taking out the big guns on his own. Even if it seems contrived, you can't help but rejoice when the toughened Papas seems to get the hots for this inspirational maverick.
Gorgeous, but troubled – Thompson refers to her as “eccentric” - Gia Scala has an enigmatic aura of inescapable fate about her. Playing the tortured ex-prisoner of the Nazis, now a committed freedom-fighter, the director insisted that Scala's sexy brunette locks be cut short. She protested by shaving the back of his head and making a clown out of him. Such retaliation was not, however, borne out of an innate sense of humour. Scala exudes a psychological strain that is not entirely down to just acting. Anna may be mute for a good portion of the story, but she wears the pain of her character's experiences with uncanny precision. Although clearly someone you assume will become a love interest, she actually makes you decidedly uncomfortable whenever she is on screen. She is like one of those drums of unstable nitroglycerine in Clouzot's awesome The Wages Of Fear – fragile, hair-trigger and potentially volatile, and with one wrong move she could destroy everything. She plays a truly dark and wonderful character, but it is Scala who makes this work so well with a quietly unnerving performance of gently unhinged melancholia.
Quayle is on fine and likeable form. Not as brawny as his bogus South African soldier in Ice Cold In Alex, and not as whisker-twirlingly worrisome as he would appear in a great many later films, he is exactly the sort of erstwhile and upstanding bloke who could persuade you to go on a doomed mission.
Out of the entire mob, it is Baker who gets short-changed. His twitchy, lost-the-edge mechanic and the former “Butcher of Barcelona” is supposed to be a cut-throat partisan. Whilst his eyes project a haunted mythology of self-loathing, his actions always appear on the outer periphery of the mission. We aren't supposed to like, or trust him. This is a fine set-up, of course, but Baker is an enormous presence of calculated anger, and I wish that Foreman's screenplay and Thompson's film had been able to capitalise on it more. Conversely, the lesser talent of James Darren, actually gets a far more memorable role … and he takes to it with considerable aplomb, actually convincing us that he is an impassioned son of Greece. Even the cameo from Richard Harris early on the film, in which he plays an exhausted and bitter RAF pilot bemoaning the lunacy of a veritable suicide run that he and his squadron have just barely returned from, has more clout than Baker. And that's with Harris' appalling Australian accent!
Niven and Peck deliver superb and compelling performances. They are the heart and soul of the picture, whilst Quinn is its stalwart backbone. Niven flirts with being an irritating know-it-all during the first third, providing the smarts and the humour to defuse the tension. In a brilliant twist, he will become the catalyst for much of the internal tension within the group as the plot marches along, and the image of him and Peck at loggerheads is one of the film's greatest and most memorable expressions of duty and honour versus machismo. Niven is remarkably adroit at playing the antagonist, really getting the bit between his teeth and going for the metaphorical throat like a valedictory attorney for the prosecution. Which makes his inevitable fall from the moral high ground a thing of wretched, humbling beauty. For his part, Peck is outstanding during these cunningly staged confrontations. His final verbal stamping-down of Miller's barrack-room insubordination is a towering fountain of pent-up vitriol that puts us, as well as Niven's quaking demolitions expert, well and truly in our place. Peck is often a cold and ruthless orator, his words like an axe cutting into a stone wall, and this moment of cathartic payback is simply stunning in its rib-shattering impact. The two actors dominate the final third of the movie, cementing the irony and the guile of Foreman's writing, elements that weren't so apparent in MacLean's more black-and-white prose.
“There is, of course, a third choice. One bullet now. Better for him, better for us. You take that man along, you endanger us all.”
The score from Dmitri Tiomkin is rightly hailed as a classic. Tiomkin was the maestro responsible for such diverse film music as High Noon, 55 Days At Peking, It's A Wonderful Life, Giant and, my own personal favourite of his, and the composer's most atypical, The Thing From Another World. He and Foreman went back a long way. In 1945, they collaborated on a US War Department documentary detailing the threat still perceived from Japan, and Tiomkin would compose for So This Is New York, Home Of The Brave, Champion and Cyrano De Bergerac, all derived from Foreman screenplays. And then there was High Noon, for which Foreman had acted as an uncredited co-producer.
