The Guns of Navarone (1961)
Desert Island movie #10
For my final Desert Island Movie in this list I’m going with one of my favorite high adventure films. Its advertised title was; Carl Foreman’s The Guns of Navarone. This is interesting because it represents a rare case where the screenwriter, not the director (J. Lee Thompson) or even the author (Alistair MacLean) of the bestselling novel from which it was adapted, is identified as the primary creator. That didn’t and doesn’t happen often so it’s worth noting. I suspect this was because Foreman was the film’s producer as well as its scriptwriter.
Anyway The Guns of Navarone is one of those “mission impossible “stories set during World War Two where a motley group of men are assigned to go into German occupied Greek territory and destroy the fictional guns of the title. And of course no one really believes it can be done. “The operation is insane.” Says Mallory the man assigned to the mission. “The mission is our last hope.” he is told by his commanding officer. “If those guns remain in place 2000 men will die in Kheros.” So there’s no question about it, they have to take on the challenge. And this is par for the course in movies like this. If it was “mission possible” then there would be no suspense. So once again the thrill (for us in the audience) is in the details, the individuality of the characters carrying out the mission and the twists and turns of the plot. In other words the execution. And also, this being a big budgeted Hollywood Studio (Columbia Pictures) film a large part of the fun has to be in the big name cast they gathered to play the roles…Well they did themselves proud. It is headed up by Hollywood’s classic mold leading man Gregory Peck to whom a commemorative US Postal was issued on April 28, 2011. He plays Mallory, a mountain climber who hasn’t climbed in years, but assigned to do just that and lead his men over a mountain to the guns. Anthony Quinn does a colorful turn as a Greek resistance colonel. David Niven is a slightly rebellious cynic. Teen pop idol of the moment actor/singer James Darren (Goodbye Cruel World) is a fiery rebel. England’s Stanley Baker is on board as a character called “The butcher of Barcelona”. In smaller parts are future director/writer Bryan Forbes, Allan Cuthbertson and a young Richard Harris delivering a nifty monologue anchored by the word “bloody”. Character actor James Robertson Justice lends his authoritative presence as the man who assigns the men to this impossible task. On the distaff side Greek actress Irene Papas and English born Italian beauty Gia Scala provide passion, sex and duplicity to the proceedings as resistance volunteers.
The whole idea is for the men to get through a German stronghold and blow up the guns. But truthfully, the guns here serve as what Hitchcock called “The MacGuffin” which is the thing the characters care about and the audience accepts only because it’s so important to them. But our real focus is on the characters, their personality traits and their differences. They spice up the action and keep us interested in the outcome. And there are a number of interesting sub plots in the story as well. For instance Quinn’s character promises to kill Peck’s Mallory after the mission if they live through it. Another subplot suggests that there might be a spy in their midst. And so it churns. Or as the saying goes; “And the hits just keep on coming”.
There are some wonderful action set pieces that are thrillingly staged. And there’s a storm at sea sequence that is among the best I’ve ever seen. Dimitri (High Noon) Tiomkin, who during those days seem to be the composer of nearly every major film coming out of Hollywood, contributes a stirring score that keeps a sense of action boiling even in the quiet scenes. This was director J. Lee Thompson’s first big budgeted Hollywood motion picture and he acquitted himself splendidly. The film was expensive for its time (6 million) but it went on to become the highest grossing film of that year. Not that I particularly care about things like that but it indicates how popular the picture was.
Today, like so many other good films that are not designated as classics The Guns of Navarone is pretty much forgotten. Still each time I watch it I get the same sense of excitement that I did when I first saw it at the Murray Hill Theatre in New York City all those years ago. So if you’re in the mood for high gloss adventure entertainment where the story seems authentic and all the plot turns are plausible this film is for you. Over the years I’ve recommended to many friends and I have yet have one come back and tell me that he/she didn’t like it. The old phrase; “They don’t make them like that anymore” is particularly apt in this case.
And that completes my ten. On a future date I’ll probably select another ten just for the fun of it. But right now for this series I’ll stamp the file; mission accomplished.