Movie review: ‘The Guns of Navarone’

Many are of the opinion that “Saving Private Ryan” is the gold standard for films about World War II. It has disturbingly accurate combat scenes to go along with a top-shelf cast that does its best in virtually every scene. However, some of those who put “Saving Private Ryan” first surely remember “The Guns of Navarone.” If they do, then they should watch it again and maybe they’ll remind themselves of one thing: Simply put, “The Guns of Navarone” is the best-acted WWII movie ever made. Despite not having a true combat component, “The Guns of Navarone” comes out just a nose ahead of “Saving Private Ryan” and it’s great to have such a comparison of legendary films. Oh, yes, a little-known fact is that “The Guns of Navarone” was intended as an anti-war film!

‘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

(NOTE: I expanded this review with additional trivia, some more opinion and the updating of links on Oct. 21, 2017.)

It is a war-movie buff’s delight that a film more than 50 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 is a real movie that 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.

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Of course “Saving Private Ryan” also meets this standard and has much better special effects because of filming technology in the 37 years between the films, but is just a tad bit behind “The Guns of Navarone” because of the cast and its work. Headliners Gregory Peck, David Niven and Anthony Quinn and their supporting cast are all fractionally better here than Tom Hanks, Tom Sizemore and Matt Damon and their supporting cast in “Saving Private Ryan.”

Further, like “Saving Private Ryan” at more than 2 ½ hours, “The Guns of Navarone” has the visual canvas to make it all work and work without rushing anything (“Saving Private Ryan” has 11 minutes more). Director J. Lee Thompson uses all the time to effect, especially details. From an opening meeting of pilots who failed in a mission to the final scene, Thompson’s work explains it all without either insulting you or hammering you into submission with action. At times the acting is forceful, but a lot of it is also sublime – and therein lies “The Guns of Navarone” biggest virtue: The pure acting of this stellar cast knocks you for a loop because they are so good.

In the end, “The Guns of Navarone” earned a lone Oscar for best effects/special effects and was nominated for six more. However, only the nominations for Best Picture and Best Director were in “big” categories and it received none for acting, which is a complete and utter shame. Gregory Pack’s work is head-and-shoulders above Maximilian Schell’s winning turn in “Judgment at Nuremberg” and he wasn’t even nominated and the film should have won for Best Picture over “West Side Story.” Don’t get me wrong. Schell did outstanding work and “West Side Story” is great, but both run a far second to Peck and “The Guns of Navarone.”

In “The Guns of Navarone,” 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.

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.

Here’s a look at some of the principal cast:

