Saturday, September 4, 2010

#93 - The Guns of Navarone


            “The Guns of Navarone” was released in 1961 and was the top box office attraction of that year. It is based on the popular novel (1957) by Alistair MacLean, although the characters underwent major changes by screenwriter Carl Foreman ( for instance, there are no major female characters in the book ). At $6 million, the film was one of the most expensive up to that time. It paid off as the movie was a smash hit and critically acclaimed. It served as a template for the James Bond series with its mixture of action, characters, and exotic locale. It is often linked with similar movies from that time period, specifically with “Bridge on the River Kwai”, “The Longest Day”, and “The Great Escape”. It was nominated for 7 Academy Awards and won for Best Special Effects. It was awarded the Golden Globe for Drama. One of the Oscar nods went to Foreman for his first credited screenplay since being blacklisted as a Communist. The movie was filmed mostly on the island of Rhodes which hosted an all-star cast. One of whom, David Niven, almost died during filming because of immersion in a pool of water for the explosives on the elevator shaft scene.


                In a tutorial similar to “A Bridge Too Far”, a narrator explains that it is 1943 and 2,000 British soldiers have been marooned on the Aegean Island of Keros. They have a week to live because the Germans plan to invade the island and wipe them out as a show of force to intimidate Turkey into entering the war. The only way to rescue them is for a fleet to pass by the island of Navarone. Unfortunately, Navarone has some big-ass cannons mounted in a cave on a cliffside which are capable of sinking the rescue flotilla. You are about to watch a movie featuring those forgotten titans of naval warfare – the shore guns! (For the average viewer: a shore gun was a long-range, large caliber gun guarding the entrance to a harbor. They would outrange any enemy ships plus they usually had an altitude advantage which made them unhittable by warships. It was close to suicidal to take them on).

"Who wants to go on a suicide mission?"
            The first day begins at an airfield where a famous mountain climber named Mallory (Gregory Peck) meets the head of the secret mission Franklin (Anthony Quayle). A group of bomber pilots angrily claim that trying to take out the guns by air bombardment is a “bloody” waste of time and lives. Mallory believes the alternative of doing it with a commando group is suicidal. When Franklin points out 2,000 men are depending on him, he still refuses to go. Just kidding. A team is put together which includes Miller (Niven) as the explosives expert, “Butcher” Brown (Stanley Baker) as the knife guy, and Spyros Pappadimos (James Darren) as the young gangsta and singer of songs. This places the movie firmly in the suicide mission sub-genre. This means you can place your bets on how many of the team members are going to be killed. (All those betting either none or all, get real!)


            There is still one more member of the team to be revealed. Mallory meets a survivor of the Greek army named Stavros (Anthony Quinn) in a hotel. Mallory and Stavros had been on missions together, but there is obviously bad blood between them. The team leaves via fishing boat in disguise. Of course the voyage includes an encounter with a snoopy German patrol boat. The team opens fire on the boarders and kills all the Germans and even blow up the German ship. Even though the ships are next to each other, the fishing boat suffers no damage or casualties from the massive explosion.

           During the trek, Mallory reveals to Miller that Stavros is planning to kill him after the war for inadvertently causing the deaths of his family. It’s going to be a tense mission. Mallory weighs in on warfare with “the only way to win a war is to be just as nasty as the enemy”. (This anti-war theme is going to fly over the heads of most moviegoers.)

"I will not let you kill yourself"
             They reach the island during a terrible storm and crash into the rocks. In one of the wettest scenes in movie history, they wade ashore. There is no dialogue, just the stormy sound effects for 14 minutes of screen time! Nice touch. (Note the scene-stealing Anthony Quinn with his red shirt.) They then have to scale the cliffs. At one point Mallory slips and guess who grabs his arm – Stavros. (He wants him alive so he can kill him later.) Mallory and Stavros reach the top where Stavros knifes a German on guard duty. The German’s last thought – “what the hell am I doing patrolling the top of an unscaleable cliff in the midst of a storm?” Franklin slips and badly damages his leg. They debate what to do with him. Stavros wants to silence him, others want to leave him to the German’s to care for. Mallory insists on bringing him, arguing that capture would lead to Franklin talking about the plan under torture. Later, Mallory prevents Franklin from committing suicide.

           They escape a German patrol by taking refuge in an old temple. In some ways the movie is more of a chase film than a war film. There they are joined by Pappadimos’ sister Maria who is a resistance fighter. She is accompanied by Anna, a pretty blonde who is mute due to torture by the Gestapo.

           On the fourth day, they escape strafing by Stukas and enter the town to seek help for Franklin. Stavros, Maria, Franklin, and Brown are captured at the doctors. The others try to blend into a wedding party. A Greek sings a Greek folk song which of course is the cue for James Darren to join in ala Ricky Nelson in “Rio Bravo”. The Germans recognize his singing voice as that of an American pop star (jsut kidding) and they are captured, too.

