Many are of the opinion that “Saving Private Ryan” is the gold standard for films about World War II. Some who believe that obviously remember “The Guns of Navarone,” but they should watch it again and maybe they’ll revise their judgment. Simply put, “The Guns of Navarone” is the best-acted WWII movie ever made. It is just a nose ahead of “Saving Private Ryan” and it’s great to have such a comparison.
‘The Guns of Navarone’
(1961; 158 minutes; not rated, but consider it PG; directed by J. Lee Thompson and starring Gregory Peck, David Niven and Anthony Quinn)
PECK IS DEVIOUS, CUNNING AND RUTHLESS
It is a war-movie buff’s delight that a film 53 years old can still set the gold standard for a genre. “The Guns of Navarone” from 1961 is that film and it remains THE film about World War II for movie aficionados – it has an intricate, intelligent plot; it has actors doing the best work of their careers; and it’s not some showcase of nothing but blind courage without a price.
Of course “Saving Private Ryan” also meets this standard and has much better special effects because of technology, but is just a tad bit behind “The Guns of Navarone” because of the cast. Headliners Gregory Peck, David Niven and Anthony Quinn are all fractionally better here than Tom Hanks, Tom Sizemore and Matt Damon in “Saving Private Ryan.”
The story is simple: a group of British soldiers must be rescued from a Greek island, but it is protected by a pair of huge radar-controlled cannons from another island called Navarone. With only six days to work with and the guns so well-fortified that air strikes have failed, the good guys must mount a commando mission that relies on stealth to destroy the guns.
After that, nothing is obvious and the plot and subplot become mined with devious twists and turns. Outstanding!
The group goes from one frying pan into another fire: from blowing up a German patrol boat to a hair-raising ascent of a cliff in the rain to battles on the island. The action is solid, realistic and not over dramatized as all the drama is left to the actors’ considerable skills.
The Oscar-winning Peck (he won for “To Kill a Mockingbird”) is simply marvelous and I’ll never understand how he wasn’t even nominated for an Oscar for the role as “Capt. Keith Mallory.” Peck conveys his character’s smooth, tough, cunning and, in the end, diabolically cold personality with aplomb. I would compare Peck’s work here with “Mockingbird” any day. Other films in Peck’s distinguished career are diverse as “The Omen” to “Roman Holiday” to playing a Nazi mass murderer in “The Boys from Brazil” opposite Laurence Olivier.
Niven, another Oscar winner with a distinguished career, plays “Cpl. Miller,” who is the group’s explosives expert as well as philosopher and deliverer of one-liners (pithy; not fall-down funny). Niven’s acting is sharp and incisive and if you didn’t appreciate him in “The Pink Panther,” you’ll appreciate his dramatic turn here. Niven was also in “Around the World in 80 Days” and was “Sir James Bond” in “Casino Royale” with Peter Sellers.
The two best scenes of a film filled with candidates for the honor is when Niven confronts Peck as the hoi polloi confronting the wealthy. Once is after leaving a wounded team member with the Germans and the other after discovering that Niven’s explosives have been sabotaged. The pair square off each time and the tension crackles and the deadly underside of Peck’s character comes out like smoke off dry-ice as he considers the execution of a traitor. It is simply two motivated actors working their best and achieving the highest of drama.
A two-time Oscar winner (1953 and 1957), Quinn plays the strong, silent and remorseless type here. He plays “Andrea Stavrou,” who has worked with Peck and now carries a vendetta against him. Despite vowing to one day kill Peck, Quinn’s character relentlessly moves forward in the mission. Quinn’s work is exemplary and reflects his career of 167 credits, the pair of Oscars (and two other nominations. He was also in “Lawrence of Arabia” and “Zorba the Greek.”
If you were ever to look for a tough, tough-minded and intelligent female character in this type of film, you might consider Karen Allen in “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” However, if you look here you’ll find Irene Pappas as “Maria,” who is the resistance leader and one tough soldier. Just like Peck and Quinn, Pappas’ character is ruthless, commanding and ready to do anything it takes to fight the Nazis. Pappas, who was also in “Zorba the Greek” as well as “The Message” (both with Quinn), certainly didn’t get the credit she deserved. She’s the epitome of toughness here and it shows.
Richard Harris, who would earn two Oscar nominations in his career, has a great small role as “Squadron Leader Barnsby,” a pilot who tells off the brass after a disastrous air assault on the guns. Harris was great in “Gladiator” as well as solid in “Juggernaut” (click here for my review).
To complete the mission the group splits up at the three-quarter mark for their respective roles that will bring down the big guns of Navarone (not a real island, by the way). However, after their individual destinies are dealt out at the end of the mission, the survivors come together and it’s all wrapped up neatly.
Although director J. Lee Thompson was brought in the week before filming after the first director, Alexander Mackendrick, was fired due to “creative differences,” he does an outstanding job of handling this big-cast, big-screen adventure.
“The Guns of Navarone” was the second ranked film at the box office in 1961 with $28.9 million, according to Wiki. It was also at the time the most expensive motion picture ever made as it had a budget of just over $10 million. The No. 1 film was “West Side Story” and it brought in $43.6 million.
Assorted cast notes (via IMDb.com):
- After filming the sequence in the elevator shaft at the guns, Niven was stricken ill and hospitalized for several weeks. He recovered, but there was talk of abandoning the entire film for insurance reasons if he was not able to resume his role.
- James Darren, who plays killer commando “Pvt. Spyros Pappadimos,” was on his real-life honeymoon during filming and took the role to break out of his “teen idol” reputation at the time. Of course, the same month in 1961 the film “Gidget Goes Hawaiian” came out with him as reprising his role as “Moondoggie.” Say what, teen idol?
- The film was adapted from author Alistar MacLean’s bestseller of the same name. After the success of “The Guns of Navarone” at theaters, he wrote a sequel called “Force 10 From Navarone.” However, the film adaptation starring Harrison Ford and Robert Shaw, deviated heavily from the book and is pretty much a stinker.
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