I didn't see THE GUNS OF NAVARONE in theaters when it was first released in 1961. Cut me some slack. I was only five-years-old. But I do recall watching it on television in 1969 when it debuted on the CBS Thursday Night and CBS Friday Night movies. Given the film's running time of two-and-a-half hours plus, it made sense to divide the broadcast over two nights. I recall being on the edge of my seat while watching both nights.
I've since read the Alistair MacLean novel on which the film is based twice and last night, I watched the film again in its' entirety for the first time in many years. THE GUNS OF NAVARONE is the quintessential "guys-on-a-mission" movie. Here's the formula: assemble a team, give them their impossible assignment, know that one among them is a traitor, know that not all of them will survive the mission, watch as things go wrong until the very end when the mission is accomplished with human lives as the price of success. It's not new, it's not original, but when it's done right, as it is in GUNS, it can provide for an exhilarating night of movie watching.
Set in Greece during WWII, GUNS concerns a massive German gun emplacement (two enormous cannons within a heavily fortified clliffside redoubt) that must be destroyed. British forces are pinned down on a Grecian island and the planned rescue mission puts the convoy of ships directly in harm's way from the guns. Previous missions have proven ineffective and it's up to a group of six men to do or die. And oh, by the way, they've only got six days in which to do it.
The group is led by world renowned mountaineer American Captain Keith Mallory (Gregory Peck), British Major Franklin (Anthony Quayle), explosives expert British Corporal Miller (David Niven, who is the very image of Percy Pinkerton, the British member of the Howling Commandos team that appeared in Marvel Comics SGT. FURY AND HIS HOWLING COMMANDOS comic book), Greek resistance fighter Colonel Andrea Stavrou (Anthony Quinn), Greek assassin Spyros Pappadimos (James (THE TIME TUNNEL) Darren) and "The Butcher of Barcelona" Butcher Brown (Stanley Baker). Once the team reaches Navarone they are joined by Maria (Irene Papas) and Anna (Gia Scala).
The narrative contains some impressive set-pieces: the team's ship crashes against the rocky coast during a storm at night, the team must ascend a sheer cliff in the rain and darkness, there are several close encounters with the German Army, the team is captured by the Germans and must improvise an escape, the team splits up to achieve their final objective: the destruction of the guns of Navarone.
THE GUNS OF NAVARONE combines on-location scenes (shot in Greece) with sequences filmed on impressive sets built at Sheparton Studios in England. The screenplay by producer Carl Foreman makes some changes in the MacLean source material. The cast is uniformly solid and the direction by J.Lee Thompson is assured. THE GUNS OF NAVARONE received seven Academy Award nominations including Best Picture of the Year and Best Director. It won the Oscar for Best Special Effects.
THE GUNS OF NAVARONE leavens the action and excitement with moral issues. The decisions made, the lives sacrificed, the consequences of the team's actions, all carry a price. But ultimately, GUNS is a good old-fashioned epic of high adventure, the kind of movie they don't make anymore and the kind of movie which made me feel like a kid again while I was watching it. Highly recommended.