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Perhaps the granddaddy of the modern action spectacle, Carl Foreman's The Guns of Navarone broke with movie tradition by letting go of World War 2 as a sacred topic and presenting its thrills as escapism, pure and simple. The film pays lip service to the notion that War is Hell while constructing a giant fun-house attraction filled with explosions, hairbreadth escapes and the notion that a few superhero fighters can single-handedly turn the tide of history. For perhaps the first time, enemy soldiers are presented as bowling pins to be knocked over by our bulletproof chosen few; ugly reality is never allowed to seriously impinge on the fun. Big, slick and assembled with masterful style, The Guns of Navarone led the way for violent action dramas to become increasingly more cynical and self-righteous; a necessary step on the way to the James Bond sixties.
Columbia/Sony's 2-Disc Collector's edition adds a number of new extras to a title that has already seen release as a Special Edition and a SuperBit offering. More evaluation of the disc follows below.
Liberal producer Carl Foreman was one of the writers of The Bridge on the River Kwai, David Lean's adventure tale that remains rooted in the hard facts of war: prisoners die in terrible camps, good soldiers become traitors and commanders are forced to shoot at their own men. Foreman liberally sprinkles heavy messages and moral dilemmas atop novelist Alistair MacLean's action-oriented commando tale, but the movie refuses to be serious. Our intrepid band of fighters proves to have more lives than a barrel of cats as, like the Greek heroes that once fought in the Aegean of old, it accomplishes one 'impossible' feat after another. Being overtaken by a heavily armed German patrol boat doesn't stop them. They survive a horrendous shipwreck yet save their equipment and then climb a slick vertical cliff in the middle of a typhoon.
For perhaps the first time in a post-war movie about World War 2, an amused tone -- the beginnings of a tongue-in-cheek attitude -- insures a positive outcome for our big star protagonists. Excellent special effects and much-improved stunt work dazzle the audience so that nobody questions how six men on a boat can out-draw a dozen Germans with their guns already pointed at them. Sentries are easily eliminated by the simplest of tricks. Our heroes display strength and stamina equal to a fantasy figure like Indiana Jones. Miraculous escapes become the norm; the Germans might as well put their bombs and strafing aircraft away because they never hit anything.
The film's faith in itself is best demonstrated when some of our heroes are trapped in a house surrounded by Nazis. We only see them begin to climb onto the roof; there's no need to show exactly how they escape. After Anthony Quinn has his big scene pretending to be a coward so as to turn the tables on their captors, we don't ask why eight very dangerous people are guarded by only two armed soldiers. But we do expect Gregory Peck to turn to the camera like Tex Avery's Screwy Squirrel and say, "We do this to them all through the picture!"
All of these shenanigans merely prove that The Guns of Navarone has stumbled onto a win-win adventure movie formula. Before we can laugh at the outrageousness of it all, the dapper David Niven follows up with his own snappy jokes. The movie is schizophrenic. When knives and bullets fly we're encouraged to sit back and enjoy the mayhem and destruction. But we're also pulled into a serious mode for other scenes, like those involving the painfully injured Anthony Quayle character. Sheer class moviemaking does the trick, with the exotic Rhodes locations and Dimitri Tiomkin's superlative music putting us in the mood for high adventure.
Although the film is still fast-paced, its desperate commandos take regular breaks for Carl Foreman's rather facile dramatic scenes about moral issues in wartime. Gregory Peck grinds his jaw mulling over tough life and death decisions for his injured team leader as David Niven plagues him with lame accusations of callousness: "Do you realize what you've done? You've used up an important human being!" When Niven's character complains that Peck is putting the mission ahead of the personal safety and comfort of his teammates, we're tempted to stammer out, "Well, Duh!" The idea that commandos on a desperate, all-important suicide mission should suddenly debate the finer points of combat etiquette is ludicrous, but the actors give it their all. To pay off all of this grandstanding, poor Gregory Peck must escalate his righteous fury to the point of waving a gun at Niven while shaking like a teakettle.
