Skip to main content

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 him makes him pay, rather than exonerating his failure (either through causing the deaths of others and becoming that 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.




Popular posts from this blog

You were this amazing occidental samurai.

Ricochet (1991) (SPOILERS) You have to wonder at Denzel Washington’s agent at this point in the actor’s career. He’d recently won his first Oscar for Glory , yet followed it with less-than-glorious heart-transplant ghost comedy Heart Condition (Bob Hoskins’ racist cop receives Washington’s dead lawyer’s ticker; a recipe for hijinks!) Not long after, he dipped his tentative toe in the action arena with this Joel Silver production; Denzel has made his share of action fare since, of course, most of it serviceable if unremarkable, but none of it comes near to delivering the schlocky excesses of Ricochet , a movie at once ingenious and risible in its plot permutations, performances and production profligacy.

No one can be told what the Matrix is. You have to see it for yourself.

The Matrix  (1999) (SPOILERS) Twenty years on, and the articles are on the defining nature of The Matrix are piling up, most of them touching on how its world has become a reality, or maybe always was one. At the time, its premise was engaging enough, but it was the sum total of the package that cast a spell – the bullet time, the fashions, the soundtrack, the comic book-as-live-action framing and styling – not to mention it being probably the first movie to embrace and reflect the burgeoning Internet ( Hackers doesn’t really count), and subsequently to really ride the crest of the DVD boom wave. And now? Now it’s still really, really good.

People still talk about Pandapocalypse 2002.

Turning Red (2022) (SPOILERS) Those wags at Pixar, eh? Yes, the most – actually, the only – impressive thing about Turning Red is the four-tiered wordplay of its title. Thirteen-year-old Mei (Rosalie Chiang) finds herself turning into a large red panda at emotive moments. She is also, simultaneously, riding the crimson wave for the first time. Further, as a teenager, she characteristically suffers from acute embarrassment (mostly due to the actions of her domineering mother Ming Lee, voiced by Sandra Oh). And finally, of course, Turning Red can be seen diligently spreading communist doctrine left, right and centre. To any political sensibility tuning in to Disney+, basically (so ones with either considerable or zero resistance to woke). Take a guess which of these isn’t getting press in reference to the movie? And by a process of elimination is probably what it it’s really about (you know in the same way most Pixars, as far back as Toy Story and Monsters, Inc . can be given an insi

I can’t be the worst. What about that hotdog one?

Everything Everywhere All at Once (2022) (SPOILERS) It would have been a merciful release, had the title card “ The End ”, flashing on screen a little before the ninety-minute mark, not been a false dawn. True, I would still have been unable to swab the bloody dildoes fight from my mind, but at least Everything Everywhere All at Once would have been short. Indeed, by the actual end I was put in mind of a line spoken by co-star James Wong in one of his most indelible roles: “ Now this really pisses me off to no end ”. Or to put it another way, Everything Everywhere All at Once rubbed me up the wrong which way quite a lot of most of the time.

We could be mauled to death by an interstellar monster!

Star Trek Beyond (2016) (SPOILERS) The odd/even Star Trek failure/success rule seemed to have been cancelled out with the first reboot movie, and then trodden into ground with Into Darkness (which, yes, I quite enjoyed, for all its scandalous deficiencies). Star Trek Beyond gets us back onto more familiar ground, as it’s very identifiably a “lesser” Trek , irrespective of the big bucks and directorial nous thrown at it. This is a Star Trek movie that can happily stand shoulder to shoulder with The Search for Spock and Insurrection , content in the knowledge they make it look good.

I think World War II was my favourite war.

Small Soldiers (1998) An off-peak Joe Dante movie is still one chock-a-block full of satirical nuggets and comic inspiration, far beyond the facility of most filmmakers. Small Soldiers finds him back after a six-year big screen absence, taking delirious swipes at the veneration of the military, war movies, the toy industry, conglomerates and privatised defence forces. Dante’s take is so gleefully skewed, he even has big business win! The only problem with the picture (aside from an indistinct lead, surprising from a director with a strong track record for casting juveniles) is that this is all very familiar. Dante acknowledged Small Soldiers was basically a riff on Gremlins , and it is. Something innocuous and playful turns mad, bad and dangerous. On one level it has something in common with Gremlins 2: The New Batch , in that the asides carry the picture. But Gremlins 2 was all about the asides, happy to wander off in any direction that suited it oblivious to whet

We’ve got the best ball and chain in the world. Your ass.

Wedlock (1991) (SPOILERS) The futuristic prison movie seemed possessed of a particular cachet around this time, quite possibly sparked by the grisly possibilities of hi-tech disincentives to escape. On that front, HBO TV movie Wedlock more than delivers its FX money shot. Elsewhere, it’s less sure of itself, rather fumbling when it exchanges prison tropes for fugitives-on-the-run ones.

He’ll regret it to his dying day, if ever he lives that long.

The Quiet Man (1952) (SPOILERS) The John Wayne & John Ford film for those who don’t like John Wayne & John Ford films? The Quiet Man takes its cues from Ford’s earlier How Green Was My Valley in terms of, well less Anglophile and Hibernophile and Cambrophile nostalgia respectively for past times, climes and heritage, as Wayne’s pugilist returns to his family seat and stirs up a hot bed of emotions, not least with Maureen O’Hara’s red-headed hothead. The result is a very likeable movie, for all its inculcated Oirishness and studied eccentricity.

He's not in my pyjamas, is he?

Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice (1969) (SPOILERS) By rights, Paul Mazursky’s swinging, post-flower-power-gen partner-swap movie ought to have aged terribly. So much of the era’s scene-specific fare has, particularly so when attempting to reflect its reverberations with any degree of serious intent. Perhaps it’s because Mazursky and co-writer Larry Tucker (also of The Monkees , Alex in Wonderland and I Love You, Alice B. Toklas! ) maintain a wry distance from their characters’ endeavours, much more on the wavelength of Elliott Gould’s Ted than Robert Culp’s Bob; we know any pretensions towards uninhibited expression can’t end well, but we also know Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice have to learn the hard way.

There is a war raging, and unless you pull your head out of the sand, you and I and about five billion other people are going to go the way of the dinosaur.

The X-Files 5.14: The Red and the Black The most noteworthy aspect of this two parter is that it almost – but not quite – causes me to reassess my previous position that the best arc episodes are those that avoid tackling the greater narrative head-on, attempting to advance the resistant behemoth. It may be less than scintillating as far as concepts go, but the alien resistance plot is set out quite clearly here, as are the responses to it from the main players.