By: Henry J. Fromage (Two Beers) –
The Guns of Navarone was one of a rash of epically-scaled World War II films in the 1960s, and it’s reputation has fared better than most in the decades since, to the point that you might associate it with truly historical classics like The Longest Day or The Bridge on the River Kwai. However, it was actually based on a novel based on a Greek campaign that was a resounding defeat for the British, and pretty much the last significant Nazi victory of the entire war. History is written by the victors indeed.
The funny thing is, a very similar event to the plot did occur, but it was a ragtag band of French soldiers mounting an attack on a nigh impregnable cannon on Elba, and even more interestingly, it was a Free France force mostly consisting of Senegalese, Moroccan, and Corsican soldiers. So… a World War II Glory? Somebody make that movie! Of course, around 1961, Hollywood didn’t have the best track record with characters of color…
Bad Hollywood! Bad!
Anyway… in this version of history, a small band of cutthroats and commandoes is assembled for a near-impossible task- climb a sheer cliff face, cross a Nazi-infested island, and find a way to sabotage two huge cannon that prevent the Royal Navy from rescuing 2,000 beleaguered soldiers on a nearby island.
This film begins with a nice move that certainly doesn’t occur anymore, and I don’t think was common even back then. Before the credits, before an opening scene, before anything, the film thanks the people of Greece who helped make and hosted the film. That’s class.
Anway, this is an old-school, epic war film in every sense, and I have to raise my glass to that. The main reason to watch the film is the quantity of action setpieces, and this movie delivers breath-taking sequence after breath-taking sequence, from a nail-biting Nazi boat search to a hellacious sea storm landing to cliff-climbing in the dark and rain to firefight after firefight with the Nazis on the island, and on and on. J. Lee Thompson delivers excitement every step of the way, like only old Hollywood could.
Of course, without characters you can root for, action rings hollow. However, with a cast of Gregory Peck, David Niven, Anthony Quinn, Irene Papas, Stanley Baker, and Anthony Quayle, you need have no fear of that. All are excellent, with Peck especially his usual, stolidly moral and undoubtedly competent self and Quinn a darker, more morally ambiguous type. Niven is mostly comic relief, but he also knows a thing or two about explosives…
Indeed he does
Their real dramatic chops are put to more use than just these archetypes several times through a series of moral dilemmas that show that this film has more interesting targets in sight than just delivering a rousing war film. Time and again they must decide what is more important: mission or man, and each of them is faced with difficult choices without tidy solutions. It’s surprisingly dark and morally complex compared to its peers, and a final scene deciding what to do with a traitor in their midst pushes boundaries you’re unlikely to see done even today in a big budget Hollywood film.
That being said, in the end The Guns of Navarone is nothing groundbreaking- a solid tale, well told, but playing out much as you’d expect it to all the way up to a triumphant but bittersweet finale. There’s even a couple of moments of mercifully brief romance that are about as shoehorned in as high heels on the Elephant Man. Contrasting it with something like The Bridge On the River Kwai, which subverts heroic expectations and reveals the folly of war instead of glorifying it, shows where The Guns of Navarone falls short in the end.
Sublime, and SPOILERific as hell.
The Guns of Navarone is a well-made, surprisingly (and intriguingly) conflicted war film; a true classic of the genre.
Take a Drink: whenever someone expresses doubt, or refers to the mission as impossible
Take a Drink: whenever someone says ‘bloody’ (you’ll love this one!)
Take a Drink: for map-traveling (which Indiana Jones copied to great fun)
Take a Drink: every time Peck hams it up in another language
Do a Shot: when Brown learns you don’t bring a knife to a gun fight
Do a Shot: for heroic sacrifices