The Guns of Navarone: This epic, star-studded, World War II ‘Men on a Mission’ Adventure Classic both celebrates and critiques war time heroism

The Guns of Navarone(1961), is an Oscar Nominated Adventure Classic, adapted from Alistair Mclean’s novel of the same name; written for the screen & produced by Carl Foreman, Directed by J. Lee Thompson and starring Gregory Peck, David Niven and Anthony Quinn. This epic, adventure film was the first of the ‘Men on a Mission’ movies set in the backdrop of World War II.

“You have a near impossible mission. You assemble a crack team of heroes for carrying out this mission. Most probably, they have to accomplish this mission within a stipulated time period. The heroes are from disparate backgrounds and of varying temperaments, which causes tension and conflict within the group during the course of the mission. But each member has a unique gift that  the other one do not have . So, in spite of their differences, they need each other. They have to work together to succeed in the mission and to survive through this ordeal. After overcoming insurmountable odds, they succeed in their mission, but chances are that they had to sacrifice one or more members of the team in achieving this. In the end, the heroes who were at loggerheads acquire some grudging respect for one another and they pay tribute to the ones they lost during the mission.”

This is the classic template of “The Men on a Mission” movie. This template would come to be used in several genres: Western, Heist ,Crime, but the most successful application will be in the background of the second world War. WWII, being a less morally complicated war, where the Allies were the good guys and the Axis powers were the bad guys, proved to be a fertile ground  for such uncomplicated heroic adventures. The Men on a Mission movies, mostly set during World War II, were the most popular brand of action\ adventure movies in the 1960’s up to early 70’s, That’s until a new form of gritty cop dramas and Sci-fi action pictures took over in the wake of Dirty Harry  and Star Wars franchises. The first movie, where we had the concept of assembling a team for a mission was perhaps John Huston’s Asphalt Jungle in 1950 . But that was a downbeat Film Noir, where the characters where down and out criminals going for a heist. Akira Kurosawa’s 1954 Japanese classic The Seven Samurai is basically the first of this kind of movie, where a group of samurais are recruited to protect a village from bandits. Its 1960 Hollywood remake, The Magnificent Seven, starring Yul Brynner, Steve McQueen, Charles Bronson and whole lot of then unknown stars, re-imagined this as a western, and basically started the trend of these all-star cast adventure movies. But that was still an all American affair. The film that really started it all and can be considered the mother of all WWII Adventure movies – with an international cast and crew – was British director David Lean’s 1957 Oscar winning classic Bridge on the River Kwai that became an international blockbuster. The film had American star William Holden alongside acclaimed British actors Alec Guinness and Jack Hawkins and Japanese actor Sessue Hayakawa. Though that was not exactly a Men on a Mission picture: It was more of a multi layered epic about war, ego and Idealism, the second half of the film; where Hawkins assemble a team, with himself  Holden and the Canadian character played by Geoffrey Horne, to destroy the titular bridge followed the template of one.

So when River Kwai became such a stupendous success, it was just natural that the studio, Columbia Pictures, would want to make more of that type of movie. They zeroed in on Alistair McLean’s book The Guns of Navarone and approached writer\Producer Carl Foreman, who was a co writer on “River Kwai” to turn it into a movie. Foreman ,who was blacklisted at the time and was based in England, agreed to write the adaptation and produce it. He assembled an all-star cast, mixing diverse nationalities, with Gregory Peck, Anthony Quinn, David Niven, Stanley Baker, Irene Papas etc. After a fallout with the originally chosen director, Alexander McKendrick, he was fired off the project, and the film proceeded with director J. Lee Thompson at the helm and the biggest budget allotted for a Columbia pictures Production (around $6 million). Ultimately, the film would not only go on to become a very popular and critical success (7 Oscar nods),  but would become a trendsetter, with a host of similar movies that would follow in its wake; The Great Escape, The Dirty Dozen, Where the Eagle Dare, The Devil’s Brigade, etc…