  • Oscar winner (not for this one) Peck 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 won for “To Kill a Mockingbird” any day – and he won his Oscar for “Mockingbird.” Other films in Peck’s distinguished career are diverse as “The Omen” (click here for my review) to “Roman Holiday” to a chilling role as a Nazi mass murderer in “The Boys from Brazil” with Laurence Olivier (click here for my review). Peck died at 87 in 2003 of cardiorespiratory arrest and pneumonia.
  • The soon-to-be common moniker Oscar winner (not for this one) Niven 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. Niven, who won his Oscar for “Separate Tables” in 1958, died at 73 in 1983 from complications of ALS.
  • A two-time Oscar winner (1953 and 1957), Quinn plays the strong, silent and remorseless type here. He plays “Col. 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 to complete the mission. Quinn’s work is exemplary and reflects a career so that he, too, is a Hollywood legend and notched 167 credits over an incredible eight decades. He won Oscars for “Viva Zapata!” with Marlon Brando and “Lust for Life” with Kirk Douglas and was nominated for “Zorba the Greek” and “Wild is the Wind.” He was also in “Lawrence of Arabia.” He died at 86 in 2001 of complications of throat cancer.
  • Oscar nominee (not for this one) Anthony Quayle plays “Maj. Roy Brown,” who is the official leader but has to give way to Peck. Quayle is a solid actor, but, in one of the few critical comments I have about the cast, doesn’t manage to elevate his character. He does a good job, but could have done better. He was nominated for “Anne of a Thousand Days” and was also in a modest 88 films over a seven-decade career. Quayle, too, was in “Lawrence of Arabia” as well as “The Eagle Has Landed” (click here for my review) and a smattering of TV roles. He died at 76 in 1989 of liver cancer.
  • Primetime Emmy nominee Stanley Brown plays “Pvt. ‘Butcher’ Brown,” but doesn’t have the chance like others to elevate what could have been the most interesting character – the flawed killer who hesitates and has to redeem himself in Peck’s eyes. Brown just doesn’t get the screen time the others do to move his character forward. Brown was also in “Zulu,” “Concrete Jungle” and “Hell Drivers.” He was nominated for “How Green was My Valley” and died at 48 in 1976 of pneumonia and lung cancer.
  • 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 equally adept 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.
  • Onetime teen heartthrob James Darren, who plays killer commando “Pvt. Spyros Pappadimos,” was looking to break out of young-star typecasting and does a solid job as a cold-blooded killer here. Well, he is cold-blooded most of the time but meets family on the mission. Darren, like Baker, doesn’t get the best screen time and he is best known for “Gidget” and its sequels. He was also in “Venus in Furs” as well as a variety of TV series from his most-recognized role on “J. Hooker” and others such as “Vega$,” “Hawaii Five-O” and “Charlie’s Angels.” I like that he did an episode of “The Love Boat” (click here for my review of that wonderfully kitschy series).
  • Two-time Oscar nominee (not for this one) Richard Harris has a great small role as “Squadron Leader Barnsby,” a pilot key to the opening scene who tells off the brass after a disastrous air assault on the guns. Harris was memorable in “Gladiator” as well as solid in “Juggernaut” (click here for my review), but not as good in “The Wild Geese” (click here for my review). He is most likely most-recognized by today’s audiences for being “Dumbledore” in the first two “Harry Potter” films and was also in Clint Eastwood’s Oscar-winning “Unforgiven” and “Patriot Games,” “Robin and Marian” and “Mutiny on the Bounty” with Marlon Brando. He was nominated for “This Sporting Life” and “The Field.” Harris died at 72 in 2002 of Hodgkin’s disease.

The two best scenes of a film filled with candidates for the honor is when Niven confronts Peck as the obvious parallel of the hoi polloi butting heads the wealthy. The first 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.

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 and was certainly worthy of his nomination. He directed “Cape Fear” with Peck as well as two “Planet of the Apes” sequels in the 1970s as well as “The Greek Tycoon” with Quinn, “The White Buffalo” with Charles Bronson and made the huge stinkers “The Evil That Men Do” and “Death Wish 4: The Crackdown.” Thompson died at 88 in 2002 of heart failure.

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, according to some sources. The No. 1 film was “West Side Story” and it brought in $43.6 million. “The Guns of Navarone” is the only film from 1961 that I’ve reviewed for my blog.

Assorted cast and film 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.
  • Peck was a skyscraper at 6-foot-2 ½ inches tall – especially compared to the micro-actors of today’s cinema and TV, where some of the best talent tops out at 5-foot-5 or so.
  • Directly from  IMDb.com: “There was some surprise that Stanley Baker, who along with Dirk Bogarde in 1960 was considered the most popular British movie star, accepted the relatively small supporting role of Private ‘Butcher’ Brown. Baker revealed that he wanted to be in the movie because he was impressed at how anti-war the screenplay by the blacklisted writer Carl Foreman was.”
  • Darren 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?
  • William Holden was first offered the role of “Mallory” but turned it down because he believe it was too close to the character he played in “The Bridge on the River Kwai.” Cary Grant, too, was considered but then discarded as being too old (Grant was 56 and Peck was 45 when the film was released in the U.S. on June 22, 1961).
  • With $50,000, Dimitri Tiomkin received the then-highest pay ever for a film composer.
  • The film was adapted from author Alistair 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 just a complete crapfest of a flick.
  • Finally and directly from IMDb.com: “Gregory Peck often said he was disappointed that so many viewers had missed how anti-war the film was intended to be. Peck was a life-long pacifist, who strongly opposed U.S. involvement in the Korean and Vietnam Wars. He was also against joining World War II, until Adolf Hitler invaded the Soviet Union.”
  • Click here for IMDb.com’s extensive trivia page.

© Chuck Curry and A Gator in Naples, 2014, 2017.
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