The Guns of Navarone (1961) dir. J. Lee Thompson
Starring: Gregory Peck, Anthony Quinn, David Niven, Anthony Quayle, Stanley Baker, James Darren, Irene Pappas
By Alan Bacchus
Arguably the 60’s wasn’t Hollywood’s greatest decade. Other than a handful of benchmarks (ie. ‘The Graduate’, ‘The Wild Bunch’, ‘Bonnie and Clyde’, ‘Easy Rider’), to generalize, much of the decade was mired in unmemorable and forgettable post-studio system films. What did flourish during the period was the epic picture (‘Lawrence of Arabia’, ‘The Great Escape’, ‘Ben Hur’). While David Lean was winning awards and acclaim for his big movies, perhaps second to him, and much lesser well known is the career rise of fellow Briton J. Lee Thompson.
Throughout the late 50’s Thompson helmed a number of British action/adventure films, featuring expansive and spectacular outdoor locations, specifically ‘Ice Cold in Alex’ (1959) and ‘Northwest Frontier’ (1959). His workmanlike efficiency and calm British demeanour made him popular with his actors, perhaps the equivalent of a Clint Eastwood of today.
No film was more popular in his filmography than ‘The Guns of Navarone’, one of the original ‘men on a mission’ war films of the 60’s/70’s which would greatly influence Quentin Tarantino’s revision of the genre in ‘Inglourious Basterds’.
Based on the Alistair Maclean adventure novel, Thompson and producer Carl (‘Bridge on the River Kwai’) Foreman spared little expense in adapting it for maximum entertainment value. Gregory Peck’s commanding presence anchors the picture as Capt Keith Mallory, a rock climber turned solider recruited by the British to assemble a team of men to travel to the remote island of Navarone in the Aegean Sea, scale a giant rock face and destroy a pair of gigantic Nazis artillery guns which overlooks and protects the region. His team includes Capt. Major Roy Franklin (Anthony Quayle, a ubiquitous figure in these films), Mallory’s rival climber Andrea Stavros (Anthony Quinn), a demolitions expert (David Niven), a Greek revolutionary, and two tough guy heavies for muscle.
As the team travels from British ground zero in Keros, Greece to Navarone, they find themselves engaged in a number of thrilling set pieces of high stake jeopardy – disguised as Greek fisherman they confront and fight off a suspecting Nazi patrol boat; they make it through a violent sea storm (a scene rendered with complete cinematic intensity and believability); a daring cliff face climb which tests Mallory and Stavros' trust between each other, and in addition to a number of other tense confrontations, the grand finale at the ‘guns of Navarone.’
Thompson/Foreman’s use of the exotic and stupendously beautiful Mediterranean locations is one of the film’s great legacies. So much so, the filmmakers gave the people of Greece a large and dedicated acknowledgement of thanks at the head of the picture. Thompson’s skills at composition and attentiveness to scale and production design creates a strong sense of ‘bigness’. Even when the men are just talking quietly near a rock or in a cave, the masculine bravado and wartime heroism compliments his full-bodied direction.
If anything, Thompson’s reliance on then-trendy ‘day-for-night’ cinematography results in a muddied and rather visually-dull third act. The penetration into the fortress housing the guns feels easy compared to other scenes of jeopardy throughout the rest of the picture. But Production designer Geoffrey Drake’s two massive phallic canons which stick out into the Aegean Sea do not disappoint, a formidable and worthy final opponent for these men on a mission.
‘The Guns of Navarone’ would end 1961 as the highest grossing film of the year and receive seven Oscar nominations include Best Picture and Best Director. The year after, J. Lee Thompson would direct ‘Cape Fear’ with Peck again, and number of other big action pictures in including my colleague Greg Klymkiw’s favourite ‘Taras Bulba’. By the 1980’s though, he would become a talented hack churning out Charles Bronson films before becoming fully obsolete. But what a remarkable career for a man most filmgoers have never even heard of.