The film takes place circa 1943, when the war was raging in Europe. The  plot of the film concerns the Allies’ efforts to destroy the titular Guns situated in the fictitious Greek Island of Navarone. These German guns are wreaking havoc in the Aegean by destroying the Allied ships in that area. It’s not possible to destroy the guns through aerial bombing, so Allied High Command, represented here by Jensen played by James Robertson Justice, assembles a team under Maj. Franklin (Anthony Quayle). The mission involves crossing the Aegean by boat and then getting into Navarone by climbing a steep cliff. They will get help from the resistance group in the town of Mandrakos. The guns needed to be destroyed within six days, as the allies are sending in a fleet of ships through the Aegean to rescue a group of 2,000 British soldiers  marooned in the island of Kheros, whom the axis powers wish  to destroy to display their military strength, and intimidate neutral Turkey to join them. Franklin’s team consists of Captain Keith Mallory (Gregory Peck), a renowned spy and mountaineer – the human fly as he is called- who will be needed for climbing the cliff; Colonel Andrea Stavrou (Anthony Quinn), Mallory’s friend (turned foe) from the defeated Greek army; Franklin’s best friend Corporal Miller (David Niven), an explosives expert and former chemistry teacher; Greco-American Spyros Pappadimos (James Darren), a born killer who could be extremely useful on these missions and also a native of Navarone; and “Butcher” Brown (Stanley Baker), an engineer, a genius with machines and expert knife fighter. Obviously there are subgroups within the group. Franklin and Miller are old friends. Mallory and Andrea were friends, but one of Mallory’s  acts of kindness in war lead to the death of Andrea’s family. so now, Andrea has sworn to kill him once the war is over. This animosity between them creates the tension within the team during the mission. The other two, Spyros and  Brown have their own issues. Spyros is young and itching to fight, while Brown who has been fighting the war for quite a long time now is tired and reluctant to fight. So this disparate group of characters embark on this mission, which is basically one cliffhanger after another, both literally and figuratively. As Miller puts it ‘We have been jumping from one frying pan into the next ‘. Once they  reach Navarone, The team is joined by two female members of the resistance: Maria – Spyros’ sister- and her friend Anna. And in midst of all this, there is treachery, as the team finds that they have a spy in their midst. As the mission proceeds, the divisions and paranoia among the members rises. There are moments when the team is torn apart with heated confrontations between the members regarding moral issues of war and killing. In the end, they manage to accomplish the mission. But they loose both Spyros and Brown, as they become victims of their respective weaknesses.

Apart from being a well crafted, fast paced entertainer, the film like all classic adventure tales is a retelling of the classic myths. The film is more an action-packed fantasy epic than the grounded, dramatic epics of David Lean; and it’s more of a prelude to the James Bond and Indian Jones adventure films; the film’s narrative plunges the protagonists in a series of dangerous situations, and one cliffhanger after another is piled up in quick succession. It’s no accident that McLean set this film in the Greek Peninsula. We get themes from the Greek epics like Iliad and Odyssey as well as other mythical stories from the region. The main set up of the story where a group of heroes cross the Aegean sea to accomplish a mission is very similar to Iliad. We can find thin reflections of these mythic heroes in the characters of this film. Franklin, who is the architect of this mission is Menelaus. Mallory, who takes charge after he is incapacitated is Agamemnon, Andrea, the most Greek of them all and who is having a love hate relationship with Mallory is Achilles, while Spyros, who is itching to fight and who is the brother of Andrea’s lover Maria could be Petrocles. The Giant Butcher Brown may be Ajax;  and Miller, who is not much of a fighter, but more of an intellectual among them and a genius with explosives is Odysseus. They undertake a lengthy sea voyage in which the encounter attack from the enemies and raging sea storms, like Odysseus in Odyssey. And keeping with the Sisyphean nature of their mission, there is a  climb to the top of a cliff. Then there is the myth of Theseus- who killed the Minotaur, which very much resembles the group’s mission to destroy those giant guns, after travelling across oceans and through deep labyrinths. In the end, Franklin is used as a sort of ‘Trojan Horse’ by Mallory to feed wrong information to the enemy. Thus, he and Miller are able to easily get through to the guns and destroy them. Some of the action scenes , like the climbing of the steep cliff on a dark, windy night is too fantastical that it belongs in a Bond film; actually the 1981 bond film, For yours Eyes Only, has a scene like that, except there, Roger Moore’s James Bond does it in broad daylight. Gregory Peck was so amused by the scale of some of the adventures that the team is subjected to in the film that he called it a Keystone cops movie with the Germans. But, it’s a testament to the superior craftsmanship of the filmmakers and the effectiveness of the performances of the actors that the film doesn’t seem to lack conviction at any stage.

