Alistair MacLean penned many great adventure novels in his time. As a teenager, upon discovering his work, I raced through his thrilling books that had action galore with tension to match. Nowadays, most movie fans will recognize the titles ‘Where Eagles Dare’, ‘Ice Station Zebra’ and of course ‘The Guns of Navarone’ even if they haven’t read the novels.
Released back in 1961, ‘The Guns of Navarone’ is one of those great, big budget movies from Columbia that pulled in the audiences. I had a Super 8 movie version of it back in the late 70’s and since then have seen it on VHS, Laserdisc, DVD and now it’s out on American Region free Blu-ray – looking better than it ever has on the home cinema market. Every version I’ve owned of the film has had a slightly rough look to it. I could never understand why a film that was made on a big budget didn’t look better. This opens a whole can of worms concerning the way the film was handled in the years after its release. It boils down to the fact that some film Labs are more careful than others in preserving original elements. There’s more about the way the film looks in the Picture section of this review.
The movie itself boasted an ‘all star cast’ with big names including Gregory Peck, Anthony Quinn, David Niven, Stanley Baker, Anthony Quayle, Irene Papas and Gia Scala. Produced by American Carl Foreman, a Hollywood exile thanks to the McCarthy Witch Hunts of the period, ‘The Guns of Navarone’ was nominated for seven Oscars and walked away with the statuette for Best Special Effects. Some of the effects might look a bit rudimentary now, but for the early 1960’s they are quite impressive.
The film originally was going to be directed by old Ealing stalwart Sandy MacKendrick, who was really more at home with smaller, more personal projects. He was replaced at very short notice by J. Lee Thompson who had to hit the ground running with no preparation period. The result is a memorable war epic on a grand scale.
The story, for those who have been exploring the upper reaches of the Zambezi for the last 50 years, concerns a team of allied military specialists recruited for a dangerous but imperative mission – to infiltrate a Nazi occupied fortress on the Greek island of Navarone and disable two long range, radar controlled field guns, so that 2,000 trapped British soldiers may be evacuated by the Royal Navy. Faced with an unforgiving sea voyage, hazardous terrain and the possibility of a traitor in their midst, the team must overcome the impossible without losing their own lives.
The performances throughout the picture are all first class. Gregory Peck makes a very determined Mallory, the quiet leader of the expedition intent on getting the job done. Anthony Quinn, as Andreas Stavrou is a more colourful character who intends to kill Mallory after the War. David Niven, as explosives expert Miller, has a witty quip for most situations and Stanley Baker plays the ruthless killer suffering from nervous trouble superbly.
The tale is well told by safe hands. The film has the feel of a quality production from the opening scenes where James Robertson Justice in ‘Voice Over’ mode fills us in on the background to the action, just before we go into the title sequence with Dimitri Tiomkin’s evocative score.
The film may well have won the Special Effects Oscar, but there’s one scene that really grates. As the plane crash lands on Day One, we see in the darkness another plane, supposedly in the air – just hanging there. Someone obviously thought that as the camera was panning right to left, said plane would appear to be moving. Sadly not the case, as it is clearly static and ruins the shot. You can almost smell the Airfix glue.
In some prints of the film, this sequence was incorrectly graded as a daylight shot, so the plane would be seen more clearly. The Cinematographer on the picture was none other than the great Oswald Morris who makes good use of the Cinemascope 2.35:1 aspect ratio to communicate the huge scale of the story. The balance and layout of each shot is very pleasing to the eye.
The studio work was done at Shepperton Studios in Middlesex and a huge fortress was built by the Chippies and Plasterers, with the two massive guns protruding. About twenty five years later, I was wandering around at lunchtime and sat down on an old pipe to eat my sandwich. I was asked if I realised I was sitting on one of the Guns of Navarone.
During the shoot, David Niven developed a large boil on his neck, so many shots show him wrapped up to the chin to hide it. He also had a close call during the shipwreck scene which was shot on the flooded ‘H’ stage at Shepperton. With thousands of gallons of water being pumped around, Niven suddenly vanished and didn’t reappear for some time – being pulled below the surface until rescued.
‘The Guns of Navarone’ is one of the all time great ‘Boy’s Own’ adventure movies which, despite its visual flaws, I sincerely hope nobody ever tries to remake. It just works so well as it stands. The sequel ‘Force 10 from Navarone’ was made in the late 1970’s with a different cast, but wasn’t a patch on the original. It just didn’t seem convincing enough. Now ‘The Guns of Navarone’ – that’s a proper War movie!
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