To count down to Memorial Day, we’ll be presenting a daily war movie to get you in the fighting spirit. Today, Boots on the Ground presents:
The Guns of Navarone (1961)
In 1943, 2,000 soldiers were stranded on an otherwise unimportant island in the Aegean Sea called Keros. The Nazis planned an assault on the troops there in an effort to draw Turkey into the war on their side, and rescuing the men was made impossible by two giant, radar-guided guns set into the mountainside on the nearby island of Navarone. Without any other choice, Allied command chose to put together a team of men to join up with Greek freedom fighters and blow up the guns by going on a suicide mission.
If it sounds like fiction, it’s because it is. The movie is based off a thriller novel by Alistair MacLean and not on actual events during WWII, but it’s nonetheless a completely engrossing film that will either leave you on the edge of your seat or all the way on the floor.
It’s a high concept plot – men on a mission to blow up a pair of guns that shoot man-sized ammunition or 2,000 lives will be lost. Fortunately, those men are rounded out continually during the movie to become more than the stock band of rough and ready heroes. That’s thanks in part to the writing of Carl Foreman, but also because of the actors who brought the men to life.
Gregory Peck plays Capt. Keith Mallory, a man pulled back into the war because of his mountain climbing expertise and the dire straights of the situation. He’s the first major character we’re introduced to, and his presence fills up the screen as he steps out of a jeep as if he owns the universe. However, throughout the story, we get to see a man who serves his country and the Allied cause bravely while wrestling with the difficulty of not becoming less humane than the enemy. It’s in his character that we see the central theme of responsibility, of justice in an unjust war, emerge. If a job has to be done, who is more responsible: the man giving the orders or the man pulling the trigger?
Peck is surrounded in a veritable sea of acting talent. David Niven plays Miller, an explosives expert who delivers the bulk of the comedic relief. It’s always tricky to inject humor into a film where your heroes could be blown up or gunned down at any moment, but Niven is in top form here whether he’s lazily thrusting his arm in the air and saying, “Well, Heil everyone,” after donning a Nazi uniform as disguise or calmly explaining his concerns about the ship they’ve chosen to use by telling the Captain that he can’t swim.
However, Niven does far more than that. He transforms from a jester into the ethical center of the film, revealing that his humor is more defense mechanism than reflex and providing a fantastic foil for Peck’s Mallory at almost every plot twist and turn.
On the thuggish side, there’s the brilliant Anthony Quinn as Stavros, a Greek Colonel bent on revenge against the Germans; Anthony Quayle as Franklin, the man putting together the mission who becomes a liability when he breaks his leg; Stanley Baker as Brown, a knife fighter who’s losing his nerve; and James Darren as Spyros, a Greek private trained in the US who is described as a natural born killer.
The film achieves the often difficult task of showing the bravery of individuals, and the importance of their task while being egregiously anti-war. Throughout the film, several characters ask directly or indirectly whether their purpose is really a noble or necessary one. Even though they always decide to continue on, that the lives of 2,000 men are worth the personal risk, the great burden of war is made apparent with every frame.
It also achieves a strange balance in displaying the kind of cock-sure attitude that people demanded from war movie heroes at the time (and which Gregory Peck was almost always hired to deliver) while also keeping the tension heightened. In some situations, it’s as if the men are manhandling Hitler’s Europe with a smirk on their face and witty phrase to utter while in others, their vulnerabilities are shown and they find themselves in grave danger. Of course, looming over them at all times is the question of whether they’ll be able to complete the job or face the dire consequences of failure.
It’s those high stakes, the failure-is-not-an-option reality, and the incredible danger that drives the film, but Foreman and director J. Lee Thompson were careful to craft a movie that is as thoughtful as it is explosive. The men face the brutal weather of the Aegean, a 400 foot climb up sheer rock, and the impossible task of infiltrating a German base with the intent of taking out two guns each the size of a school bus. Add to that the constant fear of capture, the revelation of a traitor in their midst, and the fact that Mallory’s partner Stavros has already promised to kill him when the war is over, and the whole damned thing will make you sweat ten pounds off.
The Guns of Navarone may not be based on a true story, but like any great war movie, it tells of heroics in the face of the un-doable. As a war film, as a thriller, as a drama, as a Man on a Mission movie – it blows just about all other movies right out of the water.
Strap ’em on, and celebrate more war movies with Boots on the Ground.