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Four years ago we studied the DVD special edition of The Guns of Navarone very closely, especially restoration guru Robert Gitt's assessment that the film was irreparably harmed by poor Columbia printing and preservation decisions back in the early 1960s. Carl Foreman's big war movie has always looked acceptable on video, but not great and nothing like the sparkling, beautiful Technicolor we saw when the picture was new. A few months back I heard rumors that Sony's restoration department was preparing an HD remaster of the film and that snippets seen in post houses looked fantastic, so this Fall's Blu-ray raised my interest. Did some new printing element show up? Was digital manipulation producing miracles?
Columbia / Sony's new Blu-ray adds a new extra to a long list of docus, commentaries and featurettes from older special editions. More evaluation of the disc follows below.
Perhaps the granddaddy of the modern action spectacle, 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.
The story lets us know that saving a lot of British soldiers requires a team to undertake a virtual suicide mission. Spymaster Jensen (James Robertson Justice) assembles a crack commando squad under Major Roy Franklin (Anthony Quayle) to destroy two giant cannon guarding the approach to the Turkish coast, where the British Navy needs to rescue thousands of trapped Allied troops. Mountain-climbing expert Captain Keith Mallory (Gregory Peck) must fight alongside his sworn personal enemy, the Greek Colonel Andrea Stavros (Anthony Quinn) and the sarcastic explosives expert Corporal Miller (David Niven). Lethal assassins "Butcher" Brown (Stanley Baker) and young Spyros Pappadimos (James Darren) complete the team. Narrowly reaching the German-held target island, the commandos scale the Navarone cliffs before their luck takes a turn for the worse. Major Franklin is badly injured in a fall, and orders from base advance their sabotage mission by one entire day. Resistance agents Maria Pappadimos (Irene Papas) and the mute Anna (Gia Scala) provide assistance, but the German defenders seem able to anticipate the squad's every move.
Left-wing, blacklisted producer Carl Foreman was one of the uncredited 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 sacrifice their own men. Foreman sprinkles heavy messages and moral dilemmas atop novelist Alistair MacLean's action-oriented commando tale, but the movie's surface action refuses to be serious. Our intrepid band of fighters proves to have more lives than a barrel of cats: like the Greek heroes that once fought in the Aegean of old, they accomplish one 'impossible' feat after another. Being overtaken by a heavily armed German patrol boat isn not a serious problem. They survive a horrendous shipwreck yet save their equipment. They then scale a slick vertical cliff in the middle of a typhoon.
For perhaps the first time in a postwar 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, expert stunt work and crisp editing dazzle the audience. 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 back into storage because they never hit anything.
The film's self-confidence 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. When Anthony Quinn plays 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 Germans. 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 a snappy wisecrack: the movie pre-empts our jokes by supplying its own. The overall tone is actually more than a little schizophrenic. When knives and bullets fly we're encouraged to sit back and enjoy the mayhem and destruction. But other scenes affect a serious mode, such as 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, and building anticipation for a bombastic climax.
The desperate commandos pause frequently for Carl Foreman's rather facile lectures about moral issues in wartime. Gregory Peck grinds his jaw mulling over tough a life & death decision, only to suffer David Niven's 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 do-or-die 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.
This messages 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. It 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 a valid 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 completely inconsistent. 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 question 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 set-piece 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. He repeated it without much elabortion for the dud conclusion of his later The Victors.
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. On a big screen, the set is as huge and intimidating as something from an old Cecil B. DeMille 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 the high jeopardy with disarming comedy touches, like a decoy stink bomb hidden in a dead rat. Interestingly, later Alistair MacLean spectaculars would treat WW2 as James Bond vs. the Nazis. Especially Where Eagles Dare, with its laconic heroes performing stunts too far-fetched for a Republic serial.
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 Blu-ray's Blu-ray of The Guns of Navarone is a great improvement on all earlier DVD editions, even if it is not the 100% restoration we've all hoped for. The film elements available appear to be the same, but improved digital tools have brought back more color and reduced the granularity of many shots. 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 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. 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 were replaced in this way, after that New York lab accidentally destroyed the originals through handling errors. No preservation separations were made and the negative wasn't properly protected. 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 built-in to the only existing elements. Good stereo masters were eventually located for the audio; a collector's magnetic print was used to recover some dialogue that had been censored for England.
Only with this woeful back-story in mind can the HD restoration of The Guns of Navarone be fully appreciated. In reels with original film elements, colors and sharpness are generally excellent. But there are many opticals throughout the picture, and not just dissolves and superimposed text. These look softer (but not the main titles, which are dazzling). The dupe replacement reels again drop to a lower level of quality that many viewers may not notice. But plenty of shots still have minor flaws that cannot be removed. A dramatic silhouette of cliff climbers shows a halation around areas of contrast.
On the other hand, the overall stability of the picture is much improved. And the improvement to the stereophonic music will be very noticeable to viewers with high-quality sound systems. Sony has done the best job possible with their restoration tools.
The extras are capped by a new Interactive Feature, The Resistance Dossier of Navarone. The many extras of the previous special editions are all here, including a good 1998 documentary that uses interviews with several star actors that have since passed away. Commentary number one is by director J. Lee Thompson. Stephen J. Rubin's more lively 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 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 a far-fetched gay interpretation of the relationships between the main characters. Music expert 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 without voiceover.
Some call this a 50th Anniversary Edition. The timing is right but my copy doesn't declare that distinction anywhere. Gee, Ben-Hur is two years off, and The Guns of Navarone forgets to order a cake! But take a look at the disc's retail price, which is a real bargain.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Guns of Navarone Blu-ray rates:
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T'was Ever Thus.