Tuesday, August 17, 2010

DVD Review: THE GUNS OF NAVARONE (Columbia, 1961)

My dad loved World War II movies. On those rare occasions when Mom and Dad went to the flicks without us kids, they always seemed to attend a war picture: A Bridge Too Far, Tora Tora Tora, Midway, The Big Red One. Older war films were prime TV fodder at our house, along with such small-screen offerings as The Rat Patrol (tanks in North Africa, aka a bunch of military men driving endlessly around what seemed like the world's largest sandbox). Looking back on it now, it seems a bit strange that Dad -- a young teenager in Hungary during the thick of the fighting who even sustained a thumb injury from a malfunctioning live grenade -- would want to constantly relive those terrible times, especially in the somewhat "scrubbed-up" versions in which Hollywood specialized during the 50s, 60s, and 70s. I wonder what he would have thought of such gritty, bloody modern war epics as Saving Private Ryan. The Guns of Navarone, now... that would have been right up his alley. If he didn't see it multiple times -- and I'd be shocked if such were the case -- then it was probably just an oversight.

Guns is a quintessential "guys on a dangerous mission" story that looks ahead to the future by putting a heavy emphasis on the infighting amongst our band of heroes. The target du jour is a German gun emplacement commanding a sea channel on the (fictitious) Greek island of Navarone. Failure to knock the guns out of action will cause a large group of British soldiers on a neighboring island to be lost. A crack mountaineer (Gregory Peck, imperious as ever) is forced to take charge of the mission after the commanding officer (Anthony Quayle) is injured in a fall. The motley crew of local resistance fighters, a slightly sinister Greek officer (Anthony "Mighty" Quinn), a persnickety explosives expert (David Niven), and a haunted guy named "Butcher" brave temporary capture by the Nazis, a near-fatal shipwreck, and a climb up a vertiginous cliff -- and then they learn that there's a traitor somewhere in their midst...

The "final solution" to the treason question, with its memorable standoff between Niven and Peck, is the film's most gripping moment -- as it was intended to be, concluding "bangs" and "booms" to the contrary. Producer-writer Carl Foreman, one of the blacklisted Hollywood 10, apparently wanted the movie to be considered an anti-war statement, and the raw material is definitely there: Niven gets several set speeches about war's futility, while "Butcher" has killed so many men that he's about ready to crack. However, I think that Foreman's politics get in the way of the intended message. His Nazis are so nasty that the viewer winds up wanting the film to hurry past the speechifying and get about the business of taking out the thoroughly hateable enemy. The moviegoers who made Guns the top-grossing movie of 1961 evidently saw the movie as a straight-ahead war flick and ignored the subtext.

Director J. Lee Thompson provides audio commentary for the movie, and he, Peck, Quinn, and James Darren -- who plays a Greek private with half a dozen lines of dialogue, with a few snatches of Greek song thrown in -- do the vast majority of the sitting-and-talking in the "Making Of" documentary. (Actually, stacked up against other contemporary pop stars who plied their craft in "serious" movies -- Ricky Nelson in Rio Bravo, Frankie Avalon in The Alamo, Fabian in The Longest Day, and Elvis in... well, I did say "serious" -- Darren does quite well in his limited role. His being picked to co-star in The Time Tunnel seems to make more sense now.) A few b&w Columbia promo shorts and the "high-action" trailer round out a thoroughly respectable set of extras.

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