"The Guns of Navarone"

On-the-set friction caused by a red undershirt? Competition between actors only enhanced this thrilling and cathartic adventure classic.



Michael Sragow
September 27, 2000 11:00PM (UTC)

"The Guns of Navarone"
Directed by J. Lee Thompson
Starring Gregory Peck, David Niven, Anthony Quinn, Stanley Baker, Anthony Quayle, James Darren, Irene Papas, Gia Scala
Columbia TriStar Home Video; widescreen (2.35:1 aspect ratio)
Extras: Director commentary, interviews with stars, four 1961 featurettes, trailers, biographies, production notes, message from producer-writer Carl Foreman

My first clout as a movie critic came when I persuaded my family to see "The Guns of Navarone" instead of going next door to the theater showing "Fanny." It was a daring move: Although the occasion was my 9th birthday, my folks could be picky. Luckily, everyone loved the picture with the unanimity they usually reserved for musicals like "Bye Bye Birdie." Maybe that's what sealed "The Guns of Navarone" in my mind as both an intense and an innocent experience -- and made me fear tarnishing the memory if I ever revisited it as an adult.

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So it's a relief to report that on DVD, this 1961 smash turns out to be the best adventure movie I've seen this year, with the possible exception of "U-571" (which is way indebted to the earlier film). It reminded me that once upon a time, it was not unusual for escapist movies set in World War II to bring some emotional heft to derring-do. They instilled baby boomers with the idea that life was more than a struggle to "make it" and to overcome one's guilt about "it" afterward.

Scaled from the opening narration not as a mere tall tale but as a legend, "The Guns of Navarone" follows a commando squad determined to destroy two giant German guns on the island of Navarone that are keeping the British from rescuing hundreds of soldiers stranded on another Greek island. The way producer-writer Carl Foreman ("High Noon") fleshes out the characters from Alastair MacLean's 1957 page-turner, the movie is about weighing ends and means, testing personal and national loyalties, and measuring one's capacity for sacrifice. That's why, when director J. Lee Thompson detonates the action set pieces, they're not just thrilling -- they're cathartic.

Thompson had fashioned some incisive British films (including "Woman in a Dressing Gown") when he assumed command of "Navarone" from the fired Alexander Mackendrick. But he'd never before handled international figures like Gregory Peck and Anthony Quinn. On the commentary track, he emphasizes the relief he felt when he won the cast's allegiance; indeed, Peck would later bring him Stateside to film the bloodcurdling classic "Cape Fear." The star glow emanating from Peck and Quinn and David Niven derives partly from Thompson's eagerness to guide them through the cunning curlicues of Foreman's script.

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As the unit's bold yet fearful leader, Peck must manage a fiery Greek (Quinn), who has sworn to kill him when the war is over, and a deceptively airy Brit (Niven), who questions his ruthless pragmatism. Combine them with Stanley Baker as a battle-weary veteran of the Spanish Civil War, nicknamed the "Butcher of Barcelona"; Irene Papas as a charismatic Greek resistance leader; and Gia Scala as her enigmatic protigi, and you get an emotional volatility to match the film's kinetic explosiveness.

The DVD's "Memories of Navarone" documentary suggests that some of the friction was real: Peck and Niven suspected their costar Quinn of being a congenital scene-stealer, particularly when he turned a long-sleeved red undershirt into an eye-catching component of his costume. Watching the disc, it's a pleasure to recall a time when film actors competed through craft, then came together for the betterment of the movie.The DVD also brings back Hollywood ballyhoo in all its tinseled glory. It includes four featurettes, such as "Honeymoon on Rhodes," portraying the on-location tourism of newlywed teen idol James Darren (who plays the hothead in Peck's crew), and "Two Girls on the Town," about Scala's and Papas' shopping trips.

The main attraction, though, is the wide-screen transfer, which renders the climactic sequence -- set in the gun-cave and the sea beyond -- with its panoramic pow intact. "The Guns of Navarone" on DVD puts the boom back into the whole idea of baby-boomer classics.

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Michael Sragow

Michael Sragow's column about moviemakers appears every Thursday in Salon. For more columns by Sragow, visit his archive.

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