As much as it is an action packed film that celebrates the heroism of these heroes, it’s also a very introspective film, where there are moments between scenes of derring-do when the heroes debate about the moral questions of their violent actions. But this anti-war theme is half-hearted, and it’s not (or it cannot be) fully explored in a film that’s basically an action spectacle and hinges on the valor and heroics of the characters. But you cannot fault the film for not trying, and thanks to its terrific actors and some good writing, particularly the dialogues, some scenes do manage to put forward these themes pretty strongly.  Right after he had send the team out on the mission, Jensen is seen  discussing with an associate the irony of how war manages to bring out the best in human beings – courage- ingenuity, self sacrifice,  while peace sometimes bring out their worst. The first of the moral confusion that the team faces is when Franklin gets injured. Andrea, the hard bitten, war hero says ‘ one bullet now , better for him better for us, if you take that man along you endanger us all‘. But the more pragmatic Mallory persists in taking him along. The next crisis comes, when it is revealed to the team by Mallory that he has ‘used’ the injured Maj. Franklin as sort of a Trojan Horse to accomplish their mission. Miller, who is the ‘intellectual’ of the group and close friend of Franklin, questions the moral validity of dragging a dying man so that Mallory can ruthlessly use him for the benefit of the mission. This results in a heated debate between Malory – who just wants the mission completed successfully at any cost – and Miller- who doesn’t care about the war, nor his job in the war as he states that its not going to change a thing, but cares only about his friend Franklin. This conversation more than proves that Miller is unfit to be a soldier, but that’s how thinks work out in a war: the soldiers who go out to battle for their country aren’t necessarily patriotic, they do stuff because they’re ordered to do them, and the country also has no choice, but to depend on such men.  This issue comes to a boil when a team member is outed as the spy in their midst. This is the best dramatic moment in the film, where the writing and David Niven’s acting is simply superb. First, Miller gets into Hercule Poirot mode as he carefully deducts that so and so is the traitor in their midst who has been sending secret signals to the enemy, and has also irrevocable damaged his equipment and ammunition. The traitor tries to protest, but to no avail, as the ‘evidence’ against them is very strong. Finally, the traitor accepts the treachery and breaks down and give reasons for it. We believe that the scene is over here, but then, Miller is not finished, and he wants payback for what happened with Franklin. Miller insist that the traitor has to be killed if the mission has to succeed, as Mallory is putting the success of the mission above everything. He wants Mallory to have a taste of the medicine that Mallory has been administering everyone else. Obviously, Malory knows he cannot argue this point and decides to execute the traitor, but just before Mallory shoots, Maria shoots and kills the traitor. Now it is Mallory’s turn to  corner Miller; He tells Miller that we, meaning  the rest of the team, have done our jobs perfectly up until now, but from now on , you’re the main player, Its your show now, so now start proving yourself and think of some way to blow up those guns. As in the case of Mallory -Andrea feud, which provided the suspense in the first half of the movie, its the stand off between Mallory and Miller that provides the tension in the second half. Finally, Miller comes through, and finds a way to blow up the guns with his limited resources. The climactic break-in to the cave and sabotaging of the guns are suspenseful and staged expertly; it’s almost as good as the scenes in Jules Dassin’s Rififi. The final image of the film is Mallory and Miller – The Man of Action and the man of science- having a quite, friendly smoke looking at the  burning fires of the destroyed guns.

Of the cast, David Niven as Miller, the easy going, funny English man, gets the best lines and most entertaining moments in the film. Both Stanley Baker and Anthony Quinn make up the duo of rugged, stoic, macho heroes . Of course Peck , with his imposing personality, voice and controlled acting style is born to play the leader of such a commando crack team and he carries the film on his shoulders effortlessly. Director J. Lee Thompson, though the second choice, does a terrific job of directing this huge film, balancing the drama and the action set pieces expertly, not to mention handling the big stars. He impressed Peck so much that Peck would hire him to direct the original Cape Fear(1962). Of course, this is Carl Foreman’s project all the way. He is the creative producer and writer and he manages to tell an adventure story that has strong characters and dramatic depth. This film was made at the end of the traditional Hollywood studio system and the cycle of big budget widescreen epics that was made to compete with television. But the film ended up  starting a completely new trend of WWII adventure movies.  There are parts of the film which feels dated today – the matte shots, the special effects, some of the action scenes, but it still works for most of its 2&1\2 Hr., running time. I have seen this film countless times and it never fails to entertain me. This evergreen entertainer stands as a testament for the solid, old-fashioned craftsmanship, which was the hallmark of those Hollywood golden age studio era pictures.

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