Few movies have been as effective at invisibly weaving their narrative fiction into our collective consciousness as fact as J. Lee Thompson’s The Guns of Navarone (1961); a magnetic – if slightly pulpy – WWII melodrama loosely based on Alistair McLean’s novel. Before proceeding it must be pointed out that the entire tale is a work of fiction; brilliantly reconstituted by Thompson as perhaps, the peerless example of Hollywood’s machinery still alive and churning out fantasy from its ‘dream factories’. The Guns of Navarone is a tale of heroism in all of its many forms. The screenplay by blacklisted writer Carl Foreman never clear cuts or white washes the reality of war and what it’s done to these enlisted men fighting for a cause they may or may not believe in wholeheartedly. Even Gregory Peck’s Capt. Keith Mallory reveals a darker side to his stoic purpose – strangely unsympathetic at times, yet always flavored with Peck’s own inimitable brand of manly grace to counterbalance the character’s rather cold-blooded approach to the mission.
The Guns of Navarone is arguably one of the most perfectly cast movies ever made; its stars hand-picked by Thompson and fitted according to type. After an exhilarating prologue containing mere kernels of truth about WWII, the story shifts into high gear with Mallory, a staunchly determined strategist, assigned the near impossible task of taking a crack team of military misfits to a remote Nazi stronghold on Kiros in the Greek Isles to blow up their impregnable fortress. Mallory’s team includes embittered explosives expert, Cpl. Miller (David Niven), feisty Col. Andrea Stavros (Anthony Quinn), barbarous assassin with a knife, Brown (Stanley Baker), pragmatic Maj. Roy Franklin (Anthony Quayle) and rookie solider, Pvt. Spyros Pappadimo (James Darren). Their mission is hardly foolproof. Fate is anything but on the expedition’s side.
Camouflaging themselves as a fishing trawler, Mallory and his men are intercepted by a German cruiser on the open waters where, after some initial trepidation, they make short shrift of the Nazis, murdering all aboard and sinking the vessel into silence. Franklin takes particular notice of the antagonistic relationship between Stavros and Mallory, and Mallory later informs Franklin that through his own blunder he earlier caused the Nazis to put to death Stavros’ wife and young son. Hence, when the expedition is over – and if they should both survive it – Stavros has promised to avenge these deaths by murdering Mallory. That night the modest fishing vessel is wrecked against the coastal rocks during a violent storm at sea with Mallory and his men scaling a perilous cliff to conquer their first Nazi stronghold.
In the process Franklin is wounded, but Mallory refuses to give in, give up or leave his superior officer behind to die. Miller recognizes the futility of their journey, encouraging Mallory to shoot Franklin. For left alive he will surely be discovered and tortured by the Nazis until he divulges the purpose of their expedition. Instead, Mallory elects to take Franklin along. But Mallory lies to Franklin about the trajectory of their expedition so that if Franklin is captured by the Nazis and made to talk he will provide them with false information. When Miller realizes how heartless and calculating Mallory has been he vehemently chides him.
Mallory and his troop make their way to some ancient ruins outside of Kiros where they are met by resistance fighter Maria Pappadimos (Irene Papas) and her presumably mute cohort, Anna (Gia Scala). It seems that Maria is Spyros’ cousin. But she has also taken an immediate shine to Stavros, making no secret of her attraction. Anna, so Maria explains, was tortured by the Nazis and left unable to speak by the atrocities committed on her person. Regrettably, a traitor is in their midst, one who having leaked their whereabouts to the Nazis now awaits Mallory’s ambush by at an outdoor Greek wedding reception. Interrogated but escaping their Nazi captors, Mallory and his men regroup at the ruins where Stavros exposes Anna as the liar. Miller tells Mallory that Anna must be killed and points his finger at Mallory to be the one to assassinate her. Unwilling to murder a woman Mallory is spared his duty when Maria shoots Anna dead instead. Next, Stavros, Miller, Pappadimo and Mallory make their way to the Nazis' fortress high in the cliffs overlooking the bay. During an exchange of gunfire, Spyros and Brown are killed. With the Nazis bearing down, Mallory and Miller rig explosive charges under the two massive guns pointed toward the sea just as an armada of Allied ships are approaching off the coast. The Nazis inadvertently set off Miller’s charges and the stronghold is demolished in a hellish ball of flame as Mallory and Miller dive into the sea to escape the deluge. They are rescued by a boat navigated by Stavros and Maria; the former having set aside his revenge as they observe the bombed out remains of their handy work.
