By Carter B.
There are a handful of preposterous
World War II
movies from the 1960s and the early 1970s that have become cult
classics: "The Dirty Dozen," "Kellyís Heroes," "Where Eagles Dare,"
"The Guns of Navarone," "Catch 22" and "Mash."
The latter two are generally taken more
important parodies and comedies that had widespread cultural influence
that reflected the alienation of the Drug Generation and growing unease
with the Vietnam War. These films were regarded as significant artistic
The others, however, were held, by and
critical contempt. These movies were pure escapist fun and absurd with
little pretense of reality, but they have held up remarkably well
because of the acting: Lee Marvin, John Casavettes, George Kennedy and
Jim Brown were delicious in "The Dirty Dozen," Richard Burton and Clint
Eastwood were mesmerizing in "Where Eagles Dare," and Donald
Sutherland, Don Rickles and Clint Eastwood were fabulous in "Kellyís
"The Guns of Navarone" had even greater
star power: Gregory
Peck, Anthony Quinn, Irene Pappas and David Niven, all at the peaks of
Acting, however, was not their only
merit. Each was
based on an interesting premise: "The Dirty Dozen" assumed that the
worst "criminals" in the Armed Forces might jump at the chance of
redemption by heroic acts that normal soldiers might not dare; the
premise of "Kellyís Heroes" is that greed is a greater incentive than
patriotism; "Where Eagles Dare" opted to apply deadly seriousness to a
Keystone Cops approach to war; and "The Guns of Navarone" took its
far-fetched lead from the premise that "anything is possible in a war."
Richard Burtonís fame as an actor did
not come from
his "war" movies, yet he was really at his best in these "throwaway"
roles because his persona of ferocity and intelligence was so
compelling that he was not only believable but fascinating even as he
and Eastwood manage to expend more bullets and explosives than they
could possibly have brought with them on their outrageous "adventure."
"Where Eagles Dare" is high up on the "more bang for the buck" list,
but also stars Mary Ure, who performed with Burton in the memorable
"Look Back in Anger" movie based on the play by her famous husband,
John Osborne. Ure would later marry Robert Shaw, the actor, who was
also a writer. Shaw, incidentally, was probably the only other actor
with as much personal "power" and "magnetism" as Burton.
It is exactly because of the stunning
individuality of actors such as Burton and Shaw that "The Guns of
Navarone" is so effective. Two of its stars, Peck and Niven, were
generally not recognized as "strong," heroic actors even though both
actually had beenpreviously cast well in such movies as "Pork Chop
and "The Immortal Battalion," respectively.
Peck never quite ascended
to the top of the pantheon of male leads in his era, always being
superceded by John Wayne, Cary Grant, Kirk Douglas and Burt Lancaster,
and even Gary Cooper and Henry Fonda. Peck was too often seen as a
stoic and blandly noble character, perhaps because that was the nature
of his first "hit," "Keys of the Kingdom," and perhaps his finest film,
"Gentlemanís Agreement." Peck essentially was a taller and tougher
Fonda, but lacked Fondaís comic ability so admirably evident in "The
In "The Guns of Navarone," however, Peck
shines as the reluctant but resigned leader of a desperate Allied
mission to blow up two gigantic guns on an island that command the only
port entry and are thwarting attempts to rescue several thousand
captured soldiers whose lives are in imminent jeopardy.
The movie takes quite a while to get
going and the
small band that Peck leads gets into a great deal of trouble en route
to the guns, which happen to be impervious to bombing because they are
installed in the middle of a giant cliff and only part of their
enormous barrels stick out.
The plot is complicated by the fact that
resistance hero, played by Anthony Quinn, blames Peck for the death of
his family but is enlisted by Peck into his small band. Quinn is also
at his sullen best in this movie, putting aside his vengeance against
Peck temporarily because of his even greater hatred of the Nazis and
his love of his homeland. His desperate determination to fight the
enemy is a fine foil to Peckís steadfast leadership on an "impossible"
mission. As was common in major, long war movies of the era, the film
has "love interest," two of them, in fact.
Quinn is visually and
verbally seduced by Irene Pappas, the dark-haired Greek actress who
never looked lovelier despite her uncomely costumes in this role. The
scenes between Quinn and Pappas are very brief but full of fire and
tenderness. Instant love is one of the wonders of life and is rarely
captured as effectively as in this movie.
The other "love interest" is
Gia Scala, who portrays another resistance fighter who joins Peckís
gang. Relatively unknown at the time, she was a great beauty whose
career strangely never took off. Peck succumbs briefly to her but soon
her troubled past becomes a problem that he must resolutely resolve.
