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.

The Guns of Navarone (1961) *****

Stone-cold action classic that blazed a trail for the big-budget men-on-a-mission war picture like The Dirty Dozen (1967) and Where Eagles Dare (1968). Brilliantly structured, written and directed,  and featuring a sea battle, storm, shipwreck, mountaineering, chase, interrogation scenes, infiltration of an impregnable fortress, a pair of romances, two traitors, and an awe-inspiring climax make this a candidate for one of the greatest war pictures ever made.

The set-up is simple. Knock out the gigantic guns at Navarone or two thousand men will perish. It’s mission impossible and the clock is ticking. You don’t know who to trust and the enemy is ruthless.

In the early days of the all-star-cast, producer Carl Foreman rounded up an astonishing line-up, bulking out the bestseller by Scottish thriller maestro Alistair Maclean (The Secret Ways, 1961) with three top stars in five-time Oscar nominee Gregory Peck (The Big Country, 1958), double Oscar-winner Anthony Quinn (Heller in Pink Tights, 1960) and Oscar-winner David Niven (Please Don’t Eat the Daisies, 1960). Add in British household names Anthony Quayle (Ice Cold in Alex, 1958), Stanley Baker (The Concrete Jungle, 1960) and James Robertson Justice (Doctor in Love, 1960), a sprinkling of rising stars in James Darren (Let No Man Write My Epitaph, 1960), Gia Scala (I Aim at the Stars, 1960) and Richard Harris (The Night Fighters, 1960) and renowned Greek actress Irene Papas (Antigone, 1961).

Each man is a specialist. Capt. Mallory (Gregory Peck) the mountaineer whose climbing skills are essential to completing the fist part of the mission, explosives expert Corporal Miller (David Niven), mechanic ‘Butcher’ Brown (Stanley Baker), Greek patriot Stavrou (Anthony Quinn) and the ruthless killer Pappadimos (James Darren) who has the contact with the Greek resistance. The stakes are ramped up when we learn both Mallory and Stavrou have bounties on their heads, not to mention the fact they are sworn enemies, and that before the mission even gets under way, spies are discovered in the camp. The ostensible leader of the group Major Franklin (Anthony Quayle) is wounded early on, turning him into a liability and making Mallory the de facto leader.

The stakes are ramped up further – this time through relationships. Their Greek contact turns out to be a woman, Maria (Irene Papas), brother of Pappadimos. She brings with her a mute girl Anna (Gia Scala) for whom Mallory develops romantic feelings while Stavrou has eyes for Maria. Mallory is also torn about Franklin, his best friend.

And from there it pitches into one disaster after another. They are too easily hunted by the Germans. They are shelled with mortars and attacked by dive bombers as they race across open mountains and through caves to reach their destination. They have to shoot their way out of traps and finagle their way into the fortress. There are twists and turns all the way, the clock ticking in almost James-Bond-style as the deadline for the destruction of the troops approaches.

And although this is clearly a war picture it is also as obviously an anti-war one, no end to the killing in sight, people dying pointlessly.

Although the acting was ignored come Oscar time, each of the stars delivers and it is a communal tour de force. Director J. Lee Thompson (Ice Cold in Alex) ensures that in visual terms none of the stars dominates, each given equal screen time while the strong supporting cast each has their own narrative arc. With over two-and-half-hours’ running time, Thompson has both the bonus of time to allow each element to be fully played out and the problem of keeping the picture taut and he succeeds brilliantly in both aims. It is a masterpiece of suspense. And it looked fabulous, the guns themselves, by which the picture might succeed or fail, were awesome.

Thompson was Oscar-nominated as was producer Carl Foreman for both Best Picture and the screenplay, Dmitri Tiomkin for the score (one of the longest-ever), John Cox for sound, Alan Osbiston for editing. Bill Warrington who did the visual special effects and Chris Greenham who did the sound effects were the only winners on the night.

It was a commercial smash, top picture of the year in the U.S., the biggest  picture of all time at the British box office and breaking records all over the world.

COMPETITION: Win a Signed Copy of “The Making of The Guns of Navarone”

To celebrate the 60th anniversary of the opening of The Guns of Navarone I am offering a copy of my book “The Making of The Guns of Navarone.” This is a revised and enlarged edition – the first time with illustrations (over 30 of them) – of the original version which was published in 2013.

