THE GUNS OF NAVARONE (1961)

Anthony Quinn and Gregory Peck in a still from The Guns Of Navarone
  • Release Date: 28/04/1961
  • Cast: Gregory Peck, David Niven, Anthony Quinn, Anthony Quayle, Stanley Baker, James Darren
  • Director: J. Lee Thompson
  • Based on the novel “The Guns Of Navarone” by Alistair Maclean

One of the greatest war-adventures ever made

During World War II, on the desolate island of Keros, 2000 tired and desperate allied soldiers are stranded. They are about to be annihilated by the German war machine who are planning to make a display of their strength in the Aegean. The men can only be saved by an armada of six allied destroyers that are on the way to Keros. However, the destroyers will not reach the island unless two great guns that are located on the nearby island of Navarone are silenced. These guns watch over the stretch of the sea that happens to be the only way to Keros and have been destroying any allied ships that have ventured into these waters. The cliff on which the two guns are lodged cannot be accessed from the sky and hence there remains no other way but to infiltrate the complex and destroy the two guns from the inside.

Major Roy Franklin (Anthony Quayle) undertakes the arduous mission to destroy the guns on which the lives of 2000 men hang but he has a bigger problem at hand. He needs someone who can climb a 400 feet high inaccessible cliff at night and put Roy and his team of saboteurs on the island of Navarone. He employs the services of Captain Keith Mallory (Gregory Peck) who was a renowned mountaineer before the war. A team is assembled under the leadership of Roy that comprises of the mechanical genius Corporal Brown (Stanley Baker) who is also handy with a knife that earned him the nickname, “Butcher of Barcelona”, Spyros Pappadimos (James Darren), the explosives expert Corporal John Miller (David Niven) and Mallory’s longtime compatriot Andrea Stavros (Anthony Quinn). As they start their journey for Keros, things quickly turn tragic when Roy is seriously wounded while climbing the cliff and Mallory has to take over the leadership of the entire mission. Bad luck seems to be always a step ahead of the saboteurs as they keep landing into one tough situation after another. Soon a time comes when the mission looks impossible.

Stanley Baker, James Darren and David Niven in a still from The Guns Of Navarone

The Guns of Navarone is widely considered to be the best war-adventure ever made and while I don’t agree with that view I still recognize it to be one of the finest pieces of high adventure ever made. The reasons for that are many. The team, once en route, starts falling into one intense situation after another and with every subsequent sequence, the stakes are raised. The first time they encounter trouble is in the form of an eavesdropping laundry boy in the British barracks from where they are to take a boat to the Island. He is caught and dealt with unceremoniously. The very next scene has the team facing off against a German patrol boat that speaks to Mallory and his team in English as if they knew who they were. Once out of this predicament after a deadly gun battle, the team comes face to face with the wrath of nature that however is kind enough and lets them reach the shore before wrecking their boat completely. The subsequent climb up the cliff proves to be deadly for Roy who breaks his leg and is incapacitated for the rest of the mission.

After another thrilling gun battle with the Germans, the team makes contact with the resistance in the town of Mandrakos on Navarone and their troubles just increase two folds from this point onwards. Someone or something in the team keeps leading the Germans to them and they are nearly captured during their brief stay in Mandrakos. After the fateful injury to Roy, dissatisfaction among the team members also starts plaguing the efficiency of the team. Miller, an expert of explosive and the most talkative member of the team openly questions the leadership of Mallory and his treatment of the injured Roy. Another team member, Corporal Brown finds himself incapable of killing his enemies as freely as Mallory would like him to. This makes him less of an asset and more of a liability to the team. Andrea Stavros (Anthony Quinn) has an old score to settle with Keith Mallory and is nothing less than a ticking time bomb that might go off in Mallory’s face at any moment. All this and a lot more adds to the already mounting tension of the film that, by the time it reaches its climax is too much to bear.

Gregory Peck, David Niven, and Anthony Quayle in a still from The Guns Of Navarone

What made this film special was the interpersonal drama between the characters and how well it is realized by the ensemble cast. 15-20 minutes into the film we are made aware of the dynamics of the various characters and what they think of each other. As the story progresses, these traits of the characters are used as an element to trigger emotionally charged moments that is as much a product of their interpersonal dynamics as it is of the constant threat of the Germans, the things that they are being forced to do to survive and the thought of the nearly impossible mission looming large over their heads. Thus the outbreaks, the loss of temper on one another, and the questioning of each other’s actions and the morality behind the not so noble things that they are forced to do assumes greater importance and successfully grasps our attention.

Gregory Peck, Anthony Quinn, and David Niven share bulk of the heavy lifting in terms of the acting, and the three prove equal to the task of intriguing us with their performances. Until the final scene of the film, I was convinced that Quinn would slit Peck’s throat at any given time. Niven hated the man for how he used a gravely injured Roy to get the Germans to look the other way as he made a dash to enter the castle that housed the guns. I felt that at any moment he might just take himself out of the mission out of pure hatred and anger for Peck. Towards the end, Niven shockingly forces Peck to do something that makes for one of the most shocking and emotionally draining sequences of the whole film. All these aspects of the film would not have worked so well had the performances not been so good. A film like this that depends on its character to extract tension and drama and doesn’t bank wholly on the action needs powerful and charming performances and the ensemble cast of the film gives it just that.

Gia Scala in a still from The Guns Of Navarone

The film has fewer action sequences as compared to a film like Where Eagles Dare and it is understandable as the mission relies on the stealth capabilities of the saboteurs and they had to sneak into the castle instead of going all guns blazing. However, I was not convinced with some of the action sequences that felt phony especially the one involving one of the key members of the team who dies facing off against a German soldier face to face with other soldiers dying in the background. Even the climbing sequence that was well done for its era hasn’t aged too well. One could easily point out the crevices in the visual effects and that is never a good thing for the realism, believability, and overall effectivity of a film.

The final pay off of the film and how it is achieved is awe-inspiring though. It is because of this astounding pay-off that many flaws of the film were sidelined and people universally embraced it with open arms. There are moments in the climax when the audience is made to feel that all is lost but all that changes within a fraction of a second when an unlikely plan that appeared to be doomed works like clockwork. The sheer pleasure of witnessing the plan working is what made the viewers love this film so much. The fact that audiences witnessed the men go through literal and emotional hell leading up to that one final moment only increases the effectivity of the climax and made everyone love the release that J. Lee Thompson provided them.

The Guns of Navarone is 2 hours and 35 minutes long but feels like 2 hours. That is because of the constant forward surge that the story has and the terrific performances that grasp our attention and keeps us transfixed. I also loved how organically the film shifted from one sequence to another giving the audiences the chance to fully absorb the sequences and also the time in between to prepare themselves for what was to follow next. This aspect of the film added to its charm and made it even more enjoyable. For all those who enjoy classic war-adventures, The Guns of Navarone is a must-watch. I believe most of my readers might already have seen this film and hence I am writing this article for my younger readers and movie buffs who are still green behind the ears and haven’t chanced upon this classic.

Rating: 3.5/5 (3.5 Out of 5 Stars)

Here is the link to the film:

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