           At German headquarters, the team is questioned by a “good cop” German officer and then a blonde hair, blue eye (naturally) S.S. officer arrives to be “bad cop”. Stavros pretends that he is a reluctant participant and plays the sniveling coward which distracts the Germans although they know exactly who he is (they have his picture for God's sakes!). The act works and they disarm the Germans and put on their uniforms. They have to leave Franklin behind but Mallory has planted a false invasion story so when Franklin gets truth-serumed, he will tell the Germans a different plan. They steal a vehicle and go to a monastery. Miller goes off on Mallory for “using” Franklin. Miller represents the conscience of the group, although earlier he was in favor of leaving Franklin to the Germans with the plans for the mission intact in his head which would have gotten them all killed. Later, Mallory and Anna spoon.

             The last day starts with smoke from the town indicating retribution for sheltering the commandoes. The Nazis are evil. They arrive at the fortress-town and see the guns for the first time. Meanwhile, Franklin talks and the Germans rush out of the fortress to counter an expected invasion. Unfortunately the lack of defenders is matched by the team’s sudden lack of explosives since someone has tampered with them. Miller suspects Anna and demands to see her scars from the torture. The 1961 audience gets to be titillated by the bare, unscarred back of Anna. If that is not shocking enough, Anna is also not mute! She is a collaborator who switched sides because “I can’t stand pain”. Miller insists Mallory do his duty, but Maria shoots the traitor before Mallory can do it. Interestingly, the no dialogue scenes have now been balanced by some very verbose ones.

the big-ass cannons
            Stavros and Pappadimos start the diversion by ambushing Germans and Mallory and Miller sneak into the fort as German tanks (obviously not actual WWII German tanks) are leaving. Mallory and Miller enter the gun emplacement and lock the massive doors behind them. The Germans will have to cut their way through. Meanwhile, Maria and Brown steal a boat but ironically Brown gets knifed to death (“live by the knife, die by the knife”). Pappadimos dies in a machine gun duel with a German right out of the Old West (if they had had machine guns).

             Miller places explosives (where did he get them?) on the guns, but figuring they will be found he also places some at the bottom of the elevator shaft to be triggered by the descending elevator. Mallory and Miller go over the cliff by rope and then swim to the boat. They pick up Stavros with Mallory offering him a hand up like in the earlier scene. The Germans find the explosives on the guns using metal detectors that are apparently not distracted by all the metal in the vicinity.


                The elevator keeps coming down, but not down enough to trigger the explosives! We are on the edge of our seats, but I have to admit I did want to see those guns fire at least once. Our wishes are granted as the guns fire twice at the sitting ducks British armada before the inevitable explosion occurs. It’s a big one! The entire top of the mountain is blown up and the guns plunge into the sea. The fleet lets loose with its horns and the crews cheer. If there had been high-fiving in 1961, audiences would have been out of their seats. I guess they settled for a rousing “Bravo!”

              Stavros decides to let bygones be bygones as he stays behind with Maria who he has fallen in love with. Did you think they would spend the rests of their lives sad and lonely? They will now be happy together killing Germans. It’s very romantic. Miller apologizes to Mallory for being something of a British twit distracted by human feelings. They arrange to meet again for “Force Ten from Navarone”, but few cared.


Realism - 6

Action - 8

Acting - 9

Accuracy - 5

Plot - 8

Overall - 7


              It is not really a date movie, although the box office receipts indicate women did go to see it. There is a strong female character (Maria) and Foreman must have changed two male characters’ gender to make the story more female-friendly. Plus, James Darren was a teen idol type probably chosen to appeal to a female audience. (Certainly he does not sing for the males in the audience!) The movie is more character driven than many war movies. It is not graphically violent. It is not pure action and if you like talking (some women do), there are some very talkative scenes.


                The book and movie are loosely based on the Battle of Leros. In 1943, after the Italian government capitulated, the British seized several Aegean islands in the Dodecanese Campaign. It was a classic case of overreach, however. The Germans had a preponderance of forces in the area and did not sit back. They regained the islands including taking back Leros in an amphibious assault that resulted in the loss of the British occupiers who were not rescued as the movie implies. MacLean built his story around this incident, but he obviously did not mean for it to be a history lesson. In fact, you have to dig a lot to discover that there is any link to an actual event.


             Although considered one of the great manly films, “Guns” is probably a bit overrated. It has some ridiculous moments like the escape from the German arresters and Pappidamos’ machine gun duel. Not to mention squeezing a song into a war movie! It also has several standard movie clichés like Stavros finding a woman in the end to restart his life. The Germans are depicted as not so much evil as stupid. The movie is also a little slow and talkie at times. When compared to a similar MacLean inspired movie, “Where Eagles Dare” (which did not make the list), it comes up short in almost every way.

