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Well, there’s the team. Pirates and cutthroats, every one of them.

The Guns of Navarone
(1961)

(SPOILERS) While it may be increasingly difficult to recall, given recent “form”, every decade has yielded its share of Best Picture Oscar contenders nominated primarily out of recognition for box office/cultural impact, rather than content: The Towering Inferno; Fatal Attraction; Titanic; Avatar; Bohemian Rhapsody. The Guns of Navarone definitely falls into that category; next to West Side Story – arguably also an artistic achievement, unlike the recent version – it was the biggest hit of the year. Alastair MacLean, stalwart purveyor of boys’ own adventures, a contender for Best Picture? Surely some mistake.

The Oscar attention isn’t as absurd as it might first appear. The Guns of Navarone’s good fight against the Nazis, to save our brave boys, is punctuated by lengthy deliberations over the costs of warfare, on both a personal and national level; it might even, in that regard, be considered something of a successor to Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, whereby the “good” soldier is faced with the “necessity” of resorting to his opponent’s tactics in order to prevail. And if one can readily detect a perfunctory cynicism pertaining to the interrogation of such motive and justification, it’s nevertheless remarkable how closely the template fits a much lauded but equally suspect Best Picture Oscar contender nearly three decades later, Saving Private Ryan.

Both document an unlikely mission tasked to a team of rudely-drawn types, one allowing the makers to address the senselessness of war while also brandishing the one in question as noble and justified. Both fly the flag of moral sensitivity while embracing classically exciting action and suspense sequences. Both feature a subplot concerning a soldier who fails to meet the standards expected for bravery, but makes him pay, rather than exonerating his failure (either through causing the deaths of others and becoming what he should not, or hesitating one time too many before taking another man’s life). And both had their stars testifying to its deeper credentials (including Gregory Peck as Captain Mallory, who felt he was miscast as a New Zealander/English captain – no argument there – citing disappointment that so few recognised its intent).

In Stanley Baker’s case, he accepted the supporting part of CPO “Butcher” Brown because he applauded the “anti-war” sentiments contained in (formerly blacklisted) Carl Foreman’s screenplay. But the nuance he compared to Foreman’s earlier The Bridge on the River Kwai is night and day in terms of tone and resonance. Perhaps, had Alexander Mackendrick not been fired from The Guns of Navarone a week before production began, the qualities sorely wanting would have been carried over.

You can perhaps sense Mackendrick’s intended lean toward more encompassing and timeless qualities in James Robertson Justice’s opening voiceover, invoking the Greek landscape and how “Myths and legends of war and adventure bear witness to the civilisation that flourished and then died here” before adding “What took place in the next six days became the legend of Navarone”. What we get from J Lee Thompson, though, who would end his career with ignominious Cannon titles (King Solomon’s Mines, Death Wish 4), couldn’t be more literal.

The picture’s earlier passages, the assembling of the team, are probably more satisfying than the gargantuan slab of the whole, which only intermittently justifies its length (the later capture by Germans is an engrossing interlude, the preceding attendance of a wedding less so).

Peck’s Mallory is “the greatest mountain climber in the world”, which comes in handing when clinging to a studio set with back-projected rocks and sea below. It’s been noted that everyone involved is much too old, but that became par for the course in the many subsequent team-on-a-mission movies, Wild Geese and Dirty Dozens et al. David Niven replaced Kenneth Moore as an unlikely corporal (Miller’s reasons for resisting a commission are, you guessed it, distaste with the idea of sending men to their deaths). Anthony Quinn adds some energy to Colonel Stavros, and Anthony Quayle gets gangrene.

Most of the characters are presented as pivots for conversations of varying degrees of moral purview. We’re introduced to the idea of imbalanced priorities from the first (“Pity we can’t beat the problems of peace in the same way, isn’t it? It would be much cheaper for everybody”). Mallory is given the moderate centre at the start, and in the early stages, Peck’s performance has an air of the seasoned and comfortable; it’s only later that the more familiar stiff, starchy and preachy takes over. But right away, there’s a division in, and need for clarification of, what is fair in love and war; Stavros blames Mallory – “Me and my stupid Anglo-Saxon decency” – for the deaths of his family at the hands of the Nazis, such that “He’s going to kill me when the war is over” (a lucky relief that a love interest should show up to divert him from this goal). Mallory’s conclusion is that “The only way to win a war is to be just as nasty as the enemy”.

However, the picture’s fancy appears to be that, as long as you cogitate over such nastiness, you’re still a fundamentally decent person. Mallory is thus designated to vacillate over his position, because he carries the burden of command and is a fundamentally decent, responsible fellow; one might argue he’d better illustrate the burden of command if, rather than engage in increasingly banal and morale-draining debates over whether his choices are good or bad ones, he told his men to shut the hell up and do as they were told.

And who gave you the right to make a private peace?” he charges Butcher Brown of his unwillingness to kill at close quarters. “Your job is to kill enemy soldiers” he instructs. And yet, he allows Miller to undermine him at every opportunity. Miller takes issue with Mallory’s choices regarding Franklin (Anthony Quayle), and his positions become increasingly petulant and unseemly. “Do you know what you’ve done? You’ve used up an important human being” he declares when Mallory admits he fed Franklin a line about their plans, knowing it would likely be reported to the Germans under interrogation. Later, Miller demands a pound of flesh from spy Anna (Gia Scala), yet is about to intervene when Mallory is poised to do what needs to be done (and then, illustrating this is a movie that most definitely pulls its punches, Mallory is let off the hook by Irene Papas’ Maria doing the dirty work for him).

Mallory: From a purely moral point of view, do you think what I did to Franklin was a civilised thing to do?

Cumulatively then, the main characters begin to grate on the nerves as the schematic nature of Foreman’s screenplay takes over. This is still, after all, about brave men pulling off an impossible mission, with carefully curated casualties (Baker, James Darren’s Spyros) who are guilty of doubts or impetuousness while leaving the main stars unbesmirched (Saving Private Ryan felt killing its heroes could redress the balance, but it represents an equally cynical move). Also sacrificed is the sense of humour spreading through early scenes; if he can wait, Mallory is promised an e-boat (“I promise you, only one careful owner” Michael Trubshawe tells him), while Miller is unimpressed with the ship-shapeness of their fishing vessel (“Sir, I’ve inspected this boat, and I think you ought to know, I can’t swim”).

The peripheries of the cast include such luminaries as Walter Gottell (as a decent German officer), Allan Cuthbertson (a typically blithering Major), Tutte Lemkow (a typical Tutte weasel) and Bryan Forbes (an unremarkable Bryan Forbes type). Robertson Justice has a walk on too, and Richard Harris delivers a speech as an Australian that only passes muster by dint of being not quite as embarrassing as James Coburn’s approximation of another such national two years later. Peck, meanwhile, doesn’t even attempt an accent (hence the assumption he’s playing an American), and his fluent German as dubbed.

The film managed seven Oscar nominations, including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay. It won Best Special effects (the gun set is indeed impressive, so much so, Niven got very sick from the filth on it, staunchly returned to work and then suffered a relapse). For my tastes, The Guns of Navarone is ultimately too stodgy to be either fish or fowl; I’d much rather the unabashed, cheerful revel in carnage that is Where Eagles Dare than the mealy-mouthed apologias as window dressing for something very much in the classically heroic mould.




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