Force 10 from Navarone: Robert Shaw and Harrison Ford topline this rather silly but reasonably entertaining sequel to ‘The Guns of Navarone’

Force 10 from Navarone (1978), directed by Guy Hamilton and starring Robert Shaw, Harrison Ford, Franco Nero and Edward Fox in lead roles, is a sequel to the classic WWII adventure, ‘The Guns of Navarone.’ Though not as good as the original by a long shot, the film is reasonably entertaining with some interesting plot twists and solid action set pieces.

Remember Nicolai from the film “The Guns of Navarone (1961)”?. I don’t blame you if you don’t, because he appears in just one scene in that epic WWII adventure. Just to refresh your memory, He’s that scrawny dude (played by Tutte Lemkow) who was slapped around by Anthony Quinn’s Andrea Stavros for his unhealthy habit of listening through keyholes while the Allied commandos were planning their Navarone mission; yeah the same guy, the laundry boy, who was supposed to have been imprisoned by Major Baker after Major Franklin threatened to have him shot. Who would have thought that a whole sequel would be built up around this unremarkable guy? well, the sequel was indeed made, and it was “Force 10 from Navarone (1978)”- made 17 years after Gregory Peck & his commandos destroyed those massive guns of Navarone. And guess what, Nicolai turns out to be one of the most dangerous & cunning German spies in movie history: who not only betrayed the Navarone mission to the Germans, but has since successfully infiltrated the Yugoslav Partisans (working for the Allies) as “Captain Lescovar”; and is now doing double-duty for the Nazis. That’s not all, Nicolai has also morphed into the physical form of the dashing & handsome Italian Matinee idol, Franco Nero (yep! the original Django himself). In “The Guns of Navarone,” the mission was to destroy two huge guns on the island of Navarone. Here, the mission does not involve destroying guns, but in a metaphoric way, one could say that Nicolai\Lescovar is one of the ‘guns’ in this film that needs to be ‘killed’; the other one is an ‘arch bridge(spanning the river ravine)’ that needs to be destroyed. As it is with sequels, where the stakes are often doubled, here we have two missions to accomplish, and two teams of commandos going on these missions. Well, if you can buy all this (and there’s lot more absurdities, more on that later), then you can definitely buy a ticket\DVD\Blu-ray\whatever to this sequel, which as you can see is based on pretty silly ideas and stretches logic to its extreme, but is still rather preposterously interesting and very entertaining in a mindless, comic-book way.

The original “Guns of Navarone,” starring Gregory peck, David Niven and Anthony Quinn, was a seminal WWII ‘Men on a Mission’ adventure that basically set the template for the WWII action pictures that followed in the ’60s and ’70s. Nominated for multiple Oscars including Best picture, the film was a truly classy production, and one of the most literate WWII movies, with great writing, performances and direction. The film was adapted from an Alistair MacLean bestseller by writer\producer Carl Foreman and director J. Lee Thompson. The film turned out to be such a worldwide box office sensation that Foreman immediately started plans for a sequel. Foreman requested MacLean to write a hardcover sequel novel on which a follow-up film would be based, but the author was reluctant to write an entire novel and instead delivered a screen treatment. Foreman decided to title it “After Navarone” and planned to reunite all the principal stars of the original film, but for some reason the film failed to take off, and Maclean later turned the treatment into a novel titled “Force 10 from Navarone.” It was only in 1977 that Foreman managed to finally raise funds for the proposed project. But by then, the original stars Gregory Peck and David Niven were already on Social Security (though they did play WWII soldiers in “The Sea Wolves” that came out a couple of years after this film) , so new stars had to be drafted in for their roles. Hence, Robert Shaw stepped in for Peck and Edward Fox stepped in for Niven. Now Fox filling in for Niven is easy to understand, but the very British Shaw is too much of a stretch in the shoes of the all-American Peck; though I believe Peck’s Keith Mallory, who was a member of LRDG, was a Britisher (I’m not sure, but I have a feeling he was not an American character). But the more bizarre casting is that of Harrison Ford as Squadron Leader Barnsby, who was played by Richard Harris as an Australian in the original; though in this film. Barnsby is a Lieutenant Colonel. So Tutte Lemkow to Franco Nero is not the only bizarre cast morphing taking place here.