The drama may be half-baked but The Guns of Navarone nevertheless stays ahead of its audience. The skirmishes, escapes and ten-cent intrigues are shared by the team's local allies, a stoic pair of female partisans. Like Ingrid Bergman in For Whom the Bell Tolls, Gia Scala's Anna has cropped hair and a hurt-sparrow look that turns out to be a ruse. After avoiding typical 'glamorous resistance girl' clichés, Carl Foreman cleverly injects a censor-proof sex scene into the proceedings. The commandos 'rape' Anna by tearing her dress and exposing her naked back for our enjoyment. They then throw her to the ground, where she must clutch at her garments for hot-cha publicity poses --- but as the scene has no sexual component and an excuse for the near-nudity, Forman can get away with it!
Carl Foreman's anti-war ideas put the damper on some aspects of the movie. Stanley Baker's "Butcher of Barcelona" tough guy Brown is given a completely inconsistent character. Like the young commando Joyce in Foreman's Bridge on the River Kwai, Brown balks in tense situations and doesn't use his knife, leading Gregory Peck's Mallory to distrust his usefulness to the mission. James Darren's young Greek is more or less ignored in the rush to give all the meaty scenes to the three main stars; Forman saddles him with a ridiculous scene where he engages in a machine-gun duel with a German officer. They just stand up in plain sight and blast away at one another. This must have been Foreman's idea of a good image to express the futility of war, for he repeated it in the dud conclusion of his later The Victors. 1
The Guns of Navarone shows its winning hand with a show-stopping finale, when the commandos finally penetrate umpteen levels of non-existent Nazi security and lock themselves in with the two giant guns. 2 On a big screen, the set is as huge and intimidating as something from an old Cecil B. De Mille movie. Our heroes are trapped while the Germans blowtorch their way in, and the whole British Navy is expected at any moment. Navarone's immediate legacy can be seen in the best of the James Bond films, where 007 similarly squirrels his way into outrageously grandiose vaults and fortresses (Dr. No, Goldfinger, You Only Live Twice), blows up the whole schmeer and engineers a deft escape. Foreman balances his formidable set and real battleships with disarming comedy touches, like a decoy stink bomb hidden in a dead rat. Interestingly, later Alistair MacLean spectaculars, especially Where Eagles Dare, would treat WW2 as James Bond vs. the Nazis, with laconic heroes performing stunts too far-fetched for a Republic serial. 3
Although some of its effects no longer hold up, The Guns of Navarone remains a solid entertainment for those who still enjoy thrillers with a measured pace. Like many major hits of the past, it may be the kind of movie that will only be appreciated by those who saw it new, when it was the biggest and most exciting adventure tale yet offered on the screen.
Sony / Columbia's The Guns of Navarone is already in the collections of many DVD fans, which prompts us to ask why another disc is needed. The many extras of the previous special edition are all here, including a good 1998 documentary that uses interviews with several star actors that have since passed away. The additions are a new commentary to join the sparse original by director J. Lee Thompson, also now gone. Stephen J. Rubin's more entertaining track balances a discussion of the film's production (he interviewed its makers back in the 1970s) with his own subjective memories of seeing it in grade school.
Several new interview docus and featurettes are included. Forging the Guns of Navarone brings back assistant director Peter Yates (who went on to his own impressive directing career) and Carl Foreman's widow to tell the tale of the filming, backed by new photos and research. An Ironic Epic of Heroism features Sir Christopher Frayling's analytical take on Foreman's aims and the cultural-historical underpinnings of the film, including what at first seems an unlikely gay interpretation of the relationships between the main characters. Jon Burlingame assesses Dimitri Tiomkin's masterful score in detail. The UCLA Film Archives' Robert Gitt explains his restoration efforts from the middle 1990s. The opening prologue music is isolated for the first time in an extra, and the original Intermission is reconstructed for another.
