Directed by J. Lee Thompson
From Columbia Pictures
I remember seeing it for the first time at a sneak preview at some theater in Pasadena. Two buddies and I had no idea what the preview was going to be but we liked going to them. Some of it was the surprise part and some because, at least in the L.A. area, one could very well run into a star from the film. I remember none of the stars were there but we were all wildly, teenage ecstatic about The Guns of Navarone.
Yes, you avid readers know I'm not nuts about war films but once in a while there's an exception and this is one of them. It won't stand proudly alongside The Bridge on the River Kwai or The Deer Hunter or Saving Private Ryan, I'm guessing, but it is one great popcorn, slam dunk of an entertaining war film and I know I am not the only one who's said that.
It didn't hurt that it starred Gregory Peck. You already know I revered the man, on and off the screen. Two of his films, To Kill a Mockingbird (the one he made after Navarone) and The Big Country are in my top 10 films and two more, Cape Fear and The Stalking Moon, have been postings in this period of discussing the 1960s.
It also didn't hurt that it also starred Anthony Quinn and David Niven, each of whom I had seen in movies all my life. I haven't seen a lot of either actor's earliest work but have pretty much caught all of it from the 1950s on. I had always found Niven to be amusing, crisp and urbane and Quinn to be rough-hewn, a bit dangerous and, as some of this film crew found out, not always easy to get along with. Jimmy Darren was a heart-throb and while he was well-cast here, he had surprisingly few lines. The big boys spoke most of the words.
It was based on an Alistair McLean novel. Another of his novels was made later in the decade, the very similar-in-plot Where Eagles Dare with Richard Burton and Clint Eastwood. Navarone is a fictitious story and location although said to be partially based on the Battle of Leros during the Dodecanese Campaign during WWII.
In 1943, Navarone, an island in the Aegean Sea, houses two radar-controlled guns in a fortress high atop a cliff, controlled by Germans. Those guns have taken out too many ships in its path and a team of Allied commandoes is sent to wipe out the seemingly impregnable fortress. They have only six days to complete their task or 2000 British captives will be executed.
James Robertson Justice and Anthony Quayle hire a reluctant former mountain climber (Peck) because his skills are needed to ascend what looks to be an impossible sheer cliff. Peck, in turn, hires Quinn, Niven, Baker and Darren, and along with Quayle, each with his own needed skill set (sharpshooter, explosives expert, radio man, etc.). Along the way they come across two female partisan fighters, Irene Pappas and Gia Scala. A bit improbably, Pappas is Darren's sister, separated for many years and not recognizable to one another. They are, of course, thwarted at every turn until they finally reach their destination. Four of them will survive the ordeal.
There were some exceptionally exciting scenes along the way. One is on a boat to take them to the island when they are overtaken by a German boat. The ensuing fight is sudden and exciting and one might expect some popcorn spillage. Landing at their location in a serious storm will also keep one's complete attention.
More excitement comes when the party is captured in a town square while they hide in plain sight amid wedding festivities. Still more comes when the Germans interrogate them and Quinn comes to their rescue by throwing himself on the floor and feigning sickness, which allows them to overtake the Germans in the room.
I read once that Niven didn't have a lot to do. Not true. Not only did he participate at the same high level as the others, he had two quite good scenes that involved him laying into Peck whose leadership he has questioned. In the first scene he takes Peck on over ethical grounds and turns in the single best acting of the ensemble.
In the second, Niven has discovered that there is a traitor among them and it is with great relish that we get to watch him systematically break down for the others who it is.
Of course the final scenes, getting into the fortress and then destroying the great guns, is some hot stuff. Don't go for more popcorn.
Carl Foreman wrote and produced the film. He was a formidable man who once suffered as a result of blacklisting but he was back and kicking ass. He fired at least one director and brought J. Lee Thompson aboard just a few weeks before filming began with interiors at Shepperton Studios in London. Outdoor scenes would be mainly filmed on the island of Rhodes. Foreman hired Thompson on the strength of his work in the just-completed train ride of a movie, North West Frontier (Lauren Bacall, Kenneth More) and would make Taras Bulba afterwards and then direct Peck again in Cape Fear. Quinn apparently resisted his lackadaisical approach but everyone else thought he steered the large cast and crew very well.
Oswald Morris' photography certainly added to the excitement and the same could be said about the stirring musical score by Dimitri Tiomkin. The Guns of Navarone would be nominated for seven Academy Awards, including one for best picture, and would win for special effects.
Quinn had worked with Irene Pappas before in Attila (1954) and they would together again in Zorba the Greek (1964) and A Dream of Kings (1969). Quinn and Peck had worked together earlier in The World In His Arms (1952) and would costar in 1964 in Behold a Pale Horse. Peck and Niven would both work in The Sea Wolves in 1980.
The Guns of Navarone certainly can stand tall under my umbrella category of Good 60s Films. That it most definitely is. Here, have a look: