Wednesday, June 9, 2010

WWII #13: The Guns of Navarone (1961)

"THE GUNS OF NAVARONE" (J. Lee Thompson, 1961)
Columbia Pictures, 157 mins.

Based on a novel by Alistair MacLean (published in 1957, the same year The Bridge on the River Kwai was released in theaters), J. Lee Thompson's The Guns of Navarone ('61) is a standout in the momentary spike of large-scale WWII epics released in the early-to-late 1960's. It's worldwide box-office success and team-based covert-ops formula opened the door for such films as The Dirty Dozen ('67), Where Eagles Dare ('68) and Kelly's Heroes ('70).

Set in the Greek isles in and around the Aegean Sea, the film has a salty, coastal draft that is all too rare for a WWII action film. The Grecian setting - which results in an unsuspected typography over the opening credits - grants the film a distinctive visual stamp delivered home by Oswald Morris' warm, seascape lensing.

Tasked with scaling a cliff and making their way to the titular German guns (which are staring down helpless British vessels in the Aegean), Capt. Keith Mallory (Gregory Peck), a fluent German speaker and skilled climber, is persuaded to lead the group, consisting of specialized task-masters including a demolitions expert (David Niven) and a ruthless killer with a tragic past (Anthony Quinn).

As in Where Eagles Dare (that excellent film later penned for the screen by MacLean himself), The Guns of Navarone depicts men traversing a ruthless environment behind enemy lines under seemingly impossible odds - full of stealth, treachery and escapability.

And although the film is ultimately the story of triumph and heroism, there's also a delightful sting of futility throughout, as our unlikely squad of heroes openly question their importance and impact in the grand scheme. ("I've been on a hundred jobs and not one of them has altered the course of the war!")

Above all, it's the frustration, resiliency and triumph of collaboration between men that drives all of MacLean's material, in particular The Guns of Navarone. The struggle between morality and mission success brewing inside of Peck's Capt. Mallory arguably provides as many thrills as the film's numerous action scenes. [A-]


  1. One of the things that sort of bugged me about the movie is that it felt very laced in Hollywood cheese. I've always preferred my war films more gritty. As the movie develops and its over the top plot becomes a bit more grounded in characters, and action, with some hints of messages on the brutality of war.

    Still, a whole lot fun and entertainment :)

  2. I really didn't find a whole lot of cheese in it outside of the closing shot and the wayward romance between Anthony Quinn and Maria, the native rebel.

    On the whole, it's actually very frank about the nature and futility of war while (admittedly) still glamorizing it when given the chance. (I don't think there are many heroes in big-budget Hollywood that do what Gregory Peck's character did to the British major.)

    What I also love about this film and others like it ("Where Eagles Dare," "Kelly's Heroes," etc.) is how the characters are almost emotionless in their journey. Sure, they're stressed and frayed by the grind and the apparent hopelessness, but when it's time to get it done, they do it and they don't even bat an eye.

    I thought it a pretty badass flick.