Format: DVD from Geneseo Public Library through interlibrary loan on laptop.
I’ve said before that I grew up on war movies. That’s true, but somehow I missed seeing The Guns of Navarone until tonight. I’m not sure how that happened, but it happens to be the case. I’m not sure how I haven’t seen this yet because it’s as pure a war movie as I’ve ever encountered and almost just as purely an action movie. Once it gets going, it doesn’t stop, but it’s not the constant combat of Black Hawk Down. In terms of classic war movies, though, it seems almost like the template.
Of course, it’s also just over 2 ½ hours long, which means there’s a hell of a lot to cover. I’m not going to go blow-by-blow, because this would end up being three times the length of my normal review. A little background would help, though. A group of British soldiers are trapped on an island in the Aegean Sea while Germany moves to bring Turkey into the war on the Axis side. Rescue of the men is impossible because a pair of radar-controlled guns present on the nearby island of Navarone. All attempts to knock out the guns have failed because they are located in a cave and protected on all sides. The Allies come up with a desperate plan.
That plan involves Captain Keith Mallory (Gregory Peck) who, before the war, was the world’s most renowned mountain climber. The report is that the eponymous guns are protected on all sides and constantly guarded except for along the sheer southern face of the mountain, that face essentially being a massive cliff. Mallory’s job is to get the team up the cliff. The team includes Major Roy Franklin (Anthony Quayle), who will be marginally in charge; Colonel Andrea Stavrou (Anthony Quinn), who holds Mallory responsible for the death of his wife and children; “Butcher” Brown (Stanley Baker), an engineer and knife fighter, Corporal Miller (David Niven), Franklin’s friend and an explosives expert; and Spyros Pappadimos (James Darren), a native of Navarone.
What follows is pretty much everything you want in a war movie. The team takes a beaten up Greek fishing vessel to sail to the island, encounters and slaughters the crew of a German ship, encounters a storm that wrecks them, and then climbs the cliff. During the ascent, Franklin falls and breaks one of his legs, becoming an immediate liability. The team also encounters some local resistance fighters, specifically Maria (Irene Papas), who is also Spyros’s sister; and Anna (Gia Scala), who escaped from Nazi torture and can now no longer speak.
The now-expanded team encounters the Germans at pretty much every turn, and in fact are all captured at one point but escape thanks to some theatrics from Colonel Stavrou. Still, the Nazis plague them constantly, and when the explosives to be used on the guns turn out to have been tampered with and ruined, it becomes evident that there is a spy in the group working for the other side. Don’t worry—I won’t spoil it.
Eventually, of course, we get to the guns themselves and the sabotage that must happen for us to get the ending we need. And it’s worth saying this as well—when the final battle starts happening, Anthony Quinn is a complete badass.
A part of the attraction here is naturally the cast, which is top of the line. I like Gregory Peck, and he’s great here. The same is true of David Niven and Anthony Quinn. But the real star here isn’t the cast, but the action itself. This is a boy’s-own adventure style war movie, filled with the sort of action that undoubtedly inspired a film like Raiders of the Lost Ark on some level. It keeps a solid pace, never becoming overwhelming, but never slowing down too much until the end. It’s a fun and exciting ride.
It could be argued that The Guns of Navarone glorifies war to a certain extent, or at least plays up the action and adventure part without demonstrating a huge amount of the downside. But really, that’s kind of the whole point. For anyone with a love of military action, this has it in spades. Those who don’t appreciate this sort of film won’t find much to love here, though, because that’s really all there is.
For me, it was like encountering my childhood again, and for that I loved it. The rear projection is pretty obvious, which is a detraction from a modern perspective, but the camerawork is fantastic, and it all moves so fast and so entertainingly that obvious rear projection is a small hitch in an otherwise solid action film. And all of that is easily forgotten in the fireworks of the end, even if it’s an obvious model. Who cares? This is entertaining as hell.
Why to watch The Guns of Navarone: A war movie made of pure action.
Why not to watch: Well, if you don’t like war movies...