The casting process also reflects the nature of these big-budget international productions that were in vogue in the ’60s and ’70s: the general idea is always to get together a group of stars who have had some great commercial success recently; get Robert Shaw , who was in the blockbuster “Jaws”; get Ford from “Star Wars”; get Edward Fox from “Day of the Jackal”; get Carl Weathers from “Rocky,” even though the army at the time was segregated, and the script has to be wildly inventive to accommodate him in the film; Barbara Bach and Richard Kiel are drafted in from the latest James Bond film “The Spy who loved Me” (Shaw had also played the villain Red Grant in “From Russia with Love”). Above all, they also get a veteran ‘James Bond’ film director, Guy Hamilton, to direct this film; Hamilton has directed perhaps the greatest Bond film, “Goldfinger”; but he has also directed three of the worst Bond films ever, including “The Man with a Golden Gun.” Hamilton turns out to be the perfect guy to direct this wildly preposterous, big set-pieces-leaden WWII adventure that would give James Bond films a run for their money in the ‘suspension of disbelief’ department. Unlike the original Navarone film, this one only bears a passing resemblance to source novel, with the character of Andrea Stavros excised completely. The film begins with the reproduction of the climax scenes from the 1961 classic, and then it cuts to Mallory (Robert Shaw) and Miller (Edward Fox) relaxing in a convalescence hospital. But they are soon called back to duty and given a new mission: they are to proceed to the battle front in Yugoslavia, where the Partisan forces are suffering heavy losses due to a traitor in their midst; the they suspect the traitor to be Nicolai, and he has to be killed; and it seems that these two are the only ones who can identify him. Mallory & Miller are sent along with an American team, named “Force 10,” headed by Col. Barnsby (Harrison Ford), who have a mission of their own to accomplish. At the beginning of the journey, Sgt. Weaver (Carl Weathers), an escapee from Military Police, also joins them.

Once in Yugoslavia, Mallory’s team set about contacting the Partisans, but they are double crossed and lands up with Chetniks led by Captain Drazak (Richard Kiel), who are working for the Germans. Taken prisoners by the German commander in control of the area, Major Schroeder (Michael Byrne), Barnsby and Mallory are saved by Schroeder’s concubine Maritza (Barbara Bach), who turns out to be an undercover partisan and the daughter of the Partisan leader, Major Petrovich (Alan Badel). Mallory and Barnsby makes contact with Petrovich & Nicolai\Lescovar, who has gained Petrovich’s trust by already fingering and executing someone else as the spy, Nicolai, but Mallory remains unconvinced. An arch bridge spanning the river ravine is set to be used by a German force for an impending assault on the partisans, who have been unable to destroy the bridge. Barnsby reveals that the bridge is Force 10’s target. But to blow up the bridge they’ll need Miller’s help; but Miller is still imprisoned in the Chetnik camp. So, Barnsby and Miller, with he help of the Partisans, mounts a surprise attack on the Chetnik camp and rescues their comrades, Miller & Weaver as well as Maritza, who was badly beaten up by Drazak after he discovered her treachery. After inspecting the bridge, Miller comes to the conclusion that it cannot be destroyed with the explosives at their disposal, but then hits upon the idea of destroying the upstream dam; and to use the sudden onrush of millions of gallons of water to destroy the bridge. But before they could proceed with the destruction of the dam, there are still more plot twists to be covered, which includes the tragic death of Maritza and the unmasking of the traitor, Lescovar.

Taken on its own, “Force 10 from Navarone” has all of the right ingredients, including a great cast, beautiful locations, a rousing score from Ron Goodwin, great action set-pieces and Nazi villains, that’s required to make a very entertaining WWII Action picture. And despite its plot contrivances and far-fetched scenarios, the film does deliver for the most part; only thing is that it’s so derivative, and made with very limited ambitions that it remains pretty unmemorable; once the film ends, you likely won’t remember many details other than the destruction of an enormous dam and bridge in the final moments. And as I said it also requires a great amount of suspension of disbelief. I thought the film’s basic premise was pretty good, but as the film progresses, the events becomes more and more incredulous; the film depends too much on coincidences and double-identities to keep the plot moving, while one loses count the number of times the heroes are captured, then escapes, and then infiltrates some high-security military installation; and the manner in which each of this is accomplished (and that too repeatedly) is laughably simplistic. The suspense relating to the traitor, Nicolai\Lescovar, is not handled very well; at one point we do feel that it’s going somewhere special, because he’s revealed so early in the film, but it ends up being very predictable. However, the final mission to destroy the dam\bridge is extremely effective, with a proper build up, a very interesting twist, and then the unveiling of the big action sequence. The climactic effects are fairly good for its time- when you are watching a 45-year old film, you should be ready to allow some concessions in these matters; that was the pre-CGI era, and there was a limit to what they could accomplish, but still the destruction of the dam & bridge is handled pretty well.