The Guns of Navarone is an exceptional yarn. Foreman's prose makes the story real, despite the historical record. We believe the movie as fact, mostly because Gregory Peck, Tony Quinn, David Niven et al. sell its premise not merely as high movie art but a definitive history as yet untold in the annals of time. It goes without saying that The Guns of Navarone is immeasurably blessed by its perfect casting. Each actor is an iconic presence with built-in cache and/or baggage brought aboard; Peck’s integrity, Niven’s conviction, Quinn’s lusty zeal for portraying men of feisty Greek origin, etc. etc. The story succeeds partially because the actors have a presence that is sweetly familiar to the audience. We know the characters because we think we know the men behind them and this adds yet another layer of verisimilitude to the exercise.
The Guns of Navarone is one of those films almost lost to us, thanks to inferior storage and preservation over the years and inferior film stock suffering from a perilous state of vinegar syndrome almost from the moment it was locked away inside Columbia’s vaults and left to molder with the rest of the studio’s illustrious past. For decades The Guns of Navarone was shown on television with its opening sequence misprinted. Immediately following the credits, a plane is seen landing on a runway (shot day for night but printed darker). During the original theatrical release this plane lands at night. On television, it always landed in broad daylight. The sequence also contains a major special effects flub – another plane seemingly suspended in the sky without moving.
In the mid-1990s, Columbia contacted UCLA restoration expert, Robert Gitt to aid in the restoration, accomplished without the added benefit of a digital frame-by-frame cleanup. In 1999, Columbia released The Guns of Navarone to DVD in a less than stellar incarnation, with bumped contrasts, faded flesh tones, very weak colors and shimmering of fine details. A lot of these flaws were inherent in the original print elements, and prior to the wizardry of digital restoration were impossible to correct using standard photochemical techniques. But now Sony Home Video has really gone to town with a ground-up 1080p hi-def restoration. The results are superb. But let's get something straight. The Guns of Navarone will never look pristine. Arguably, it was never intended to. But decades of neglect, poor film stock and processing, and, even poorer storage have all conspired against this movie classic. Thankfully, Sony has gone back to the drawing board on first generation Cinemascope elements (the original camera negative no longer exists) with mostly successful results.
Day for night photography is still problematic, the image considerably grainier. But the outdoor photography, particularly sequences shot in the full light of day, on this Blu-ray are a minor revelation. Flesh tones that once appeared as chalky orange have been brought back into line and are very natural looking throughout. Colors are, at times, startlingly vibrant. The ambush at the Greek wedding positively blew me away with its stark white stucco façades and lush green foliage. Gia Scala's eyes registered a sublime coral blue brilliance. Visually, The Guns of Navarone on Blu-ray has come to life as I never thought it would - even if its film elements remain fundamentally flawed. Sony has also done absolute wonders with the original 4-track stereo too, herein represented as DTS-HD 5.1. Again, it isn't crystal clear, but it is light years ahead of anything we’ve ever heard reproduced on home video before.
The one new extra is 'the resistance dossier' - a beautifully composed series of featurettes that are brief but poignant. For the rest, Sony gives us all of the featurettes and documentaries that came with their deluxe 2-disc DVD from several years ago. None of these older extras have been cleaned up so don't expect high quality video or audio. Still, given Sony's base price for this vintage catalogue title and the immeasurable efforts put forth to restore the film to 'almost' its opening night splendor makes me want to stand up and cheer. The Guns of Navarone Blu-ray is a no-brainer must have/must own. Highly recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)