Behind the Scenes: “The Guns of Navarone” (1961)

It’s time to celebrate the 60th anniversary of The Guns of Navarone – world premiere on April 27, 1961, in London and New York opening on June 22, 1961. Although the picture set a new benchmark in high-octane entertainment, a fast-moving war thriller packed with twists and a genuine all-star cast, it was far – very far – from the sure thing it appears in retrospect.

Box office smash in Britain.

For a start, U.S producer Carl Foreman, a victim of the McCarthy anti-communist witch-hunt of the early 1950s, was unable to assemble any of the talent he had set his heart on. He lost his preferred male cast of William Holden and Cary Grant and original scriptwriter Eric Ambler, the thriller writer famed for The Mask of Dimitrios and other novels.

He had a registered a major publicity coup by engineering the screen debut of opera diva Maria Callas, one of the most famous people in the world, but she also dropped out as did his other initial choice for leading lady. On top of that, once filming began he lost his director, Alexander Mackendrick, who had not only achieved a critical and commercial success with the British Ealing comedy The Ladykillers (1951) but also crossed the Atlantic to make the acclaimed The Sweet Smell of Success (1957) starring Burt Lancaster and Tony Curtis, to prove he could handle big Hollywood stars.

On top of that David Niven nearly lost his life during production and by the time the picture appeared Gregory Peck had suffered so many box office flops that he was a potential liability. And Foreman’s own marriage was in trouble.

Building the massive guns set.

It was a wonder it was made at all for Foreman was nobody’s idea of a sure thing. Although he had made his name as a screenwriter with three Oscar nominations for Champion (1949), The Men (1950) and High Noon (1952), his career was in ruins after being slung out of America for his supposed communist sympathies. He set up in London where he wrote screenplays under pseudonyms. But in 1956 won a four-picture production deal with Columbia at a time when that studio was investing heavily in making films in Britain to take advantage of the government’s Eady Levy (effectively, a tax rebate) and cheaper costs. But his first film, The Key (1958) with William Holden and Sophia Loren flopped in the U.S. Columbia persevered, seeing Foreman as the man to tackle its biggest-ever European production.

The Guns of Navarone almost fell at the first hurdle. Foreman’s first choice of location was Cyprus which was threatening to erupt into a civil war. At the last minute, he changed his mind and shifted production to Rhodes. Foreman, who also acted as screenwriter, made considerable changes to the book by British bestselling thriller writer Alistair Maclean, not least of which was introducing female characters to a story that had been resolutely all-male.

Original hardback book cover.

There was tension on set – four-time Oscar nominee Gregory Peck was annoyed at sharing the screen with two winners David Niven (Best Actor for Separate Tables, 1958) and Anthony Quinn (twice Best Supporting Actor for Viva Zapata, 1952, and Lust for Life, 1956). Replacement director J. Lee Thompson (Ice Cold in Alex, 1958) managed to sink a ship on loan from the Greek navy.  The Actor’s Strike in Hollywood nearly forced the departure of the two younger stars.

The set for the titular guns was the largest ever built, costing £100,000, and even though that proved a design miracle, that, too, was not exempt from disaster, having to be rebuilt after a thunderstorm destroyed part of the set. The injury to David Niven was so severe he nearly died, putting the production in jeopardy. Even when the film approached completion there were other obstacles in the way, composer Dmitri Tiomkin (The Alamo, 1960), for example, demanding a record fee and Foreman locking horns with Columbia over his insistence on launching the picture as a roadshow, request which was ultimately denied, and one of the reasons for the film’ release delay,

I’ve written a book about The Making of The Guns of Navarone. Originally published in 2013, it has been revised with over 30 illustrations added for a new edition to tie in with the 60th anniversary – available both in print and Kindle versions. Needless to say, it would also make an ideal present for Father’s Day.

If you’re interested in this kind of book, you might like to know that I’ve also written The Making of The Magnificent Seven.

Author: Brian Hannan

I am a published author of books about film - over a dozen to my name, the latest being "When Women Ruled Hollywood." As the title of the blog suggests, this is a site devoted to movies of the 1960s but since I go to the movies twice a week - an old-fashioned double-bill of my own choosing - I might occasionally slip in a review of a contemporary picture.

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