The Guns of Navarone (1961)

Dir. J. Lee Thompson. Starring Gregory Peck, David Niven, Anthony Quinn

At long last, it’s nearly the moment to strike. A small but impressive team of Allied commandos have squeezed, even by the standards of World War II, a year’s work into less than a week. Taking a dilapidated fishing boat through the Aegean, they are boarded by Nazis and nearly drown when a storm bludgeons the boat. They climb a sheer cliff through some miracle, fight off more Nazis, are captured, kill those Nazis, and manage to make it to the fortress with, all things considered, minimal casualties. Along the way, the Allies have picked up a pair of Greek partisans and have lost their commanding officer. Corporal Miller (Niven, three years after he played a mouthy World War II vet in Separate Tables), a humanist who subscribes to the kind of beliefs that only play in peacetime, finally loses his cool when his equipment is sabotaged. “Ever since we’ve come here, we’ve been jumping out of one frying pan into another, haven’t we!” he shouts. For Miller and his compatriots, that’s bad news. For those of us watching The Guns of Navarone, it’s what makes the movie electrifying over two and a half hours.

Miller spouts off rather a great deal in this little segment of the movie, which is just as well; they had David Niven hanging around and hadn’t used him all that much, comparatively speaking, before this scene. He exists to pick up a thread laid down early in the movie by Jensen (James Robertson Justice), who laments to an aide, Cohn (Bryan Forbes), that for all of the effort that goes into problem-solving in wartime, that attitude never carries over to peace. Characters come in twos, more or less, in this film; Mallory (Peck) with Stavrou (Quinn), Spyro (James Darren) with Maria (Irene Papas), and Miller with Franklin (Anthony Quayle). That last is probably the only one of the bunch which is not fraught with some terrible difficult from the word go. Miller and Franklin have simply known each other for some time, and Miller in particular seems bound to look out for his superior officer. When Franklin breaks his leg trying to get up the south cliff of the island, it begins to look like the strike team may be forced to shoot him for its own sake. (Franklin, who crawls off with his pistol while he thinks no one’s looking, certainly seems to think so.) When Mallory indicates that he wants to speak to Franklin alone, the camera almost immediately cuts back to Miller at the far left, who puts his hand on his sidearm and who clearly means to use it on a fellow Allied soldier should he use his own on Franklin. It turns out that Mallory has used that alone time to tell Franklin that the mission has changed: they are to be a distraction, not the starring act, and when that comes to light after Franklin has been captured, Miller is once more wroth with Mallory. “I just hope before this job’s over that I get a chance to use you the way you’ve used him,” he spits.

Miller would not fit in a movie like, say, The Thin Red Line, in which Jared Leto points two men to reconnoiter the ground knowing that they’ll be shot down within seconds. Incredibly, he still believes in “civilization” and “fair play,” that men should not be disposed of lightly. This movie is set in 1943, the same year that The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp appeared in theaters, and he would have warmed to Roger Livesey’s speech about winning a dirty war without ever stooping to the level of the Germans. Miller is not an officer on purpose; he does not have the stomach to make life-or-death decisions for others, and the movie is unsentimental about the truth of Miller’s unsuitability for greater responsibility. From the very beginning, using a Richard Harris cameo to effect, it’s clear that that movie wants to be hard-boiled. Harris plays a competent and frustrated squadron leader, Barnsby, whose latest attempt to attack the guns of Navarone from the air lost him eighteen good men without any results. As a good officer, he recognizes that they had to try; as a good officer, he resents the loss of those people. To reference yet another war movie, Barnsby understands what Lee understands in Gettysburg: “To be a good commander, you must be willing to order the death of the thing you love.” Miller can only be a good soldier; he can only love the other men in the army, like Franklin, and that will forever limit his military prospects.

Franklin is a perfectly competent officer, although clearly Quayle is eclipsed by the steadfast rightness of Gregory Peck and the mostly silent vehemence of Anthony Quinn. (The year after The Guns of Navarone was released, Quayle played a similar if much less gangrenous role in support of Peter O’Toole in Lawrence of Arabia, who manages to be the best of Peck and Quinn in this picture.) Stavrou has the attractive quality of having lost everything, and more interestingly blames Mallory for that loss. Because of a gentlemanly gesture made by Mallory earlier in the war, Nazis were given safe passage through Stavrou’s country and summarily killed his family. The movie doesn’t use this to effect as much as it could have, and I like to think that if the movie had been released fifty years later it would have had the sand to imply that Stavrou will, as he swore offscreen, kill Mallory. What it does well is twofold. First, it allows Mallory, who must know that Stavrou is a more dangerous man than himself, to make audacious command decisions knowing that he doesn’t have much else to live for. Second, it allows each of the name-brand actors in the picture to act as foils for one another. On one hand: Miller, the sneaky pacifist. On the other: Stavrou, the vengeful pragmatist. (Not only does he kill more Germans than anyone else, but he also has a way of getting out of sticky situations through sheer nerve and opportunism.)

In the middle—not yet the symbol of virtue from To Kill a Mockingbird, but who are we kidding, it’s Gregory Peck—is Mallory, conflicted Renaissance man. His personal inclination is to live like Miller; his command style is much more like Stavrou. When the two combine, as when the team discovers which of their members is a traitor, Mallory is bailed out before his sense of duty can conflict with his sense of decency. The Guns of Navarone, moving neatly between action setpieces to these themes, manages to touch on them intelligently without ever becoming preachy. (For an example of how this can go wrong in a hurry, see Saving Private Ryan.) It may seem like a copout that Maria guns down her friend and onetime compeer, Anna (Gia Scala), but even that moment feels well-earned because of the formerly mute woman’s tearful plea. “I cannot stand pain,” she weeps, and even though she has very nearly gotten our heroes and many of the people of Mandrakos killed over the past forty-five minutes to an hour, it’s hard not to feel for her a little. She wanted to fight for her people and her homeland; she was captured, threatened with torture and slavery, and then was returned to those people and that homeland in order to betray it. She is repulsive, but the movie holds back from blaming her; what Maria does is as much mercy as it is justice. In either event, leaving her corpse on the stone floor gives The Guns of Navarone one of its strongest images.

At its core, The Guns of Navarone is more about blowing up the guns than it is about what it means to be in a situation to blow up the guns. Much of the movie is genuinely surprising, even harrowing—the scene where Franklin tries to pilot a fishing vessel which should already have wound up at the bottom of the ocean during a howling squall is especially nervy, although there are several more that must be just as anxious—and the end of the movie is made to accentuate those fears. Knowing that the Germans might find his Plan A explosives, Miller jury rigs a quick and dirty explosive system using the facility’s lift as a current to detonate some other charges. Like the accidentally-on-purpose way that Mallory makes Franklin’s inevitable capture into an advantage, there’s something ingenious about having the first and most direct solution to the problem of the guns of Navarone relieve Nazi fears of finding more bombs. The issue with Plan B is that it is hardly foolproof. It requires people to take the lift down far enough to actually trigger Miller’s system, and as we discover, that is no guarantee; it’s a true nail-chewing experience waiting for that little elevator to come down far enough to save the day.

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