Guns of Navarone (1961) – Directed by J. Lee Thompson – Starring Gregory Peck, David Niven, Anthony Quinn, Anthony Quayle, Stanley Baker, James Darren, James Robertson Justice, Gia Scala, Irene Papas, Richard Harris, and Peter Grant.
Based on the Alistair MacLean novel of the same name, J. Lee Thompson’s THE GUNS OF NAVARONE is the kind of war movie in which the war itself is almost irrelevant. Concentrating on a small Allied assault force attempting to destroy two massive Nazi superguns held inside a Nazi fortress on the island of Navarone, the film follows its small cast through their mission from start to finish. World War II is something happening in the world, but the film doesn’t try to oversell the importance of this mission in an effort to create extra drama.
I appreciate that. It soaks the entire film with a sense of men trying to make a small difference in a big world. The goal of the mission – which no one in command thinks will be successful – is to take out those superguns so the Allied forces can mount a rescue mission on the nearby island of Keros, where 2,000 British troops are being held prisoner. The Nazis are due to kill the prisoners in a week as the film opens, and Commodore Jensen (James Robertson Justice) calls in Captain Keith Mallory (Gregory Peck) to help execute a mission conceived by Major Roy Franklin (Anthony Quayle). Said plan involves them scaling a seemingly unscalable cliff and then moving through Nazi-infested Greek territory just to get to the allegedly impregnable fortress to destroy the guns. Franklin and Mallory are joined by an international contingent of Corporal Miller (David Niven), Casey “Butcher of Barcelona” Brown (Stanley Baker), Private Spyros Pappadimos (James Darren), and Colonel Andrea Stavrou (Anthony Quinn).
There’s some history between some of the men which adds to the tension. Stavrou has promised to kill Mallory after the war because he blames Mallory for the death of his family. This shared history is a perfect example of how Thompson and screenwriter Carl Foreman use personal relationships to create conflict without having to resort to actors yelling at one another, and how they’re willing to create well-rounded, complex characters. Stavrou blames Mallory because earlier in the war, Mallory helped some injured Nazis make their way to a hospital and the uninjured members of that contingent ditched their injured comrades and ended up killing Stavrou’s family. Mallory confides in Franklin that this occurred earlier in the war, when he still held out some hope of a gentleman’s war being fought.
Franklin, of course, wants to know why Stavrou doesn’t just kill Mallory now, and Mallory relates that he’s counting on Stavrou wanting to kill Nazis more than he wants to kill him.
It’s a small moment, told on the bridge of a small fishing boat as the two men look out the front window to where Stavrou is working hard in a storm to keep the ship afloat. NAVARONE expertly balances the action and character moments in this manner throughout the film – if the action is big (as it is here in a massive sea storm), the character moments are often quiet, but when the action moments are quiet (like when they’re camped in an abandoned building inside Navarone, almost ready to make their assault on the guns), the character moments are large.
That the movie is made with such obvious skill helps me get through it. NAVARONE moves with the assured patience of a film that knows it doesn’t have to hurry. It knows you’re out at the theater for the entire night so it’s going to give you an entire night’s worth of entertainment. Clocking in at a robust 2 hours and 38 minutes, NAVARONE gives you plenty of spectacle and not a whole lot of characterization, but it would be wrong to categorize the movie as nothing more than a big, dumb action film. What NAVARONE does in between all that spectacle is allow for serious men to deal with serious issues.
Countering the Mallory/Stavrou conflict, Franklin and Miller are BWB: Bestest War Buddies. When Franklin gets injured during the ascent of the ocean cliff, Mallory steps into the leadership role, which Miller questions but doesn’t create a huge fuss over. It’s a smart move on the film’s part because it allows a growing tension to develop between Miller and Mallory. Franklin’s injury is so severe that he’s slowing the group down and thoughts are given to putting a mercy bullet in his brain. Franklin serves as the trigger for Miller’s eventual explosion at Mallory, but the real issue here is the conflict between leaders and followers. Miller has never sought promotion because he doesn’t want to make the big decision that Mallory has to make throughout NAVARONE. When Miller and Mallory have this argument deep in the film, it recontextualizes Miller’s actions through that point – throughout the film, Miller has had a more relaxed air about him. When others start to work, Miller makes a joke about claiming the room’s only bed. When the sea storm is threatening to sink the boat, he’s bringing coffee to Franklin and Mallory.
Peck and Niven are very good, but it’s Anthony Quinn’s movie. He provides the desperately needed spark of life throughout the film; where Mallory is grimly determined to see a mission through to wherever it’s inevitably going to fall apart, Quinn really makes me feel like Stavrou wants to kill Nazis. It would be wrong to say he’s enjoying what he’s doing, but Stavrou attacks life where Mallory studies it. Miller, in contrast, just sort of hopes the bad things go away.
What really wins me over is NAVARONE’s moral complexity – the group is on a mission that can’t possibly succeed (and it eventually succeeds only because the Nazis leave their front door open and their next empty), the group is faced with sacrificing Franklin for the good of the mission (Mallory eventually lies to him and leaves him with the Nazis knowing they’ll interrogate him and give up the plan he thinks is real), and when a traitor is revealed in their midst, it’s a woman (and the film wimps out by having another woman kill the traitor instead of Mallory, who’s being dared to kill her by Miller).
NAVARONE definitely moves slowly, but if you’ve got the time, it’s a satisfying watch. In less assured hands, we’d probably get a scene where Stavrou and Mallory have a big heart-to-heart, but that would betray the film’s quiet complexity. As mentioned, this is a serious movie with serious men. Today, they’re successful. Tomorrow, another mission surely awaits – even if time off has been promised, the war is rolling on.