Friday, September 11, 2009

The Guns of Navarone (Columbia, 1961)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

With enough time to run an unusually long movie, I ran Charles The Guns of Navarone, a big World War II spectacle from 1961 that I remember hearing a great deal about when I was a child but never actually seeing. Apparently the success of Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds [sic] has encouraged the major-domos of Turner Classic Movies to dredge up every previous film they have in their catalog dealing with commandos in World War II — and this is certainly one of the most famous ones, a big-budget, star-laden (Gregory Peck, David Niven and Anthony Quinn head up the cast, and below them are a batch of fine British actors including Stanley Baker, Anthony Quayle — whose portrayal of a major whose leg is badly wounded during the action practically steals the movie out from under his more highly regarded colleagues — James Robertson Justice, who also delivers an opening narration, and Richard Harris, whose presence here puts everyone else in this cast one degree of separation from the casts of the first two Harry Potter movies), 2 1/2-hour spectacle written and produced by Carl Foreman (interesting to see this as a point of comparison to his earlier, far less pretentious “B” The Clay Pigeon from 12 years earlier!) and directed in a competent, workmanlike but not especially stirring fashion by J. Lee Thompson.

The big problem with The Guns of Navarone is it’s really nothing more than action porn — the plot, such as it is, is there merely to set up the spectacular action scenes — but Foreman keeps trying to inflate it and put in deep philosophical and social issues about morality, truth and people’s responsibilities towards each other and their collective mission, and every time between big action set-pieces the characters start jabbering with each other about these things the movie just sits down, gets boring and keeps us waiting impatiently for the next action highlight. There are other problems with the movie — like Gregory Peck being way overqualified for the role (he appeared in the trailer for the film and said it was a totally new thing for him — whereas what it seems like was a role he took for the money while waiting for the financing to come through for To Kill a Mockingbird, a film he really cared about and desperately wanted to make) and Thompson’s direction, which there’s really nothing wrong with except one misses the last soupçon of power, energy and drive directors as different as Alfred Hitchcock (with his unbeatable flair for suspense) or John Huston (with his fascination with stories about small groups of people on mad quests) could have brought the plot.

Based on a novel by Alistair MacLean (who was so taken with its success as both a novel and a film that for years he kept on cranking out sequels, always taking pains to include the name “Navarone” in the titles, like Force 10 from Navarone), The Guns of Navarone has a simple enough story that plausibly sets up the action: 200 British soldiers are stranded on an Aegean island and, though the island has no military value whatsoever, the Germans are determined to attack it and annihilate the British garrison just to prove that they can and intimidate Turkey to enter the war on the German side. (One wonders why they consider that so important since Turkey fought World War One on the German side — and a fat lot of good it did the Germans then!) The problem is that the six destroyers the Brits plan to send in to evacuate the men before the Germans can attack have to pass through a strait guarded by the Guns of Navarone, two gigantic pieces of state-of-the-art cannons guided by radar control. (I thought the British were well ahead of the Germans in using radar in World War II.) Charles jokingly came up with a theme song for the film — sung vaguely to the tune of “Hernando’s Hideaway” from The Pajama Game, it went, “We are the Guns of Navarone, you see/We’re two big pieces of artillery.”

Realizing that the guns of Navarone are immune from attack either by sea or air, the Allied commander, Commodore Jensen (James Robertson Justice, who also begins the film with a really pretentious narration citing Greece’s history as the land of myths and legends and implying that the story we’re about to see is a modern addition to those), hires a small group of men to form a commando unit to rappel up the cliffside of Navarone (the only part the Germans aren’t guarding since they figure the cliff faces are sheer and therefore impossible to climb) and infiltrate the island, get to the guns and blow them up. The key members of the group are rival mountain climbers Keith Mallory (Gregory Peck) and Andrea Stavros (Anthony Quinn) — Stavros hates Mallory’s guts because in an earlier part of the war Mallory gave some Germans safe conduct to carry out some of their wounded, and instead they used that to attack Stavros’s home town and kill his wife and children, and for that Stavros has sworn to kill Mallory after the war (though Carl Foreman does surprisingly little with this antagonism in his script) — and the explosives expert, British corporal Miller (David Niven at his most supercilious — though this is the first film of his I’ve seen that convinced me he actually would have been a great James Bond; he was the only actor Ian Fleming considered for the part, and had he launched the Bond series it would have worked quite well even though the overall “feel” of it would have been quite different from what ultimately developed, with more intrigue and less superhero-type action).