             However, as an example of an old school action movie set in war, it is pretty good. It has the old-fashioned soundtrack, stellar acting, and the twist of the mute collaborating girl. Most people will not see that coming. I also appreciated the scenes where the action did the talking. Speaking of talking, another nice touch was the Germans spoke German without subtitles. The audience is left to figure out what they are talking about. Imagine that. Of course, today most viewers are probably just thankful they don’t have to read and to hell with what they are saying.

              By the way, if you bet that 3 of the 6 team members would die (assuming the Germans kill Franklin), you win! 50% - not bad for a cinematic suicide mission.


              I suggest you watch "Inglourious Basterds" along with this movie to see how suicide mission war movies have evolved over the years.  I think you will find that the modern version is quite a bit more extreme.  I would argue audiences today want more bang for their buck from their war movies.  "Guns" seems very tame today.  I am not sure this is a good trend.  However, when it comes to standard fare like "Saving Private Ryan" we may find in our cinematic journey that modern war movies are generally better than the old school types like "All Quiet on the Western Front".  We shall see.


  1. I don't think we disagree that much on this movie. I actually watched it more like an adventure film than a war film and in this respect I found it good. The acting is very convincing. The setting is different as well (Rhodos is a nice change) and I really found the bunker part with that German song in the background very special.

    1. you know what the title of the German song is?
      Would help really to know the author atleast

    2. imdb entry for the soundtrack album lists two German songs, "Das Sundenlied" and "Treu Sein." Both with lyrics by Alfred Perry and music by Dimitri Tiomkin.

  2. I do not disagree with you. I remembered this movie very fondly as a teenager and was a little disappointed with it when I watched it for this project. I think looking at it from historical perspective colored my review a bit, but also I found some of it a little ridiculous which I guess would happen with many war action movies upon second viewing. Since historical accuracy and realism are keys to my reviews, a movie like this will have problems.

  3. I realized just now that you wrote this in your header, namely historical accuracy being the focus.My focus is different. I studied cultural anthropology and literature. I am interested to see the differences let's say between a Russian and an American war movie, the stories and characters are important and the cinematography. But I am very interested in your point of view. The "perfect" movie would combine all aspects. And yes, there were a few laughable moments in The Guns of Navarone. There is this moment when Gregory Peck threatens someone with a gun. Not his best acting.

  4. Cool. I think you have something there. I am assuming as I ascend to the top of the list the movies will become more of a blend of what you are looking for and what I am looking for, so hopefully we will agree more and more as we move there.
    Send me some recommendations for Russian movies. I have already seen "Ballad of a Soldier" which is #80 on the list and was fascinated by it.

  5. I am sorry, I did not see this comment. I think Come and See is a must. Then I would be curious to hear what you think of a modern one like 9th Company (I did review it). The Cranes are flying and then of course A zori zdes tikhie ( I am sorry, I am not trying to show off, but I have a German version and can't find the English title).

  6. Thank you so much. I just went to Netflix and added these to my queue. I never would have heard of these if not for you. Now all I need to do is figure out when I will be able to watch all these movies.

  7. I thought it was a cop-out to have Maria shoot Anna, conveniently sparing Mallory (or Miller) the responsibility.

  8. I kind of agree, but remember that Maria would have felt the most betrayed and could have looked at Anna as giving women a bad rep as not as strong as men.

  9. Feldgrau uniforms in the Mediterranean. While I remember this movie fondly, the non-tropical uniforms(Tobruk was released the same year, so no excuses for no khaki uniforms!) and the notion that the deaths of 2000 British troops would bully Turkey into joining the war on Germany's side, AFTER the loss of 300k men of the 6th Army at Stalingrad(Feb 1943), the loss of the German Afrika Korps of 250k men in Tunisia May 1943, the strategic reversal at Kursk(and Mius offensives) and the Allied invasion of Italy(July 1943), plus Italy suing for peace and joining the Allies really spoiled it for me when I watched it again. That and the fact that Lt Gen Fritz Bayerlein was the German technical advisor!

    1. Thanks for the input. Can you explain your Bayerlein comment?

    2. I agree, aramsham, that the idea of Turkey entering the war on the side of the Axis in 1943 (and exposing itself to Russian invasion) as a result of the death of a few thousand British soldiers is implausible. There are many implausible elements to the film, including:

      1. That the date of the urgent British withdrawal can be so precisely anticipated so many days in advance;
      2. That the British fleet must pass in front of the German-occupied island;
      3. That the Germans have built an elaborate gun emplacement on the island, apparently in anticipation of just such a move;
      4. That the gun emplacement is impregnable to air assault;
      5. That German intelligence knows so much about the very unlikely British decision to attack the guns by a commando raid.

      The movie does a good job, though of distracting us from these problems by piling on constant action and suspense. It also makes good use of the terrain and people of the Mediterranean region, providing an epic feel. Because of that I enjoyed the movie and was able to swallow many of ridiculous premises of the story without choking on them too much.


Please fell free to comment. I would love to hear what you think and will respond.