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The Guns of Navarone (1961)

by on 2010/11/23

Let me cut to the chase with the kind of ruthless brevity I wish had been the stock in trade of The Guns of Navarone.  I do not understand its seven Academy Award nominations, especially for Best Picture.  Nor do I understand its win for Best Special Effects.  And I certainly don’t understand its Golden Globe win for Best Drama.

At several points in watching it, I thought of Fallout: New Vegas.  Like that game, the movie may keep you interested, but its glitches will have you cursing its name all the way through to the end.

Based on a story by Alistair MacLean, the movie takes place in a fictional version of 1943 Greece.  Two thousand British soldiers are trapped on the island of Kheros.  According to early intelligence, Germany and Turkey will attack in a week, likely killing the stranded troops.  The Allies are unable to rescue them because their only access is overseen by a peak called Navarone.  Therein the Germans have stationed two accurate, powerful cannons.

I’ve described the background, yet the plot is simpler still:  a group of six men are assembled and assigned to reach and destroy a hideout.  Yes it’s another “men on a mission” World War Two road show, but one so protracted and ornamented, you’ll be as doubtful of its chances as the characters themselves.

Anthony Quayle plays Major Roy Franklin, the expedition’s mastermind.  He’s hired a team of specialists to carry out the mission:  Captain Keith Mallory (Gregory Peck), Colonel Andrea Stavros (Anthony Quinn), “Professor” Miller (David Niven), Private Brown (Stanley Baker), and Spyros Pappadimos (James Darren).  According to one superior, they are “pirates and cutthroats, every one of them.”

One problem is the team is nowhere near as harsh as we’re intended to believe.  The greatest threat they pose is to each other.  When they’re not bickering, they’re justifying, rationalizing, pontificating, or suffering a crisis of conscience.  Even their arguments are those of amateurs developing half-baked philosophies aloud.  Realistic?  Perhaps, but a cardinal sin in the realm of adventure.

That said, there are some interesting conflicts here, particularly in the way their mission gradually narrows its focus.  Once they’ve started their journey in earnest, they fight the weather, then the Germans, and then themselves.  The pattern of challenge moves inward from the external, as if to cover that old triumvirate of story types:  man versus environment, man versus man, and man versus self.

The irony of all this conflict is that the movie drags the most in its ostensible “action” scenes:  the leaden pacing in a storm at sea, a mid-flight singalong, and a blubbering farce during questioning.  While some lapses in rhythm have their roots in the story, more judicious editing could have mitigated the lag.

Other editing faux-pas litter the production:  axes of motion are broken, logistics contradict themselves, and overly obvious cutaways precede vehicle explosions, manoeuvres, and cliff-drops.  Less spectacular jump cuts with no apparent function suggest the film may actually be missing extra frames.

These issues are more than the minor gripes of a freeze-framing continuity stickler.  Present in disciplines both conceptual and technical — story, acting, editing, audio, and effects — the deficiencies are overt and prevalent enough that it’s difficult to blame departments over direction.

Particularly egregious given its Oscar win, however, are the effects.  Whether rear screen projecting or compositing, why can’t either get done more convincingly?  Is it really so hard, at least, to keep the backgrounds softened somewhat?  In fact, as far as the visuals go, two wrongs almost make for one right.  The distractingly poor effects — in the boat, the cliff side, and trucks — are veiled to a degree by the grain of the stock, much to their advantage.  In a war picture, it would appear, grit is good.

For my part, the highest compliment I can offer is that it feels like a cross between For Your Eyes Only and The Princess Bride, though it never equals either.  I simply can’t account for the acclaim it found upon release, nor the reputation it enjoys today.  I can only guess it benefits from being among the earliest examples of its type.  The Guns of Navarone isn’t bad, but neither is it great.

* * *

Not rated

157 minutes

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