The Royal World Premiere of the film took place at the Odeon Leicester Square, London, on April 27, 1961. But it was not released in the U.S. until June, opening at the Criterion and Murray Hill cinemas in New York. At all three cinemas it broke the box office record.

All you have to do to enter is guess from all the films reviewed in the Blog in April which five proved the most popular (judged from the number of views).

Put the five you have chosen in ascending order.

Email your answers to me at bhkhannan@aol.com

The person who gets the most right in the proper order will be declared the winner.

The book will be posted free of charge anywhere in the world and, being the author, I can arrange for it to be signed. The closing date is Monday, May 17.

Feel free to let your friends know.

Good luck.

The Greatest Movie Never Made

Forty Days at Musa Dagh was a strong contender by the end of the 1960s for The Greatest Movie Never Made. By then an eye-watering one million bucks had been spent without a foot of film being shot.

I came across it while writing my book about “The Making of The Guns of Navarone.” That  film’s producer Carl Foreman was slated in the early 1960s to write what I soon discovered was a legendary lost project. It was subsequently fated to become the most high-profile casualty of MGM’s financial problems at the end of that decade.

Forty Days of Musa Dagh was based on the debut novel written in German by Prague-born poet Franz Werfel (who later wrote The Song of Bernadette filmed in 1942). It concerned the infamous Armenian genocide carried out by the Turks in World War One.

The novel had such advance buzz that news of its imminent publication in Germany in 1933 quickly crossed the Atlantic. After studio representatives read the book in the original German, MGM wunderkind Irving Thalberg bought the rights in 1934, prior to its American publication, for $35,000 (equivalent to $650,000 now).

Thalberg promised “one of the most staggering  production undertakings of all motion picture history.” With Clark Gable and William Powell heading the cast (there would be 63 roles) and director William Wellman (Call of the Wild, 1935) assigned a million-dollar budget, an enormous amount for the time, and with screenwriter Talbot Jennings (Mutiny on the Bounty, 1935) on board, Thalberg was intent on delivering a prestige product. In publicity material, MGM boasted: “What a picture it will make.” 

The novel was a huge success with 170,000 copies sold in hardback even though, priced at $3, it was 50 cents or a dollar more expensive than other bestsellers. It was simultaneously snapped up by the Book of the Month Club and the Catholic Book club and only kept off the top of the bestseller lists by James Hilton’s Lost Horizon.

However, publication was shrouded in controversy. It was banned in Germany shortly after publication. In America, publisher Viking and the author faced a $200,000 libel lawsuit brought by Harutian Nokhudian and the case went to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1936 – where it was dismissed. But that was only the beginning of its troubles.

Thalberg had not counted on opposition from Turkey. Or if such a possibility had been considered, it had been dismissed since that country was not a profitable outlet for Hollywood product. However, Turkey had very strong trading relationships and threatened to instigate a ban on all MGM releases in these European countries as well as the entire Muslim world, an action which if successful would put a huge hole in the studio’s foreign receipts.

For the first time studios “had begun to pay attention to foreign repercussions” after Paramount had been forced to withdraw from Spain and many other markets the final Josef von Sternberg-Marlene Dietrich collaboration The Devil Is A Woman  (1935) when that movie ruffled the feathers of foreign powers. Unwilling to go ahead with a picture that might cost them heavily at the foreign box office, Thalberg shelved the movie (along with two others).

The idea remained dormant for 15 years until revived by independent producer Walter Wanger (Joan of Arc, 1948) who had originally competed with MGM for the rights and had Paramount waiting in the wings to provide backing should the Thalberg deal fall through. But even a seasoned a producer such as Wanger had no more success in placing it on the launch pad and it struggled along in development hell for another decade until, out of the blue, in 1961 MGM hooked writer-director Carl Foreman.

This was a considerable surprise because Foreman had an exclusive and lucrative deal with Columbia (they split profits on his films down the middle) but as he was coming off that studio’s most successful picture of all time The Guns of Navarone (1961) with a high-octane cast of Gregory Peck, David Niven and Anthony Quinn the studio cut him some slack.

