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.

Guns of Darkness (1962) ***

You might think David Lean in Lawrence of Arabia (1962) had cornered the market in startling transitions involving light (from Peter O’Toole’s match to the rising sun) and gut-wrenching scenes involving quicksand but nearly six months prior Anthony Asquith (The Millionairess, 1960) in the less-heralded Guns of Darkness had adopted similar techniques. He cuts from a nightclub singer blowing out a candle to a man lighting a candle in a church and since his film is in black-and-white it cannot hope to match Lean’s fabulous color transition. However, the quicksand scene in the Asquith, I would argue, lacking color or not, is far superior to that of the desert epic.

Thanks to Pygmalion (1938) and The Winslow Boy (1948) Asquith was one of a handful of British directors – Lean, Powell/Pressburger and Carol Reed the others – with an international reputation. Stars David Niven and Leslie Caron had topsy-turvy careers. Niven’s box office cachet had almost disappeared in the mid-1950s before an unexpected Oscar for Separate Tables (1958) and a starring role in The Guns of Navarone (1961). Although Caron had An American in Paris (1951), Lili (1953) and Gigi (1958) on her dance-card she was not an automatic big-name star. It reflects their respective positions that Caron has star billing.

Niven and Caron are an unhappily married couple caught up in a revolution in a fictional South American country. His boyish charm has long worn thin, his employment record is spotty and he is inclined, when drunk, to insult bumptious boss (James Robertson Justice). On New Year’s Eve while an enclave of pampered Brits is counting down to the bells, rebels  are preparing to storm the presidential palace and seize power. Niven seems the last person to give shelter to a fugitive from the revolution, especially when the runaway turns out to be the ex-president Rivero (David Opatoshu, Exodus, 1960). Caron, who has been planning to leave Niven the next day, finds herself involved in the escape.

The couple are both quickly disabused of notions of the saintliness of presidents and peasants, Rivera nearly strangling a child who discovers his hiding place, Caron stoned by villagers, pacifist Niven forced into a horrific act of violence.  

If you ever wondered what screenwriters do to earn their money, this film is a good place to start. It was based on a book “Act of Mercy” by British thriller writer Francis Clifford, who also wrote “The Naked Runner,” also later filmed. The screenwriters changed the David Niven character from the happily married committed businessman of the book to the dissatisfied dilettante of the film. As a happy couple, there are none of the marital tensions in the film. The revolution in the book has already started but in the film it is moved to New Year’s Eve and about to begin. The quicksand scene is a screenwriter’s invention as is the incident with the boy and the massacre in the village.

The pace is brisk from the outset, Asquith cross-cutting between revolutionaries and the Brits and as the manhunt steps up a gear the three escapees face a succession of perilous incidents. Not least is a river that has turned to quicksand. This six-minute scene is a standout, the mud closing in on their heads, Niven having to crawl back to rescue Rivera. As you would expect with this kind of picture there is a fair bit of philosophizing, moralizing and sheer brutality. As the couple flounder towards reconciliation, the script spends some time trying to ascertain Niven’s motives. Had the film stuck to the source book’s title, Act of Mercy, that would not have been necessary.

A taut film with, once the revolution has begun, the British put in their place rather than acting as imperialist overlords. There are a couple of unexpected twists at the end and Asquith finished with a technical flourish of his own, the camera tracking back from people walking forward. Both Niven and Caron are excellent, James Robertson Justice at once cuddly and ruthless, and the picture comes out as a tidy character-driven thriller.

Many of the films from the 1960s are to be found free of charge on TCM and Sony Movies and the British Talking Pictures as well as mainstream television channels. But if this film is not available through these routes, then here is the link to the DVD and/or streaming service.