It also helps that the film is set in Yugoslavia, which is quite an underexposed location for American\British films. The are some wonderful locations on display here, which is photographed beautifully by Cinematographer, Christopher Challis. The film would have definitely benefitted from better writing and editing. Most of the time, the screenplay keeps going in circles, instead of progressing forward; the heroes keep going back to an earlier scene\location of action, or they go on some tangential operation which does not have a direct bearing on the main storyline. Robin Chapman, who wrote the screenplay, was mainly a television writer; this was only his second, and last, movie script. That may explain why the film contains the broad acting, clumsy dialogue and a disjointed, episodic narrative that’s typical of TV dramas. The producers originally wanted the great Robert Bolt to do the script, but he turned it down; I really don’t think a classy writer like Bolt could have satisfied the requirements for an escapist B-Movie like this one. The film could have also used some smooth & fast-paced editing; the film progresses in fits & starts, and it loses momentum from time to time; it never achieves the smoothness & pace of (say) something like “Raiders of the Lost Ark” that was made in the same vein.

Of course, the real problems with the film emerges when we compare it to “The Guns of Navarone.” The character of Keith Mallory was a mountaineer-‘the human fly’ as he is called, and he was drafted into the first mission purely based on that talent; of course, after Maj. Franklin’s incapacitation, he is forced to lead the team. It’s impossible to believe that someone like that will be sent specifically to commit an assassination; looks like with the change in actors, even the basic traits of the characters were also forgotten. It also doesn’t help that Robert Shaw is very uncomfortable in this role; he’s a titan of screen & stage, who needs a strong character to play,; here he is saddled with a poorly-defined character(or no character), and he never gets into the jokey, comic-book tone of the proceedings. he was not at all happy with the script, and even while he was making it he had predicted that this might be his last film, as he just can’t take the banality of the roles offered to him. His prediction tragically turned true: just weeks before the release of this film, Shaw passed away due to a heart attack. As for the rest of the cast, Edward Fox lacks the smoothness and effortlessness of David Niven, but he at least gets the character’s comic tone right. Harrison Ford, fresh off playing Han Solo, lends his charisma to another cocky, overachiever role. Though Ford was disappointed that he didn’t have much of a role to play, Ford Vs Nazis is always fun, and this could be considered a dry run for his Indiana Jones. The actor who sticks out like a sore thumb is poor Carl Weathers; it’s a good idea to have a African-American actor in the cast, but giving him such a terrible role was unforgivable; Worse, the film makes him look utterly stupid from time to time: the knife-fight he has with Richard Kiel is colorless, while the scene where he demanded “answers” while the enemy was fast approaching was just plain dumb. The best performance in the film is given by Franco Nero, who’s very effective as the diabolical Lescovar. he brings a great amount of vitality and interest to the proceedings. Of course, The “Nicolai” McGuffin is itself redundant; even if one takes that away, this film works perfectly; this could very well have been (and perhaps very much is) a standalone film. But then if it was made and advertised like that, then it wouldn’t have gotten that additional publicity (and audiences) that a sequel to a much revered and popular film would have got. Which means that the tag of being a sequel to that classic film is nothing more than a cynical cash-grab. Now coming to the tone of the film, the first film was deadly serious (though brimming with some witty dialogues), filled with some rich character studies, character interactions\conflicts and literate exploration of the moral questions that get raised even when fighting for a good cause; this one is a very light, escapist entertainer that doesn’t take anything seriously; characters are cardboard cutouts and script has no layers whatsoever. It’s a B-Movie in its purest form, and I don’t mean it disparagingly- I love B-Movies; some of my all time favorite films are B-Movies. I’m just placing this film in context. So if we take it exactly as it is, there are lots to enjoy; this may be a cynical exercise to grab the lowest fruit hanging from the revered original, but it’s very honest about its cynicism; it’s an unpretentious, honestly-made war\action yarn, which is intended to deliver action & thrills, and give the audience a good time. It succeeds in that most of the time.


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