These days, J. Lee Thompson’s The Guns of Navarone is more than typical for a wartime adventure story. A team of roughneck military specialists is sent on a fool’s errand of certain death. You have the steel-eyed commando leader. The explosives expert. The cold-blooded killer who’s good, of course, with knives. The local boy looking for his shot. The aged, ethnic veteran of war. And then there’s the regular Joe, who just happens to have a certain knowledge that makes him ideal for a mission that must be completed at all costs.
Given that the first four character types are, in this case, British, The Guns of Navarone is strikingly reminiscent of The Bridge on the River Kwai. But where the regular Joe from David Lean’s classic is an enlisted American who clashed with his British counterparts for putting their mission above the health and safety of everyone involved—meaning that the film retained some sensitivity to the senselessness of war and the impossibility of its strictures of rank—the regular Joe here is the world’s best mountain climber, and with a name to prove it: Capt. Keith Mallory, evoking George Mallory, who led three British expeditions up Everest.
The result is a straightforward blood-and-guts caper, which echoes the impossible bank heist movie more than it does a war story. No real consideration for the morality of the war or the mission for these guys. Even more, no stealth: German sentries are killed off left and right, with no consideration for what will happen when the report from the far side of the island doesn’t come in. The push to the fabled guns commanding the Aegean Sea becomes a ruthless onslaught. Gregory Peck, as Mallory, gives a wonderfully unperturbed performance, outdone only by the versatile coldness and comedy of Anthony Quinn. David Niven is the subservient but stylish chemist Miller, rounding out a film that ranks among the best war movies—for mayhem, fighting and a simple, sanctimonious story about heroism when it’s war at all costs.
While the sound is tremendous, the image is hardly what you’d expect from a collector’s edition. Frequently cloudy or dull, it’s even washed out at one or two points.
A tremendous set of extras allows fans of this Oscar nominee to investigate almost every aspect of its production-from the reasons behind the voice-over introduction that suggests the fictional story was real mission to the choices of the film’s location, director, and cast (oddly enough, Holden was the first choice to play Mallory).
No surprise that Tarantino saw fit to include a spoken reference to The Guns of Navarone in Pulp Fiction, or that The Usual Suspects leaps to mind when watching it in 2007. This is that kind of war movie: bad-ass violence, hard-edged characters, little commentary. Navarone survives on its performances—and the sense that it’s more than the moment in which it was made. A cold, hard caper.