World War Two seems to be the only major world conflict resembling an average Hollywood movie - dividing line between Good Guys and Bad Guys is more or less, clearly defined and final victory of the Good Guys provides happy ending, at least for the majority of audience. So, it isn't surprising that in the following decades WW2 became inspiration for many action-oriented pieces of popular culture - novels, comic books and movies. In the literary domain Alistar MacLean contributed to the trend with the series of novels about small bands of Allied agents or commandos wreaking havoc behind enemy lines. Combination of complicated plots and constant breath-taking action proved to be quite attractive for movie producers, so in 1960s some of those novels were adapted into spectacular and very popular action films. The most popular and influential of them all was The Guns of Navarone, directed in 1961 by J. Lee Thompson.
Plot of the film begins in Autumn 1943. Following the capitulation of Italy and mass surrender of Italian garrisons scattered all over occupied Balkans, British forces seized the opportunity and rushed to seize many Greek islands in Aegean Sea. This attempt to regain foothold on Balkans was short-lived, because Germans reacted more rapidly by sending even more forces in the area and bringing small British garrisons into strategically untenable situation. The situation is especially grim for 2,000 men at island of Kheros, who can't be evacuated by sea because the only escape route is controlled by two huge German naval guns stationed on the nearby island of Navarone. Attempts to silence the guns from the air failed, and less than a week before final German assault British command is left only with one desperate alternative. Small group of British and Greek commandos, led by Major Franklin (played by Anthony Quayle) is sent to land on the island, contact the local partisans and, using their help, sabotage the guns before the evacuation convoy gets near Kheros. When their mission gets underway, commandos are faced with many unexpected difficulties and Captain Mallory (played by Gregory Peck), who had replaced injured Franklin, begins suspecting possible traitor among his comrades.
The script for The Guns of Navarone was written by Carl Foreman, one of the most talented Hollywood screenwriters of 1950s, whose previous credits included High Noon. He remained uncredited for his last major film, WW2 drama The Bridge on the River Kwai, due to studio blacklisting and alleged Communist beliefs. The Guns of Navarone was Foreman's first major project with his real name back on the credits (and the way he saw his alleged fling with Communism could be seen in character of C.P.O. Brown, disillusioned veteran of Spanish Civil War, played by Stanley Baker). Foreman adapted MacLean's novel, probably intrigued with opportunity to explore the humanity in war - theme he had used with so much success in Kwai.
Unfortunately, this time direction wasn't in the hands of first class filmmaker like David Lean, but J. Lee Thompson, director whose overall career was hardly stellar. Thompson was less interested in serious subjects and character exploration and instead paid attention only to numerous action scenes. Those scenes are truly spectacular, using both the Shepperton studios and exotic island locations of Rhodes, as well as manpower and equipment of Greek and British military. In some cases, special effects are top notch and can impress even after almost four decades (like in the scene describing commando team landing on the island). But, generally speaking, attraction of these scenes lies in quantity, not quality - The Guns of Navarone simply features more explosions, more shootouts and bigger bodycount than in any contemporary action movie. Characters somehow got lost in all that mayhem and, despite being played by excellent actors, they hardly stay in viewer's memory, since their motivations and subplots mostly get only hinted and never properly explored, despite film having more than two and half hours of length. Anthony Quayle, whose real life WW2 adventures actually resembled those of his character, is the only exception as physically and psychologically injured leader of the team.
The Guns of Navarone, although inferior as serious WW2 drama, could still be enjoyed as entertaining, exciting action film with appeal that didn't fade through time. Its reputation, on the other hand, owes much more to the more talented film makers who later used The Guns of Navarone as an inspiration for much better examples of the genre.
(Historical note: Islands of Kheros and Navarone are fictious, as well as the events described in the movie. The real events that inspired them, however, turned quite differently for the British. In November 1943 British island garrisons in Aegean Sea were overran in combined operation by Wehrmacht, Kriegsmarine and Luftwaffe. British attempt to evacuate their stranded forces turned into disaster - British navy suffered huge losses and most of the men in the garrisons surrendered to Germans.)
RATING: 6/10 (++)
(Note: The text in its original form was posted in Usenet newsgroup rec.arts.movies.reviews on January 18th 2000)
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Movie URL: https://www.themoviedb.org/movie/10911-the-guns-of-navarone