His main theme for Navarone is surprisingly upbeat and jovial – it paints an impression immediately of success, which is something that, even at the genre's most jingoistic, was not very common. There was more often than not a sense of grand doom and sacrifice to a war-movie's theme. Navarone, despite its various calamities and sacrifices, is something that Tiomkin sees as a joyous adventure. He even brings in some traditional Greek eloquence amidst the muscular militarism. Again, this was unusual for such a gung-ho Nazi-bashing extravaganza. Most scores from the era that depicted derring-do on foreign shores tended to forget the civilisation and customs that are being raised to the ground and fought over but, as with both Thompson and Foreman, Tiomkin was bound-over with respect for the people who lived and died on those Greek islands, and entranced by the beauty and history of the place, itself. For such a lengthy film, there is less musical score than you might suspect. A couple of reels play out with no support from Tiomkin – and even some of his work for earlier cues, such as the epic storm sequence, goes largely unused - but this is ably abetted by the interesting section when the party hide amongst a wedding celebration full of traditional music, dance and song. This is the moment when pop-star Darren is permitted to flap his tonsils with a verse of “Yialo, Yialo”, and he does so without any of the belaboured, self-conscious fuss that would normally remove you completely from the scene. As was customary for Tiomkin, he would compose a song for the film. This, after all, was the man responsible for the awesome “Do Not Forsake Me” from High Noon. Here he would blend the lyrical melody of Yassu (meaning Greetings in Greek) with his main theme with extraordinary grace and flair, with lyrics by Paul Francis Webster and actually orchestrated by the young John Williams.
A strong ensemble piece, Navarone's frame is often filled with all the main cast stretched out in a reactionary line, or impressively positioned so that the group dynamic, and its darkening cloud of discord and disharmony, can be clearly seen by roving the eyes across the screen. This isn't old school pantomime, however. This is a beautifully clever and intuitive method of show and tell. We can see, and certainly feel, the tensions and strains developing amongst the team even before such concerns are ever voiced. Thompson was adept at such narrative manoeuvres – his framing, his set-ups, his meticulously rehearsed group interactions – and some of his tricks even act upon a subliminal level, only picked-up on after some moments. When the team are lined-up for interrogation by the Germans, take the time to scrutinise their various faces as some last-minute trickery is called-upon to bamboozle the jackbooters. Likewise, the hellish sequence when an enraged Miller seeks to uncover the traitor amongst them. Each performer is totally in-tune and in the moment. You can see the questions and confusions and condemnations play about in their eyes.
Critics complain about the film's leisurely pace. It is a long film, and neither Thompson nor Foreman are in any rush to blow those bloody guns up. To this end, the mission is less about the mountaintop batteries than it is about the twisting relationships of the team tasked with destroying them. Allegiances are stretched and loyalties placed in jeopardy. Thus, the story becomes one of character as opposed to action. The courageous moments are good, but even by the time of Navarone's release, audiences had seen far more exciting set-piece mayhem. This isn't the point though. The film contains lots of everything, becoming the consummate adventure yarn, rather than the conventional ten-a-penny war-time exploiter. Time is spent getting to the target, and the team is beset with dilemmas every step of the way. Convention would have been to have ended with an all-out battle, but Thompson only gives us snapshots of the fighting, concentrating on the psychological patterns taking place between the various members, engaged in their dangerous part in the jigsaw. As a youngster I always found the finale hugely anticlimactic. I wanted endless battalions of Germans getting cut down by the team as they made a gallant last stand … a final hurrah sounding as a grenade lobbed down the barrel of the big gun by a dying hand did the trick at the last possible second ... but this is not how the story is structured or engineered. With the hooting of warships and the cheering of sailors echoing around the Greek Islands, combined with the strains of “Rule Britannia” and “The British Grenadiers” courtesy of a sly and winking Dmitri Tiomkin, this was precisely how such an epic adventure should play out.
“The only way to win a war is to be as nasty as the enemy.”
Sir Christopher Frayling sees the film as an updated Greek myth, and it is hard to argue with that notion. Everything from Theseus and the Minotaur and Jason and the Argonauts to Oedipus and the voyages of Odysseus are either referenced or hinted at. Perhaps more importantly, this is a film that tells of unusual bonding. Frayling cites Peck, Foreman and Thompson as barely veiling a deliberate homoerotic subtext between some of these battle-hardened operators. Once again, this is something that is difficult to contest as one or two pivotal scenes seem to slyly allude. Of course, you don't have to read this example of stiff-upper-lipped jingoism that way, but the fact remains that this quality was purposely laced into the fabric of the screenplay and the performances do try to reflect that. Other than Kubrick's mighty Spartacus, what other huge-scale studio blockbuster from this period would be so daring?
Gregory Peck, who was, by now, a prime producer in his own right, earmarked J. Lee Thompson for his very next project, the chilling original version of Cape Fear (see separate BD review). The two would work together again in the 1969 Western Mackenna's Gold and Thompson would even embrace “modern” Greek mythology with Anthony Quinn once again in 1978's horrible soapish The Greek Tycoon. Foreman would even go on to write the screenplay for the disappointing follow-up, Force 10 From Navarone.
The Guns Of Navarone is a defining moment for all concerned. It even conformed to what was about to become the newest trend to cause a box sensation – the Bondian style of exotic location work, a series of intense cliff-hangers, a web of intrigue and a big bad base that has to be destroyed in the end. Plus, it would send you off with a patriotic swagger and an infectious title tune to hum.
A bonafide classic, folks.