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The Guns of Navarone

Directed by J. Lee Thompson with Gregory Peck, Anthony Quinn, David Niven, Anthony Quayle, James Robertston Justice, Irene Pappas and Gia Scala, color, 156 minutes, 1961

The guns

The Guns at Navarone

By Carter B. Horsley

There are a handful of preposterous World War II movies from the 1960s and the early 1970s that have become cult classics: "The Dirty Dozen," "Kellyís Heroes," "Where Eagles Dare," "The Guns of Navarone," "Catch 22" and "Mash."

The latter two are generally taken more serious as important parodies and comedies that had widespread cultural influence that reflected the alienation of the Drug Generation and growing unease with the Vietnam War. These films were regarded as significant artistic achievements.

The others, however, were held, by and large, in critical contempt. These movies were pure escapist fun and absurd with little pretense of reality, but they have held up remarkably well because of the acting: Lee Marvin, John Casavettes, George Kennedy and Jim Brown were delicious in "The Dirty Dozen," Richard Burton and Clint Eastwood were mesmerizing in "Where Eagles Dare," and Donald Sutherland, Don Rickles and Clint Eastwood were fabulous in "Kellyís Heroes."

"The Guns of Navarone" had even greater star power: Gregory Peck, Anthony Quinn, Irene Pappas and David Niven, all at the peaks of their careers.

Acting, however, was not their only merit. Each was based on an interesting premise: "The Dirty Dozen" assumed that the worst "criminals" in the Armed Forces might jump at the chance of redemption by heroic acts that normal soldiers might not dare; the premise of "Kellyís Heroes" is that greed is a greater incentive than patriotism; "Where Eagles Dare" opted to apply deadly seriousness to a Keystone Cops approach to war; and "The Guns of Navarone" took its far-fetched lead from the premise that "anything is possible in a war."

Richard Burtonís fame as an actor did not come from his "war" movies, yet he was really at his best in these "throwaway" roles because his persona of ferocity and intelligence was so compelling that he was not only believable but fascinating even as he and Eastwood manage to expend more bullets and explosives than they could possibly have brought with them on their outrageous "adventure." "Where Eagles Dare" is high up on the "more bang for the buck" list, but also stars Mary Ure, who performed with Burton in the memorable "Look Back in Anger" movie based on the play by her famous husband, John Osborne. Ure would later marry Robert Shaw, the actor, who was also a writer. Shaw, incidentally, was probably the only other actor with as much personal "power" and "magnetism" as Burton.

It is exactly because of the stunning and rare individuality of actors such as Burton and Shaw that "The Guns of Navarone" is so effective. Two of its stars, Peck and Niven, were generally not recognized as "strong," heroic actors even though both actually had beenpreviously cast well in such movies as "Pork Chop Hill" and "The Immortal Battalion," respectively.

Gregory Peck

Gregory Peck

Peck never quite ascended to the top of the pantheon of male leads in his era, always being superceded by John Wayne, Cary Grant, Kirk Douglas and Burt Lancaster, and even Gary Cooper and Henry Fonda. Peck was too often seen as a stoic and blandly noble character, perhaps because that was the nature of his first "hit," "Keys of the Kingdom," and perhaps his finest film, "Gentlemanís Agreement." Peck essentially was a taller and tougher Fonda, but lacked Fondaís comic ability so admirably evident in "The Lady Eve."

In "The Guns of Navarone," however, Peck really shines as the reluctant but resigned leader of a desperate Allied mission to blow up two gigantic guns on an island that command the only port entry and are thwarting attempts to rescue several thousand captured soldiers whose lives are in imminent jeopardy.

The movie takes quite a while to get going and the small band that Peck leads gets into a great deal of trouble en route to the guns, which happen to be impervious to bombing because they are installed in the middle of a giant cliff and only part of their enormous barrels stick out.

Anthony Quinn

Anthony Quinn

The plot is complicated by the fact that a local resistance hero, played by Anthony Quinn, blames Peck for the death of his family but is enlisted by Peck into his small band. Quinn is also at his sullen best in this movie, putting aside his vengeance against Peck temporarily because of his even greater hatred of the Nazis and his love of his homeland. His desperate determination to fight the enemy is a fine foil to Peckís steadfast leadership on an "impossible" mission. As was common in major, long war movies of the era, the film has "love interest," two of them, in fact.

Irene Pappas

Irene Pappas

Quinn is visually and verbally seduced by Irene Pappas, the dark-haired Greek actress who never looked lovelier despite her uncomely costumes in this role. The scenes between Quinn and Pappas are very brief but full of fire and tenderness. Instant love is one of the wonders of life and is rarely captured as effectively as in this movie.

Gia Scala

Gia Scala

The other "love interest" is Gia Scala, who portrays another resistance fighter who joins Peckís gang. Relatively unknown at the time, she was a great beauty whose career strangely never took off. Peck succumbs briefly to her but soon her troubled past becomes a problem that he must resolutely resolve. Whereas most other war movies have their "love interests" in flashbacks that often interrupt and delay the action, here they are incorporated into the flow and serve to broaden our understanding of the leadís characters.


