As a child, I grew up with 60s war movies, and at the time l adored their mix of action, adventure, and their simplistic approach to heroism. But we all grow up, your tastes change, and you begin to see that not all war movies are created equal.
What I wasn’t aware of at the time was that the whole genre of conflict cinema went through a series of moods, starting with the entirely jingoistic productions during the war itself, through to the more thoughtful and often more controversial post-war pieces.
Eventually, they came full circle, and actually became anti-war movies, of which the 1961 epic The Guns Of Navarone is a classic example.I was going to say that it was the first of these, but really, its tonal inspiration is certainly The Bridge Over The River Kwai, made four years earlier. That movie took real events and bent them somewhat for better story telling (the bridge is still there, not blown to smithereens as per the movie), while Navarone delivers entirely fictional heroics from beginning to end.
Based very loosely on an Alistair MacLean novel, it tells the story of a crack platoon of military misfits sent on a suicide mission to a Greek island in the Aegean Sea, where the Germans control the area with two huge artillery guns mounted in a cave. Sadly, as entertaining a notion as this all is, there is no island called Navarone, nor were there any big guns, or a mission to destroy them – it’s all pure hokum.
That said, this movie manages to pull off the whole legend of Navarone with such unreserved gusto that I think most people assumed some aspects of the story were true, or at least derived from historical events.
The model the film offers is now a familiar one, as it was copied numerous times in the following decade, most notably by The Dirty Dozen, Where Eagles Dare and countless other fictional war stories of the 60s.
However, in 1961, this was a largely fresh approach, with the idea of putting together so many unstable character elements into the pot just to see what goes wrong still an innovative one.
Yet none of this would have worked had the producer, Carl Forman, not put together one of the most formidable casts for any movie, ever. It included Gregory Peck, David Niven, Anthony Quinn, Stanley Baker, Anthony Quayle, James Darren, Irene Papas, Gia Scala, James Robertson Justice, and Richard Harris.
With such a large cast, some characters are often overlooked, but almost everyone I’ve mentioned gets at least one big scene, and the ones between Peck, Quinn and Niven are totally riveting. For Peck, it’s one of his less sympathetic roles, as the leadership of this band of miscreants ultimately drives him to sacrifice Anthony Quayle’s character to achieve the objective. But that’s exactly where Navarone is great, because it’s about the underlying tension between the characters, their allegiances and how the dynamic of the group alters during the story.
As such, it’s now seen as something of a rather obvious tragedy about a homosexual love triangle, something that reviewers of the period entirely missed. Peck himself realised it during production, and summarised the plot at the time: “David Niven really loves Anthony Quayle, and Gregory Peck loves Anthony Quinn. Tony Quayle breaks a leg and is sent off to hospital. Tony Quinn falls in love with Irene Papas, and Niven and Peck catch each other on the rebound and live happily ever after.”
That’s actually pretty close to what’s going on, but cinema-goers of the period were obviously far too excited by all the explosions and derring-do to notice. They also mostly missed the basic tenet of the story: that war destroys all those involved, irrespective of their virtues.Perhaps it’s worth forgiving those that missed all this, because the production values here are excellent. This was the most expensive movie made at the time, and looks it.
A special mention should go to composer Dimitri Tiomkin, who wrote the very evocative theme. How this is used throughout the movie, with its various hues and shades, is truly masterful. Instead of the end delivering a triumphant marching crescendo, he turns the Navarone theme into a wistful lamenting salute to the characters. The music is just marvellous over the entire production, and it’s an art I’d argue that we’ve largely lost these days.
Where it falls down by modern comparison is in the accuracy of military equipment, most of which is far too modern to have seen service in WWII, and especially anachronistic in the hands of the Germans. At the time, it wasn’t considered important, because people wouldn’t care if the tanks were from the 50s, or so it was thought.
The final irony of Navarone is that, because it was a huge success, more of the works of Alistair MacLean were filmed, including Ice Station Zebra and Where Eagles Dare. Given that much of what makes this film so interesting doesn’t come from the pages of his book, which lacks the pivotal characters and events from the movie version, there’s an irony in how it propelled the writer’s works.
Navarone contained a supreme subversion of the classic war story narrative, although it probably didn’t get appreciated as such until much later.
After watching some of the excellent additional content on the disc, one is left with the distinct impression that we’re lucky to have anything whatsoever to look at, because chemically, the original negative had effectively self-destructed. The restoration of it, therefore, was a major undertaking, and much of what is seen comes from a pristine print held by a private collector.
Issues with sound were also addressed through other sources, and the whole movie was re-colour balanced and reassembled. It’s still very grainy in a number of indoor and day-for-night scenes, but I accept that it’s never going to look better than this.
In the naturally-lit outdoor work, it’s much better, and the colour saturations are especially pleasing. Efforts to put back the original four-track stereo have been well worth it, and its conversion to DTS-HD MA 5.1 is largely successful. It isn’t quite up to the crystal clear sound we’ve now come to expect, and this shows in the use of stock audio for effects sequences, but it’s more than serviceable for the most part. Dialogue is exclusively locked to the centre channel, and because of that, you can always hear what people are saying irrespective of whatever else is occurring.
However, this is the 50th anniversary special edition, so just how special is it? Well, that entirely depends on whether you own the 2007 collector’s edition on DVD. If you don’t, as I didn’t, then this is a complete treasure trove of period and more modern featurettes covering every aspect of the movie, its production and stars.
If you do already own it, then sadly, there’s only one new supplement, entitled The Resistance Dossier Of Navarone. This beautifully presented collection consists of mini-featurettes explaining that, while the events portrayed in the movie are fictional, the real war in the Greek islands provided plenty of inspiration, as did the real wartime exploits of those playing the characters.
If you love war movies from this period, as I do, then the money they’re asking for this is an absolute bargain. Not only does it bring you some of the best actors of the period, but also a hugely enjoyable romp with strikingly modern overtones.
To paraphrase a classic line from Peck’s character, if you don’t go out and buy it, I’ll shoot you myself.
The Guns Of Navarone is out on Blu-ray on 24th October.