Tuesday, May 18, 2010

The Guns of Navarone

Imagine you are a casting director, in charge of casting a war movie that will be released in 1961.  Your task is to find a leading actor that can fit the description implied by this line of dialogue: "You speak German like a German."  Who do you choose?  It's not an easy choice.  When I think of available lead actors in the early 60s, I can only think of actors with very unique voices that would sound extremely funny speaking German.  Think about it...John Wayne, Charlton Heston, Cary Grant, James Stewart --- none of them would sound right saying "Ich liebe Deutschland."  Clearly, the best choice was...Gregory Peck?  Really?  Don't get me wrong, Gregory Peck was a man among men, the type of guy that cut razors when he shaved, but...a convincing German?  I have a hard time imagining that.  Of course, this was a time when authenticity in casting often meant British actors putting on dark makeup, so maybe I'm just being picky.

The Guns of Navarone is a Mission: Impossible-type operation, set in World War II and based on Alistair MacLean's novel of the same name. 2000 British soldiers have been marooned on a Greek island in the Aegean Sea, with limited food and weapons.  Intelligence reports indicate that the German forces are planning to make an assault within a week on this island, massacring the mostly defenseless soldiers.  All attempts to save these men have failed because the nearby island of Navarone has two enormous anti-aircraft-style guns covering the stranded troops and their island.  Since attacks by air and sea have failed, a more subtle approach is needed; a motley crew is assembled to sail to the island, sneak into the military complex and blow up the guns.  It's a simple plan.  All they have to do is sail to the island without attracting attention, climb a nearly climb-proof cliff, cross the island unnoticed, infiltrate the military base, sneak into the complex that contains the guns, and blow it to hell.  Viewers learn all this within the first ten minutes of the film.  Does it work?  It's a WWII movie, made in 1961.  What do you think?  Actually, history buffs will recognize this fictional plot as mirroring the Dodecanese Campaign, where British forces tried to capture the Greek and Italian islands to use as airbases against the Germans; it was a costly failure for the British.  I guess the ending isn't so obvious, after all.

This is one of those movies where a bunch of hardy strangers are brought together to kill some Germans.  They do just that.  Gregory Peck is the supposedly fluent German-speaker that is only on the mission because of his rock climbing abilities.  His partner (who openly vowed to kill Peck after the war) is Anthony Quinn, an officer in the defeated Greek army.  They are assigned help, consisting of an extremely British explosives expert (David Niven), a hand-to-hand combat expert with a specialty with knives (Stanley Baker), the leader (Anthony Quayle), and a hot-headed shooter (James Darren).  The group has nothing but bad luck the entire time; their ship sinks on the way to Navarone, their leader breaks his leg on the initial climb, and Germans dog them throughout the film...almost as if they knew where the group would be.  It gets a little predictable at times: one guy will stand up to the authority figure, another will lose his taste for battle, others will form bonds of brotherhood, etc.  The movie throws in some romance and betrayal to spice things up, but this is a pretty standard, mission-oriented, 1960s war movie.

Not that '60s war movies are bad, by any means.  This movie is unique within its genre with both the setting (WWII Greece) and the activities (rock climbing, sabotage), which help keep the movie lively.  It is also pretty brutal for its time.  A few men in the group die unmourned and a woman gets executed, both very atypical of war films in 1961.  The action is fairly commonplace, but director J. Lee Thompson does a pretty good job getting his varied (in talent and experience) cast to react appropriately. 

Movies like this can only get so far on spectacle and plot, though.  It is the cast's performance that determines the longevity of the film.  Here, we have Gregory Peck, who tends to play the same character over and over again; I mean that in a good way, because his stern persona is perfect for war movies.  Anthony Quinn does a decent job of playing Greek, despite the fact that he is Mexican.  The stormy relationship between Peck and Quinn is supposed to form the core of the film, but David Niven's performance opposite Peck is more memorable.  Niven's character is the least military-like in the group and he spends much of the first half of the movie attempting to be sarcastic (I say "attempting" only because the script isn't great).  However, when things get tough, he is the one that stands up for his fellow soldiers and acts as the group's conscience against the tactical mind of Peck.  The dynamic between these two men sums up the film quite nicely.  They address the issues of the value of life on impossible missions, the tactics of torture, honor among officers, and more.  The movie feels dated when you watch it, but it has the decency to function as a movie about soldiers and not as a propaganda piece.

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