Oscars Film Friday: 'The Guns of Navarone' directed by J. Lee Thompson

By Daniel S Levine,
With just days before the Oscars, we look at a classic Oscar-winning war movie...

The war film remains one of the few genres to never go out of style. From the beginning of film history to today, there has never been a decade without a cluster of great war films. By the 1960s, war movies continued to get better, bigger and louder, especially after the bewildering success of David Lean's The Bridge on the River Kwai. That film was co-written by Carl Foreman, the man also behind High Noon. He was blacklisted, forcing him to work in England and he didn't even get a screen credit on River Kwai. By 1961, the blacklist was gone, but Foreman remained overseas. That year, he wrote and produced probably his greatest accomplishment: The Guns of Navarone.

Directed by J. Lee Thompson and based on Alistair McClain's novel, The Guns of Navarone is about another team of the best on an impossible mission. It is 1943 and the Axis Powers have turned their attention to Turkey, trying to bring the country in on their side. During the fight with the Allied Powers, 2,000 British soldiers get marooned on an island in the Aegean Sea. Rescuing them is no easy task, since the Germans have installed two giant guns on Navarone, preventing the Brits from just sending in a giant battleship to do it. So, British Intelligence hatches a plan to get an elite squad together to blow up the guns. They have a tight schedule, though, since the British fleet is on its way and will get there even if the guns aren't blown up.

The group is lead by Major Roy Franklin (Anthony Quayle) who first recruits master climber Capt. Keith Mallory (Gregory Peck). With Mallory's help, they gather Colonel Andrea Stavrou (Anthony Quinn), Corporal Miller (David Niven), Spyros Pappadimos (James Darren) and “Butcher” Brown (Stenley Baker). Their journey to Navarone isn't without adventure and tragedy, since before they even get to the island, their weak ship is destroyed, although they do survive a German attack. When they get there, Franklin is injured during the steep climb and is stuck being carried around by the rest of the group.

Eventually, they meet with two members of the Greek resistance, Spyros' sister Marie (Irene Papas) and Anna (Gia Scala) who was captured by the Germans but escaped. While there may be a romance between Anna and Mallory, a shocking truth derails that just before they finally get to the guns.

The Guns of Navarone is really the quintessential classic action/war movie. If I had to pick one war movie from this era that I would have a friend watch, this is it. Yes, River Kwai is utterly brilliant, but I had way more fun watching Anthony Quinn, Gregory Peck and David Niven acting together and those fantastic, pre-CGI effects. This movie never seems to slow down for a minute, even during obvious scenes that feel like they exist to remind the audience whats going on. Foreman gave Thompson one of the best casts assembled for a war movie of this kind.

While Guns does feel more like a triumph for its writer/producer than its director, Thompson proved that he was up for the challenge. He came into this movie just days before the cameras were set to roll, but managed to keep the film going on schedule and did a great job at that. Peck liked working with Thompson so much that he starred in his next film, the equally brilliant (in its own way) Cape Fear.

There are quite a few ways to make a war movie, which is why Hollywood keeps going back to the genre. You can go for the gritty realism of something like Saving Private Ryan or make a tense thriller similar to The Hurt Locker. But it really all goes back to sweeping action epics like Bridge on the River Kwai, Guns of Navarone or The Dirty Dozen. These films emphasized characters and their relationships over plot, while posing real questions about the cost of war. So, while Guns of Navarone isn't filled with a heavy plot, the great acting and effects make it one of the most entertaining epics of its time.

1961 was a very strong year for film. At the 1962 Oscars, West Side Story won Best Picture, beating Guns, but the film didn't go home without an award. Bill Warrington and Chris Greenham won for their Special Effects. The film was also nominated for Best Director, Film Editing, Music (Dimitri Tiomkin), Sound and Adapted Screenplay.

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