They have to deal with trial after trial, including stumbling into a Greek wedding (it may not have been big or fat, but an uncredited Victor Buono was cast as the priest!) at which the Germans capture them — and of course they engineer a totally unbelievable few-against-many escape from the Germans on their way to the mission, which turns out to be unexpectedly difficult because a traitor in their midst, Anna (Gia Scala) — who’d supposedly been rendered catatonic by having been beaten and gang-raped by German soldiers, but in fact agreed to change sides to avoid that fate — has been alerting the Germans to their every move along the way (how? They were in such remote locations that, unless she had a portable radio, there was no way she could contact them!) and has also thrown out most of Miller’s explosive kit, leaving him enough to blow up the guns of Navarone but not enough to get the hell out of there before the bombs go off. The final sequence — in which Mallory and Miller essentially booby-trap the guns, setting the explosives to go off when the Germans use the elevator in their field command outpost — has some reasonably good suspense editing (notably a gimmick in which the elevator car twice stops just short of where it needs to be to set off the bomb and the Germans actually get a few shots at the fleet of destroyers before the guns finally blow up) and is marvelously satisfying when the guns not only blow up but explode with such ferocity (presumably from the explosion setting off the artillery shells the Germans had already brought up to the guns and were going to fire with them) it looks from afar — specifically from the boat in which the principals are escaping — as if Navarone has finally turned into a volcano.

The film won the Academy Award for best special effects, beating out The Absent-Minded Professor (the year’s only other nominee in the category, which in itself is an index of how much movies have changed since 1961!), and thoroughly deserved it — particularly in a sequence in which the little boat they’re using to sail to Navarone is hit by a storm and sinks, and the edits are so seamless one can’t tell which scenes were done with a real boat and which with a model. At the same time, there are two earlier sequences — in one of which the commander who sends them on a mission offers to steal them a German military boat instead, and Mallory turns him down on the ground that they need to look like simple Greek fishermen and therefore need a seedy-looking and barely seaworthy craft; and another scene in which the commandos are stopped by a real German military boat and have to kill the entire crew and blow up the boat — which left me wondering that maybe when they confronted that German boat, they should have stolen it and taken it the rest of the way instead of destroying it.

There are some interesting comic anecdotes surrounding The Guns of Navarone, including a particularly marvelous satire Mad magazine did of it “in the day” in which they called it The Guns of Minestrone and set up the scene in which Mallory has just realized that one of the people in their unit is a traitor by having Mallory say, “What war-movie cliché haven’t we done yet? Is there a kid from Brooklyn who’s too young to die? No, I have it — one of us is a traitor!” — and then, when the camera is panning the faces of the crew to determine who it is, in Mad’s version one of the people in the unit is Adolf Hitler.

But the most charming story about this movie came from record producer John Culshaw, who when he went to Tel Aviv in the early 1960’s to record the Israel Philharmonic, found that Decca’s recording engineers had decided that the best-sounding venue was a movie theatre in a suburban village called Rishon-le-Zion, whose manager agreed to rent it to the recording crew on the condition that he be allowed to continue to show The Guns of Navarone twice a night. “In the evenings,” Culshaw recalled, “the projectionist liked to invite us to his box to share a bottle of the local wine, and on one such occasion he forgot to insert the anamorphic lens on one of the two projectors while screening The Guns of Navarone, This meant that the audience saw odd-numbered reels in the correct CinemaScope ratio, and even-numbered reels in the regular format, with the result that characters in the center of the picture were grotesquely elongated and thin. Nobody in the audience seemed to notice.”