Foreman did not come cheap. In addition to his $27,500 fee for writing the script, Foreman was entitled to 2.5 per cent of the gross after MGM had taken in twice the negative cost. After an arduous four-year slog delivering The Guns of Navarone, Foreman described his new venture as “a bit of a rest” which seemed an odd choice of phrase given that MGM was under pressure to greenlight the picture in 1962. 

It was firmly in MGM’s production sights for most of the 1960s. In 1963 it was seen as one of the studio’s biggest upcoming projects along with Doctor Zhivago, the adaptation of James Michener’s Caravans and musical Say It with Music. By the following year it had been allocated a $7.5 million budget – the same as Zhivago – and was on course to be made in Greece in the spring of that year.

By 1965 it landed in the lap of Oscar-nominated British director Guy Green who had nurtured the $1.2 million A Patch of Blue (1965) starring Sidney Poitier into a substantial hit. Although the budget had by now dropped to $5 million it had attracted Omar Sharif, one of four big stars set. There was a new script by Scottish Oscar-winner Neil Paterson (Room at the Top, 1959) and best of all there was a top-flight producer in Pandro S. Berman (Father of the Bride, 1950)  with over two decades experience at MGM. Filming, however, though still in Greece, had been pushed back to 1966.

Although Guy Green appeared to have the most solid lock on the project, other names associated with the movie included producer Carlo Ponti (Doctor Zhivago, 1965) and directors William Wyler (Ben Hur, 1959),  Henri Verneuil  (The 25th Hour, 1967) and Elia Kazan (On the Waterfront, 1954), the last two both born in the former Ottoman Empire now known as Turkey.

It was listed as being on the MGM production schedules for every year till the end of the decade with names like Yul Brynner and Charlton Heston bandied about until it joined a massive bonfire of other expensive projects. By the end of the decade it had racked up over a million dollars in producer and screenwriter fees. According to Variety it was “the most off-again on-again major literary property in the history of American motion picture.”

But it was not alone in being dumped by a studio. Towards the end of the 1960s Hollywood was awash with abandoned projects. The rights to Broadway musical Coco had cost $2.25 million. Fred Zinnemann’s adaptation of Andre Malraux’s Man’s Fate had a $12 million budget before the plug was pulled. A record $600,000 had been spent on acquiring the rights to William Styron bestseller The Confessions of Nat Turner.

Other high-priced acquisitions lumped in production limbo included The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1965) author John Le Carre’s A Small Town in Germany, Armageddon by Leon Uris of Exodus (1960) fame, Bullet Park by John Cheever who had written The Swimmer (1968), Caravans despite the success of the author’s Hawaii (1966) and The Inheritors by Harold Robbins who had churned out The Carpetbaggers (1964).

Hit plays were no more successful in reaching the starting grid – Arthur Miller’s After the Fall had George Cukor lined up to direct and Faye Dunaway as star and a total of $350,000 had been spent on Tom Stoppard’s  Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead.  

And there, surely, Forty Days of Musa Dagh should have been laid to rest. Of all these expensive projects, only Caravans would eventually see the light of day. But against all odds, interest in Forty Days of Musa Dagh remained high. Fresh from success with Where Eagles Dare (1968) producing team Elliott Kastner and Jerry Gershwin took a stab at the project, setting their sights on a new script and a 1970 start date. But the duo could not turn the idea into reality. And once again it sank to the bottom of the pile.

Armenian businessman and sometime producer John Kurkjian (The Tears of Happiness, 1974) picked up the rights through his vehicle High Investment and wooed MGM. And in 1976 the project was revived by the studio as a co-production with James B. Harris (Paths of Glory, 1957) overseeing production based on a new script by South African playwright Ronald Harwood (One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, 1970). This was viewed as “the last attempt to revive it” and for a time it appeared as if the project would at last see the light of day. But MGM’s optimism barely lasted the year and, concluding the movie was too rich for its blood, dropped out.

Kurkjian continued to try to interest other studios and was confident. With a new script by Clarke Reynolds (Shalako, 1968), he was convinced he could get the movie off the ground with the backing of the Yugoslavian government were the film to shoot there. United Artists announced the movie would be on its release slate for 1977-1978. But that, too, proved a false dawn.

