The Guns of Navarone (1961)

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By Scott Ross

Those born after 1980 will have difficulty believing it, but there was a time when the Hollywood studios did not routinely program huge, “high-concept,” multi-million dollar action spectaculars as their main source of revenue. Smaller movies, with life-sized (as opposed to larger-than-) characters, were the norm, and the spectaculars were fewer and further between, and even they had a peculiar tendency to be intelligent. These movies were made, as David Denby noted in his review of the 1987 reissue of The Manchurian Candidate, in another country, one where it was still possible to present a reasonably complex narrative without talking down to a media-surfeited, cranially-stunted audience, here and abroad. It was that country, in the year of my birth, which produced The Guns of Navarone.

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One of Howard Terpning’s designs for the poster.

I first saw The Guns of Navarone on televsion, in the early ’70s (that was in another country, too, one where the networks actually deigned to air movies on a regular basis.) Although it was, perforce, in pan-and-scan format—there were at the time actual FCC rules in force prohibiting the screening of widescreen images on television—the movie made a marked impression on me. The characters were vivid, the big set-pieces excruciatingly tense, and there were odd curlicues that remained in the memory: The machine-gun appearing from beneath the sails; the shipwreck on the rocks; the little girl holding a bouquet of flowers; the revelation of Anna’s treachery; the sudden, and shocking, Quisling behavior before the Germans of Anthony Quinn’s previously implacable Andrea.

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Carl Foreman, who both produced the picture and adapted Alistair MacLean’s adventure novel (and who, as a blacklisted scribe, did not receive credit for his work on The Bridge on the River Kwai a few years earlier) added two dramatic elements and altered an existing  third. In MacLean’s book, there is no conflict between Andrea, Mallory (Gregory Peck in the movie) and Miller (David Niven); Foreman grafted onto the narrative Miller’s unspoken antagonism toward Mallory, and Andrea’s vow to murder his compatriot, once the war is over, for causing the deaths of his wife and children. In MacLean, it is a male Greek partisan who is, or is suspected of being, the traitor; in Foreman, it is the mute Anna, for whom Mallory develops tender feelings, which dovetails neatly with the Mallory/Miller sub-plot. (It isn’t going too far to call Anna an informer, a special breed of loathsome to any blacklistee.)

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Corporal Miller smells a rat. From left, Irene Papas, James Darren, Anthony Quinn, David Niven, Gia Scala, Stanley Baker, Gregory Peck.

In an escapist novel, one can accept the lack of conflict between the leads; in a movie, some sort of complication is almost demanded, in an Aristotelean sense. It was a smart move on Foreman’s part, and he handled the additional dialogue with superb ease and intelligence; the Peck/Niven standoff precedes, and compels, the movie’s most poignant moment, then succeeds it, leading to the seemingly unflappable Mallory’s gesturing with his pistol in Miller’s direction (“You’ve got me in the mood to use this thing, and by God, if you don’t think of something, I’ll use it on you! I mean it.”) Niven’s mounting fury is remarkable to watch, particularly since we don’t expect it of this usually (and uniquely) charming actor, any more than we are fully prepared for a blast of excoriating rage from Peck.

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The marvelous Irene Papas.

Foreman likewise added the fierce but accessible Maria (the name of Andrea’s off-stage wife in the novel) and cast the great Irene Papas, whose superb face is one those images that absolutely stick with you. (Anna and Maria, neither of whom have counterparts in MacLean, could be said to stand in for Pilar and Maria of For Whom the Bell Tolls.) If Foreman lost the moving scene in which the young, injured lieutenant offers himself up as a sacrifice, he gained far more, in the main. That injury is transferred in the movie to Anthony Quinn’s “Lucky,” to whom Peck’s Mallory whispers contradictory information he hopes will be extracted by the Germans; it is this act which enrages the otherwise likable (if occasionally overbearing) Miller.

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J. Lee Thompson’s direction is, like Alan Osbiston’s editing, straightforward and un-fussy, yet beautifully sustained. Thompson (Lee-Thompson as he was later known) has a knack for keeping as many of his ensemble cast on-screen at the same time as possible, yet the set-ups never feel stagey, or even staged.

Oswald Morris’ cinematography is often strikingly effective, particularly in his vivid day-for-night shots, and even the rear-screen projection effects look better than usual, aided as they are by such events as a storm at sea. Dmitri Tiomkin’s main title theme adds an immeasurable kick, but he seldom over-stresses or strains for effect. Indeed, it’s notable how often he—or Foreman, or Thompson, or somebody—opts to leave a sequence alone and let the exciting visuals speak for themselves. At the movie’s end, Tiomkin repeats, not the big theme, but the plaintive “Yassou,” heard first in a soft, a cappella choral arrangement, closing the movie on a grace-note.

That’s something else that separates the country that produced The Guns of Navarone from our own.

Text copyright 2014 by Scott Ross

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