There is an episode of The Dick Van Dyke Show where Dick Van Dyke admits that he fell asleep during The Guns of Navarone, much to the shock and disbelief of everyone he tells – a skepticism that I happen to share as the film is not only loud and exciting but raw, gripping, and, at times, quite funny. The Guns of Navarone is the whole package and quite deserving of its rank as one of the greatest war films ever made – a commendation made more impressive by the transcending qualities and themes it delivers.
Set in prologue against the ancient Greek stage, land of myths, demigods, and heroes, Navarone honors the forging of new legends – not those of gods and titans but of ordinary men and women. The year is 1943 and 2,000 British soldiers are marooned on the Greek island of Keros. Their only hope for escape is a British Navy invasion which is blocked by a German fortress on the nearby island of Navarone containing two massive radar guided-guns capable of destroying the fleet with ease. After a desperate air assault led by the foul-mouthed Barnsby (Richard Harris) fails disastrously, a last ditch, practically hopeless effort to destroy the guns is deployed: a 6 man commando team, among them spy/mountaineer Captain Mallory (Gregory Peck), explosive expert Corporal Miller (David Niven), and Colonel Stavrou (Anthony Quinn) of the former Greek army. Their only possible clandestine access to the island is by free-climbing a towering, seemingly unscalable cliff at night, during a storm – and that’s just the beginning!
Navarone is a film that has appeal beyond action and war buffs, with a subtle and damning anti-war message. The most riveting sequences in the film are not its gun fights or subterfuge, which are excellent in their own right, but the philosophical clashes between Peck and Niven and the “three choices” that continue to haunt them. These are men who have been broken by war, sustaining themselves through a sense of duty. When Niven openly questions this sense after the injury and Peck’s gross but coldly logical manipulation of his best friend, it’s a powerful enough realization that threatens to undermine the entire mission. It’s a streak of gray that can sometimes be unusual in a WWII film, especially of the time, beyond superficial themes of ultimate patriotism. As James Robertson Justice, the commodore mastermind behind the Navarone assault, says at one point, this is the story of “ingenuity, courage, and self-sacrifice” – words that don’t ring as cliche, empty platitudes.
These clashes never come about as being preachy or overly moralizing thanks in part to the terrific performances of its noteworthy cast. Peck is tremendous as the hard-ass but respectable captain who justifies his acrid actions as necessities of war. Niven is his counter, witty, passionate, yet shrewdly calculating when the situation demands. Quinn, who holds the honor of being an honorary Greek due to his fervent portrayal of Zorba the Greek a few years later, is ruthless but pragmatic. Seeing these characters interact in the face of such overwhelming odds is a privilege of performance art.
With expert direction by J. Lee Thompson, accentuated by Dimitri Tiomkin‘s legendary score, The Guns of Navarone is a must-see. With its adept mix of suspense, action, and dry wit, the film lives up to the often overstated term of “epic,” earning a place on that ancient Greek stage with great aplomb.