David Niven

The other male lead, David Niven, is not given a "love interest," and a great deal of time is spent in his interaction with Peck as the explosives expert and good friend of Anthony Quayle, the original leader of the mission who gets seriously wounded about a third of the way into the film forcing Peck to take command. Nivenís quibbling and harping about morality provide several gaps in the plentiful action in the movie and are a bit stilted, but then Niven is perfectly cast as the ever-so-proper English gent. His feuding with Peck culminates in a showdown in which Peck gets very believably angry. It is a very good scene although the Hollywood lighting is a bit too much, though not distracting. Peckís release of his fury is riveting and very convincing. His role as a no-nonsense leader is really interesting. He broods and is generally monosyllabic, much in the Gary Cooper "yep" vein, yet he conveys little doubt that he has mulled and agonized over his decisions.

Anthony Quayle

Anthony Quayle

His farewell to the wounded Quayle, who must be abandoned at one point, is simple and poignant, rather than touching and maudlin. It is all in the quick exchange of glances and the facial expressions and done very well in the best tradition of buddies who need no bother with much palaver.

(Later in his career, Peck would portray a wicked Nazi doctor who has fled to South America after the war and has cloned Hitler, a role in which he admirably displayed a loathsomeness that did not find favor with the critics, but which did indicate that Peck really was not a one-dimensional actor, and in fairness his earlier role in "Roman Holiday" also showed a very warm, humorous side of him. Tall and lean, Peck was naturally elegant, but not known for gracefulness, or odd eccentricities. He was often wrongly put in the category of actors who simply are playing themselves. While he was handsome, he was not a matinee idol and part of his real charm is that he was a convincing American "Everyman," with all the mythic attributes of merit. William Holden, who starred not only in "The Bridges at Toko-ri," but also "The Bridge Over The River Kwai," "Stalag 17," "The Counterfeit Traitor," and "The Key," all very good war films, and "The Devilís Brigade," a lesser work, was perhaps closest to Peck among the male leads of the period. Holden personified the American "Everyman" even better than Peck even though he had more charisma and charm. Peck could come off occasionally as wooden, something that could never really be said of Holden, yet the real popular attraction of both was that they personified the stalwart disciplines of the quality of hard work rather than high ambitions.)

It takes a very long time for the movie to get the gang "into position" for the attack on the guns, too long in fact. Stanley Baker, an English actor who plays an expert killer with a knife, gives a good performance of anxiety that adds to the realism of the film, which is shot on some splendid Mediterranean locations.


James Robertson Justice

James Robertson Justice plays the officer who sends out the mission and surprisingly with his normal superb gruffness and impressive demeanor. He has all the gravitas of a perfect M in the James Bond series even though he was a star in many delightful British film comedies.

There are plenty of Germans but none with big roles. The only jarring instance of miscasting is James Darren, who plays a slightly crazed killer-soldier who happens to be the nephew of the woman played by Irene Pappas. The scene where he takes on an equally German crazed killer-soldier in an old-fashioned "duel" is preposterous and should have been cut.

The attack on the guns is full of action and gripping because the guns are so impressive and the set so intricate. The pyrotechnics at the end were fairly impressive for the era in terms of special effects and lead to a truly thrilling moment when a flotilla of British warships let loose with siren whoops, a scene that is beautifully photographed and very, very stirring sonically.

This 1961 film, which is 1568 minutes long, was directed by J. Lee Thompson and was based on a novel by Alistair MacLean. While certainly not an "intellectual" war movie, it is gripping because of the intensity of the acting even if the heroics are rather stretched.

There were certainly better war films made during the sixties. "The Heroes of Telemark," "The Great Escape," "Hell is For Heroes," "Attack," "The Bridges at Toko-Ri," "The Hill," "The Night of the Generals," "Tunes of Glory," and "The Thin Red Line," come to mind quickly, but they were generally straight-forward, serious war dramas whereas "The Guns of Navarone" is more of an exaggerated war epic that almost deals more with mythic issues than true objectives, an adventure story with interesting characters. The film adaptation of Norman Mailerís novel, "The Naked and the Dead," another film of the 1960s, was similar but less spectacular, though haunting. "Haunting" is perhaps a key word in measuring the worth of many serious war films and such films as "Paths of Glory," "Platoon," and "All Quiet on the Western Front," all of different periods than the 1960s, set the standards high.

"The Guns of Navarone" only meets the "haunting" standard in the clarion wailing of the British warships at the end rather than the emotional and dramatic intensity of the plot and characters, but it is rousing and a noble tonic in comparison with the rah-rah, shoot-Ďem-ups that would follow a few years later with the antics of "Rambo" and others.

For further information, check out the International Movie Data Base entry on the film at


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This film ranks 294th in Carter B. Horsley's Top 500 Sound Films
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