Redemption came from the most unlikely of sources –  American B-picture production outfit Cannon which had been taken over in 1979 for just $500,000 by Israeli writer-director Menahem Golem and his cousin Yoram Globus. Although this pair specialized in low-budget action pictures such as Death Wish sequels and martial arts efforts like Enter the Ninja (1981), they had artistic pretensions, borne out by The Magician of Lublin (1979) directed by Golan and starring Alan Arkin. That same year, a new version of Forty Days of Musa Dagh took shape, part-funded by High Investment and the West Berlin Senate. Charles Bronson was lined up as star. The budget was set at $10 million.

In the end, there was no Bronson and no $10 million budget, but the movie did get made in 1982 for $4 million by Transcontinental Picture Industries with the less stellar cast of Indian star Kabir Bedi (Sandokan mini-series, 1976), American television actress Ronnie Carol and character actor Guy Stockwell  (Beau Geste, 1966). It was directed by Israeli Sarky Mouradian (Tears of Happiness). It did not reach the United States for another five years. And it was no epic, coming in at a trim 94 minutes. Nor was it a huge box office success. And it’s pretty impossible to find on DVD.

Footnote: The Promise (2016) covered the same ground. Directed by Terry George, it starred Chistian Bale, Oscar Isaac and Charlotte Le Bon. It was funded by Kirk Kerkorian.

SOURCES: “Double Pan for Reich,” Variety, Feb 27, 1934, 58; “Literati: Best Sellers,” Variety, Jan 1, 1935, 58; “Wellman’s Chore,” Variety, Apr 10, 1935, 2; Advertisement, MGM, Variety, Jun 12, 1935, 25-28; “Foreign Rights Bugaboo,” Variety, Nov 27, 1935, 2; “Thalberg’s Eight; Four at $1,000,000,” Variety, Dec 25, 1935, 4; “H’Wood Foreign Jams,” Variety, Mar 25, 1936, 3; “MGM Scraps Witch of Timbuctoo and Musa Dagh,” Variety Mar 25, 1936, 3; “Film Industry Watching Blockade as B.O. Cue on Provocative Themes,” Variety, Jun 22, 1938, 1; “Carl Foreman to Metro on Loan,” Variety, Feb 1, 1961, 3;  “Columbia Waives Rights to Foreman for 40 Days,” Variety, Feb 8, 1961, 59; “Foreman’s Commitment: Doing 40 Days for MGM, Strength for Columbia,” Variety, Jul 5, 1961, 11; “Positive Side of Negatives,” Variety, May 30, 1962, 5; “Berman, 22-Year Man, Stays on MGM Lot,” Variety, Aug 1, 1962, 3; “Upcoming MG Slate May Number 30 Pix,” Variety, Jan 1, 1964, 16; “1965-1967 Will Be Roadshow Years” Variety, Sep 16, 1964, 4; “Pictures: Omar Sharif,” Variety, Dec 9, 1964, 21; “Guy Green Next Helms Musa Dagh,” Variety, Apr 14, 1965, 20; “Musa Dagh Nearer,” Variety, Jul 7, 1965, 9; “MGM Keeps Pledge of 26 Prods,” Variety, Aug 10, 1965, 5; “MGM’s (Hopefully) Final Loan,” Variety, Sep 14, 1966, 3; “3 Ponti Films on Metro O’Seas Slate,” Variety, Apr 19, 1967, 65; “Forty Days (and 34 Years) of Musa Dagh,” Variety, Apr 16, 1969, 19; “Acceptable Script As Invisible Cost Before Production,” Variety, Jul 14, 1971, 3; “Big Investment in Story Values Which Have Not Yet Been Filmed,” Variety, May 9, 1973, 28; “Werfel, After 40 years,” Variety, Jul 28, 1976, 6; “United Artists Looks Ahead; 13 from Metro Inventory,” Variety, Sep 22, 1976, 3; “Shepherd, As MGM Producer, Details Plans, Dropped Films, ” Variety, Dec 15, 1976,3; “Golan-Globus to Film 40 Days of Musa Dagh,” Variety, Feb 14, 1979, 27; “TPI Carves Out Sales Niche,” Variety, Oct 26, 1983, 69; “Film Review,” Variety, Nov 25, 1987, 19; “Cannon Completed Versus Unmade Films,” Variety, Oct 5, 1988, 52.