The transfer is listed as a down-conversion from a High Definition master, which may lead viewers to expect a better image than has been seen on earlier discs. Although a bit brighter, cleaner and spiffed up with digital enhancement, it is really no improvement on either the Special Edition or the SuperBit release. This is due to The Guns of Navarone's woeful preservation history, and not the fault of present-day restorers.
The original 1961 road show release used beautiful Technicolor prints made in London, which gave the film an eye-popping clarity and disguised all of the rough edges in the sets and special effects. When it came time to turn out mass runs of prints for the general release, Columbia shipped the original negative to a bargain-rate lab in New York, where it was reconfigured for normal Eastmancolor printing. This meant re-cutting the negative to insert standard opticals to approximate the Technicolor process's smooth dissolves, etc. No preservation separations were made and the negative wasn't properly protected. General release prints looked okay but not terrific; this reviewer remembers the difference, even as a small child. Poor-quality dupe sections were soon patched in to replace damaged pieces of the negative. Eventually two entire reels would have to be replaced in this way, after that New York lab accidentally destroyed the originals through handling errors. Columbia also discarded the film's original sound elements and stereo tracks. When it came time for Bob Gitt to 'rescue' the movie, there was only so much he could do, as the bad contrast, color and other image flaws were permanently built-in to the only existing elements. A collector's magnetic print was used to recover the original four channel stereo mix.
In other words, the old Columbia studio effectively demolished one of its biggest and most prestigious successes. Colors are never very good in The Guns of Navarone, with purple-ish and pinkish faces and monochromatic blues washing most night exteriors. It's truly a shame, as the film was once a very attractive spectacle. It still plays well, especially on a small screen, but it's no beauty.
Sony's packaging touts a now very long list of extras and enhances the graphics with random images of cannons and soldiers.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Guns of Navarone rates:
1. If the Columbia film Navarone borrows from the Columbia film Bridge on the River Kwai, the second half of Columbia's later Major Dundee cribs wholesale from both of the earlier pictures. Dundee's original screen treatment stops cold not long after the troop enters Mexico, with a note from the writer saying that he simply ran out of time. He then outlines an unlikely series of major battles and reversals that became the basis for the film's pocketbook novelization. The second half of the finished Dundee copies several major motifs from Navarone, the most important one being Tyreen's oath to kill Amos Dundee, taken right from Stavros' oath to kill Mallory. Dundee's troop enjoys a party in a village that is later destroyed by an enemy reprisal, which happens in Navarone as well. Mallory is 'comforted' by the mysterious Anna when he doubts his leadership judgment, as happens in Dundee with Senta Berger. The killing of O.W. Hadley, with Captain Tyreen surprising all by shooting his personal friend, is an almost exact copy of Navarone's killing of Anna, with the 'surprise' shooter in both instances revealed at the last moment. That situation is of course also repeated in Lawrence of Arabia, with Lawrence executing a dear friend to avoid 'splitting his command.' Dundee's final shooting script seems to have been dashed together by writers happy to lift a bunch of plot twists from earlier successes, collect their pay, and go home.
2. Let's not even begin to ask why these fixed guns are supposed to be so strategically crucial. Can the British Navy not go around the island of Navarone and avoid them? It's a little like expending energy sufficient to build the pyramids to place a pair of cannon atop Mt. Rushmore. Now the only problem is to get Sitting Bull to attack there instead of at the Little Big Horn.
3. Actually, the MacLean-like Operation Crossbow had problems with the 007 formula: at one point in the story, a subplot about an uprising among the slave workers in the Nazis' underground missile factory was dropped, probably for time but possibly because it was too remindful of unpleasant WW2 realities. In the finished film George Peppard's character suddenly wears a band-aid on his face, for no reason. Handsome sabotage agents are 'fun', but evoking the memory of millions of helpless Nazi victims is not.