I would like to dedicate this review to Mr Peter Walsh Judson. This review was requested by his son on the occasion of his 85th Birthday. Best wishes go out to Peter!
At this point, I’ve seen so many films about World War II that I feel like I could enter Mastermind using the war as my specialist subject. The last film about the war I looked at was Downfall, and look at the German side during the dying days (pun not intended) of the conflict. Now, I am looking at a classic big-screen representation of the famous Second World War, 1961’s Guns of Navarone.
I knew of this film by reputation before being sent in the post by my friend and supporter Ian, and truth be told, my interest in wartime narratives has waned somewhat over the years. Don’t get me wrong; it’s not as if there aren’t several incredible stories surrounding those six years. However, I feel somewhat overfamiliar with the timeframe especially given just how many films and TV shows still seem enamoured with this particular era.
I was also put off by the age of the film. Let me explain; I am not usually one to write off a film simply because of when it was made; however, there is a pattern for movies of a certain vintage to overstay their welcome. The best example of this is perhaps Gone With the Wind, maybe this speaks more to the declining attention span of the cinema-going public, but there have been many examples of ‘classic’ films where I have thought they could have done with being at least ten minutes shorter, if not more. Well, this film isn’t as egregious as others. It is still a reasonably long watch that feels a bit bloated around the middle.
Guns of Navarone tells the story of a mission to destroy the titular guns on the (fictional) Greek island of Navarone for the British Army to launch a rescue mission on a neighbouring island. The elite team assembled for this task is lead by the dynamic Captain Mallory (Gregory Peck), who recruits a mishmash of men for this dangerous task.
If there’s one thing going for this film from the off, it’s star power. Not only does it star Hollywood icon Gregory Peck, but it also features David Niven, Richard Harris, and popular former television actor Stanley Baker. It’s a star-studded cast if ever there was one, and you can’t accuse anyone of phoning in their performances either. David Niven and Gregory Peck are the show-stealers for me, with a special mention to Anthony Quinn.
The film is also surprisingly anti-war for its time. An issue I find with many classic war films is their jingoistic nature—the easy stereotypes of the rugged British heroes against the goose-stepping blabbering Germans. There was seemingly little room for nuance in such films, which is why it’s so refreshing to see said nuance on display here. The British soldiers aren’t portrayed as entirely noble heroes, but rather, they are flawed humans thrust into an impossible situation, and they’re all the more interesting for it.
A prime example of this is during the film’s final act, David Niven’s character (Cpl John Anthony Miller) gives a pair of rousing speeches questioning their mission and the war itself. They’re a daring pair of monologues that stand out by a mile when compared to their contemporaries. There’s little sign of blind heroism in their sentiment, just resigned necessity.
Like many films of its age, however, it does seem to go on for longer than necessary. Clocking in at just over two-and-a-half hours, it isn’t the longest film of all time. Still, there is a noticeable lag in excitement and intrigue in the middle of the film, which is a shame, as everything leading up to that – and indeed following it – was suspenseful and intense. The problem is it lingering too long in a specific place or on a certain point, breaking the films flow intermittently to show us what’s going on in the area our heroes left twenty minutes ago. It isn’t a deal-breaker by any means, but it does obstruct the natural flow of the film.
As I say, though, there are some moments of great suspense and excitement to be found scattered throughout its runtime, even managing to find a way to make ships passing at sea feel intense. As if that wasn’t impressive enough, it later finds time to wring suspense out of a descending lift. These moments are incredibly well-crafted and conceived, and they make the most of the simplest things. The film has time for explosions and gun battles later, but it’s these small moments of tension that stick with me the most.
After it gets over the slight hump in the middle of the narrative, it descends quickly into an exhilarating final stretch filled with twists, turns, and the requisite explosions that come together to make this film the classic that it is. While these things still hold up well today, it is the character-driven acting and intense yet straightforward scenes that make this film stand out for me.
In conclusion, then, this is a film that manages to avoid most of the pitfalls I have come to associate with older movies, especially older war movies. While it does drag a little in the middle, its bold anti-war subtexts, astonishingly good direction and stellar acting make it stand out amongst the rest of its ilk. Many may come away remembering the triumph of its finale. Still, I came away pleasantly surprised at how balanced the film is. How well-written and acted its characters are, and above all, taken in by its attention to detail in moments that would have passed by many other filmmakers—an excellent example of classic moviemaking.