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.