This week’s pick is the classic World War II commando caper The Guns of Navarone (1961) directed by J. Lee Thompson, and written by acclaimed author Alistair MacLean, (Where Eagles Dare). The film stars Gregory Peck (Capt. Keith Mallory), David Niven (Cpl. John Anthony Miller), Anthony Quinn (Col. Andrea Stavrou), Stanley Baker (Pvt. “Butcher” Brown), Anthony Quayle (Maj. Roy Franklin), James Darren (Pvt. Spiro Pappadimos), and Irene Pappas (Maria Pappadimos).
The film is set during the rather forgotten Dodecanese Campaign from September 8th to November 22nd 1943. As the Germans had smashed southerly through the Balkans into Greece beginning in late 1940, their Italian allies held several of the Greek islands in the south-eastern Aegean Sea and used them for staging areas to help the Germans conquer Greece next. Fascist leader Benito Mussolini referred to the island of Leros as “the Corregidor of the Mediterranean.”
It was also hoped that Germany could cajole neutral Turkey to enter the war as a member of the Axis. The Allies tried several attempts to capture the islands in order to counter the German push through the Balkans into Greece.
All attempts failed and the campaign to liberate the Dodecanese islands resulted in the last major victory for the Germans in the war following the surrender of their Italian allies when Italy was invaded in 1943.
MacLean’s story pits a small group of commando saboteurs who are to infiltrate the German held island of Navarone in the Aegean Sea which houses giant radar controlled guns which threaten two thousand British soldiers on the nearby island of Kheros.
The guns are fixed inside a mountain fortress which gives them a superb field of fire for miles around. Numerous air attacks have proved futile and the The Royal Navy wants the guns knocked out so the beleaguered men on Kheros have a chance to be rescued within six days.
Maj. Franklin (Quayle) is chosen to lead a small allied force in order to blow up the guns from within their emplacements. The mission has been dubbed top secret and the men are unsure of their chances for survival. Capt. Mallory (Peck) and Col. Stavrou (Quinn) have a rather unique relationship with one another. Col. Stavrou was a member of the defeated Greek army and has pledged his help to the Allies in order that Greece will one day be liberated.
Mallory confides in Franklin that Stavrou has sworn that when the war is over, he will kill Mallory for inadvertently killing Stavrou’s wife and children. After learning this fact, you also begin to wonder the success of the mission at hand.
The suspense of the film is well paced and full of action as the commandos assume the identities of Greek fishermen in order to navigate through enemy infested waters on their clandestine journey to Navarone. In one scene, they are discovered by a German patrol who wish to come aboard and inspect their boat. The commandos kill the Germans and destroy any evidence of the fight in order to continue on with their mission.
A fierce storm destroys their boat and they lose most of their food and medical supplies. Franklin’s leg gets injured and eventually he succumbs to gangrene. Double crosses, fear of the enemy closing further in on the commando team who are more unsure of the success of their mission ensues.
One of the most brilliant deceptions occurs when Mallory takes command of the mission after Franklin tries to commit suicide due to his condition. Miller (Niven) fears for the life of his friend and recommends that he be given to the Germans so he can be treated medically.
Mallory fears that Franklin may tell the Germans all the details of the mission which compromises the safety of them all. Mallory tells Franklin that the mission has been scrubbed due to the events at hand so if he’s drugged by the Germans, he’ll give them the wrong information to mislead them.
As the film builds towards its explosive climax, Mallory and Miller infiltrate the gun complex and plan to rig the giant shell hoists so that it will set off a chain reaction of explosions that will destroy the guns and save the British troops on Kheros. The suspense and action is fantastically executed as Miller and Mallory plant numerous fake explosives to throw off the Germans, and to misdirect them from the real ones which they hope will destroy the entire complex before the Royal Navy’s six destroyers show up.
The Germans fire the first salvo against the British ships, while Miller and Mallory jump into the water in order to be picked up by their comrades. The hoist elevators finally hit the hidden explosives and the complex is destroyed. The guns then fall into the water below while Mallory, Miller, Stavrou, and Maria watch from the speed boat. The British destroyers sound their horns in celebration over the destruction of the so called impregnable fortress.
Mallory had also saved Stavrou who was wounded in the shoulder and had almost drowned. Mallory is still aware that Stavrou is a man of his word and will kill him when the war is over. Mallory saves him anyway and Stavrou abandons his plans for vengeance. Maria and Stavrou decide to go back to Navarone and continue the fight against the Germans, while Mallory and Miller rejoin the British forces who have successfully liberated the men on Kheros.
The Guns of Navarone was a huge commercial and critical success in 1961 for Columbia Pictures and earned a net profit of $18,500,000. The film was nominated for several Academy Awards including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Film Editing, Best Original Score, and Best Sound.
It went on to win the Academy Award for Best Effects by Bill Warrington and Chris Greenham. The Guns of Navarone came out at a time when there was a huge re-surgence of World War II dramas that became box office gold for Hollywood. Other greats included The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), The Longest Day (1962), and The Great Escape (1963).
During the filming in the gun complex, actor David Niven became deathly ill as a result of shooting in a pool of water underneath the shell hoists. Other scenes were filmed around his hospitalization and it was feared that he would be unable to continue filming. After a few weeks in the hospital Niven was well enough to continue filming, while other scenes were performed by a double from a far distance on camera.
The Guns of Navarone is available on DVD through Columbia/Sony Home Video and can be rented through Netflix.