When you amass the titans of the men on a mission sub-genre of the movies made about the Second World War, more often than not you’ll see Alistair MacLean’s name pop up more than once. The scottish author was known for his high-energy, against the clock, adventure stories that saw a team of can-do good guys cut a swathe of righteous death through scores of German soldiers in order to penetrate a Nazi stronghold to accomplish some impossible task before the war is lost and all those British upper lips get not so stiff. Of all these stories where men are men, women are… kinda helpful and the opposing enemy are just soulless cardboard cutouts just waiting to catch a knife in the ribs while they screw up sentry duty, surely one of the most famous is J. Lee Thompson’s The Guns Of Navarone, a rollicking adventure tale that’s, to this day, is still classed as one of the best.
The German high command, eager to convince neutral Turkey to join the Axis powers, is planning to put on a display of military might by launching an assault on the 2,000 British soldiers marooned on the island Kheros as obviously sending them a nice card and box of chocolates just simply wont cut it. The rescue of these men is made quite impossible by the (wait for it) guns of Navarone, two massive lodged into the cliffs of the titular island that make safe passage for rescue ships as safe a taking a stroll through downtown LA with a t-shirt that has your credit card details printed on it.
Tasked with sabotaging the crap out of said guns, notoriously lucky Major Roy Franklin has constructed a team to approach the target from the only direction not constantly monitored – a 400 foot tall sheer cliff face that he’s counting on spy and part-time expert mountaineer Captain Keith Mallory to handle. Joining them is Mallory’s greek contact Andrea Stavrou, Franklin’s friend and explosives expert Miller, Navarone native Spyro and knife man “Butcher” Brown.
However, almost instantly the mission is thrown into chaos when a massive storm causes them to lose vital provisions when they run around, plus Franklin goes and breaks his bloody leg during the climb essentially shoving Mallory into taking command, hiwever, most serious is the fact that the germans are on to them virtually the very second they get themselves of that sodding cliff and so, with time very much against them, these men have to accomplish a blatantly impossible mission where luck, fate and the very elements seem to be against them… oh and did I mention that not only do they have to contend with all that, but Butcher’s lost his nerve, both Stavrou and Miller have issues with Mallory and there very well may be a traitor in their midst. More like World War phew, eh?
An indisputable classic carved from pure marble, this is arguably the Mount Everest of nail biting war thrillers (with the possible exception of The Great Escape) that gives us a lion’s share of the established tropes that regularly form the entire genre; we’ve got feisty female resistance fighters to add a bit of romance, we have the craggy, no-nonsense “native” (Anthony Quinn with a expression carved out of sheer rock), we have the German officers who sneer at the sadistic methods of their SS compatriots and best of all we have dissension within the ranks of our rag tag team – and this (apart from the giddy tone of high adventure) is what stands out most about The Guns Of Navarone. Even before the good Major fatefully snaps his leg like a breadstick on the side of the cliff due to him not being able to wipe mud out of his eyes during a rainstorm, there’s palpable tension within the ranks thanks to a long standing grudge betwixt Gregory Peck’s stoic Mallory and Stavrou in which the latter blames the former for the death of his family and has vowed to kill him when the war ends displaying both a burning vengence and impeccable manners. Worse yet, after the hapless Major drops out of any foreseeable fun runs, Miller (David Niven being facetious for Britain) has his nose put repeatedly out of joint thanks to some of Mallory’s more cold hearted decisions after he takes control of a mission that seems overwhelmingly jinxed and the spy finds himself struggling to keep the men on track.
Thankfully, Mallory’s played by that paragon of cinematic virtue of years gone by that history refers to as Gregory Peck and his trademark voice that radiates sheer weapons grade decency shows that heavy may be the head that reluctantly wears the crown, but that doesn’t mean he’s gonna put up with anyone’s shit either. Matching Niven’s war weary insolence and the fact Quinn is likely to kill him at any given second with will power cast out of pure vibranium, Peck brings the very fates themselves to heel for no other reason except the mission simply just has to get done at any cost.
The film is peppered with many silken vocal chords that would no doubt draw plaudits even if all they did was read out the receipt from my last weekly food shop but making music alongside Peck’s booming tone and Niven’s clipped tones are small roles for impeccable voice of James Robertson Justice and Richard Harris horribly abusing the word “bloody” as a grouchy Australian.
If The Guns Of Navarone has a problem (and it’s not even really a problem per say) is that compared to the frenzied action and tighter deadlines of some of the movies than came later, it sometimes tends to run a little slower than say, the furious pace of Where Eagles Dare (also MacLean) where Richard Burton’s lead pulls off audacious amounts of complicated bullshittery that makes Peck’s sometimes cruel machinations seen utterly reasonable by comparison.
However, the news that Where Eagles Dare flies just that little bit higher than Navarone shouldn’t detract that this is still classic, Boy’s Own sort of stuff and no matter how hard you may try, the almost absurd lengths the filmmakers go to have have you tearing your hair out until the very last minute will totally reel you in as the climax teases you mercilessly as the elevator that’s supposed to trigger the explosives stubbornly refuses to stop at the necessary floor. But when the guns finally go up in smoke (surely not a spoiler after all these years), it proves to be as massively cathartic for us as it obviously is for the characters involved, thus proving the magic of of the genre – decent men in an indecent time who’s adventures always have us on on the edge of our seats – even if we already know what’s going to happen.