Whereas most other war movies have their "love interests" in flashbacks
that often interrupt and delay the action, here they are incorporated
into the flow and serve to broaden our understanding of the leadís
The other male lead, David Niven, is not
"love interest," and a great deal of time is spent in his interaction
with Peck as the explosives expert and good friend of Anthony Quayle,
the original leader of the mission who gets seriously wounded about a
third of the way into the film forcing Peck to take command. Nivenís
quibbling and harping about morality provide several gaps in the
plentiful action in the movie and are a bit stilted, but then Niven is
perfectly cast as the ever-so-proper English gent. His feuding with
Peck culminates in a showdown in which Peck gets very believably angry.
It is a very good scene although the Hollywood lighting is a bit too
much, though not distracting. Peckís release of his fury is riveting
and very convincing. His role as a no-nonsense leader is really
interesting. He broods and is generally monosyllabic, much in the Gary
Cooper "yep" vein, yet he conveys little doubt that he has mulled and
agonized over his decisions.
His farewell to the wounded Quayle, who
must be abandoned at one point, is simple and poignant, rather than
touching and maudlin. It is all in the quick exchange of glances and
the facial expressions and done very well in the best tradition of
buddies who need no bother with much palaver.
(Later in his career, Peck would portray
Nazi doctor who has fled to South America after the war and has cloned
Hitler, a role in which he admirably displayed a loathsomeness that did
not find favor with the critics, but which did indicate that Peck
really was not a one-dimensional actor, and in fairness his earlier
role in "Roman Holiday" also showed a very warm, humorous side of him.
Tall and lean, Peck was naturally elegant, but not known for
gracefulness, or odd eccentricities. He was often wrongly put in the
category of actors who simply are playing themselves. While he was
handsome, he was not a matinee idol and part of his real charm is that
he was a convincing American "Everyman," with all the mythic attributes
of merit. William Holden, who starred not only in "The Bridges at
Toko-ri," but also "The Bridge Over The River Kwai," "Stalag 17," "The
Counterfeit Traitor," and "The Key," all very good war films, and "The
Devilís Brigade," a lesser work, was perhaps closest to Peck among the
male leads of the period. Holden personified the American "Everyman"
even better than Peck even though he had more charisma and charm. Peck
could come off occasionally as wooden, something that could never
really be said of Holden, yet the real popular attraction of both was
that they personified the stalwart disciplines of the quality of hard
work rather than high ambitions.)
It takes a very long time for the movie
to get the
gang "into position" for the attack on the guns, too long in fact.
Stanley Baker, an English actor who plays an expert killer with a
knife, gives a good performance of anxiety that adds to the realism of
the film, which is shot on some splendid Mediterranean locations.
James Robertson Justice
Robertson Justice plays the officer who sends out the mission and
surprisingly with his normal superb gruffness and impressive demeanor.
He has all the gravitas of a perfect M in the James Bond series even
though he was a star in many delightful British film comedies.
There are plenty of Germans but none with big roles. The only jarring
instance of miscasting is James Darren, who plays a slightly crazed
killer-soldier who happens to be the nephew of the woman played by
Irene Pappas. The scene where he takes on an equally German crazed
killer-soldier in an old-fashioned "duel" is preposterous and should
have been cut.
The attack on the guns is full of action
gripping because the guns are so impressive and the set so intricate.
The pyrotechnics at the end were fairly impressive for the era in terms
of special effects and lead to a truly thrilling moment when a flotilla
of British warships let loose with siren whoops, a scene that is
beautifully photographed and very, very stirring sonically.
This 1961 film, which is 1568 minutes
directed by J. Lee Thompson and was based on a novel by Alistair
MacLean. While certainly not an "intellectual" war movie, it is
gripping because of the intensity of the acting even if the heroics are
There were certainly better war films
the sixties. "The Heroes of Telemark," "The Great Escape," "Hell is For
Heroes," "Attack," "The Bridges at Toko-Ri," "The Hill," "The Night
of the Generals," "Tunes of Glory," and "The Thin Red Line," come to
quickly, but they were generally straight-forward, serious war dramas
whereas "The Guns of Navarone" is more of an exaggerated war epic that
almost deals more with mythic issues than true objectives, an adventure
story with interesting characters. The film adaptation of Norman
Mailerís novel, "The Naked and the Dead," another film of the 1960s,
was similar but less spectacular, though haunting. "Haunting" is
perhaps a key word in measuring the worth of many serious war films and
such films as "Paths of Glory," "Platoon," and "All Quiet on the
Western Front," all of different periods than the 1960s, set the
"The Guns of Navarone" only meets the
standard in the clarion wailing of the British warships at the end
rather than the emotional and dramatic intensity of the plot and
characters, but it is rousing and a noble tonic in comparison with the
rah-rah, shoot-Ďem-ups that would follow a few years later with the
antics of "Rambo" and others.
For further information, check out the
International Movie Data Base entry on the film at