WWII Film Review – The Guns of Navarone (1961)

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The Guns of Navarone (1961) is a winner.  J. Lee Thompson directs this mid-century classic WWII special forces adventure in one of the all-time best war films of the sixties.  With a great cast of classic, well-dressed manly men, this film sits confidently in it’s position as one of the great adventure tales of Hollywood’s period of morally upstanding epics and super-adventures. As the Wikipedia article on this film tells us, it is “based on Alistair MacLean’s 1957 novel The Guns of Navarone, which was inspired by the Battle of Leros during the Dodecanese Campaign of World War II.”

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Despite cheesy pseudo-Greek typography for titles, the long opening sequence needs to be watched, for it includes a good narrative set-up for the story, leaving us with no doubts as to the urgency of the challenge. 2,000 British soldiers are holed up on the island of Keros in the Aegean Sea and rescue is virtually impossible, thanks to two radar-guided heavy guns buried in a fortress overlooking the approach. What seems to be surely a suicide sabotage mission must be organized and accomplished in less than a week to take out these huge and well-defended guns. If the heroes don’t accomplish their mission, there will be six more British destroyers at the bottom of the Aegean Sea and 2,000 more Brits in German POW camps. The nearly impenetrable sea-fortress on the island of Navarone is a challenge indeed, but a crack squad of British and local agents and operators are assembled to take on a nearly impossible mission.

One impossible milestone down, now a 400 foot cliff in the rain.
One impossible milestone down, now a 400 foot cliff in the rain.

The cast is made of classic manly war film stalwarts, including Gregory Peck, one of my favorite actors. Not only is he almost always playing a man of grit and character, he was Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird, one of the best films of all time, bar none. That’s a head above other leading actors. He’s even above Jimmy Stewart in terms of classic actors of masculine character (and that’s saying a lot since Steward played my paternal grandfather in what turned out to be a forgettable film called Thunder Bay).

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The film flows at a slower pace than today’s quick action films. Because we are so conditioned to fast-action, we tend to miss the excruciating nature of real adventure and the difficulties encountered by those who answer the call to do extraordinary things. For example, the cliff scene is long and probably not very appreciated by today’s impatient viewers. Scaling a cliff in a hurricane-like storm is no easy feat for any man, let alone a bunch of men still getting their confidence in one another. Not to mention the slippery rocks and driving wind. When our heroes make the trek up the sheer face, every inch is fought for, and it is communicated well by the director. Personally, I wanted to cheer for the men when they made it to the top and dispatched the unexpected sentry. A very good milestone in a difficult mission. Now on to the next obstacle, and there are many.

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The story is a roller coaster as our heroes barely escape capture or destruction, or engineer a wily escape. Each person in the group adds a flavor to the story that keeps the viewer engaged. The setting, being Greece, is lavishly beautiful and equally harsh. Overall this is a classic film, a classic war story, clean enough for the whole family, and well made for its day.

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The film is not perfect, of course. There is a bit much of that mid-twentieth century dramatic hip-shooting where soldiers (whom we presume are well trained in proper marksmanship) simply shoot from the waist without any real aim or skill. It is amazing anyone ever gets hit when no aiming is employed. There is a lousy and overly sappy scene near the end where one of our Greek partisan heroes has a standoff with the Nazi commander, each pacing toward one another in an over-the-top Western street fight scene. Also challenging is the lack of recoil when firing weapons. Its really bad. The effects are convincing enough for the day, the shipwreck scene is one of the classic sound stage raging ocean scenes where the sea is convincingly portrayed in all its fury. Well done, a good one. Some of the green screen shots leave a bit to be desired, but its the 1960’s, and barely. The miniature model at the end is a bit campy, reminding me more of an Ultraman scene or something out of a Disney epic of the day (Island at the Top of the World, for example). But these can be overlooked given there just was no technology in that day to get the needed shots. Bravo for the FX department for using what resources they had.

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This is a fun adventure suitable for all. A well-rounded, kid-safe, good-guys vs. bad guys adventure with Gregory Peck. A+

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