Not all World War II movies are created equal. Then again, such a blanket statement could be applied in so many different ways as to be meaningless. Not all toasters are created equal. Not all chinchillas are created equal. The only things in creation that are equal before God are us humans, and He loves us all the same. With movies, being pale imitations of that creation, the variety of gifts with which our Creator endows us make for some different interpretations, sometimes of the same subject. You would think with an exciting event like a world at war, there would be little chance of making a dull cinematic piece covering any part of those events. There is also the notion that, ideologically speaking, it was the world’s last “good fight” where there were clear good and bad guys. In this light, I would not say The Guns of Navarone (1961) is a bad movie. It is one that I had heard about for some time, spoken highly of, but never had the opportunity to see. In the aftermath, I would have liked to see the pace pick up a bit. Given how much praise I had heard about it, I was expecting something a little more exciting.
Movies that begin with an opening crawl can be hit or miss, but I suppose the one that starts The Guns of Navarone is necessary. It is nice to see not only the acknowledgement of the various military branches that contributed to the film, but also the Greek people to which it is dedicated. The ancient country is not your usual subject for World War II Hollywood productions, so we can at least credit them for doing something different. On one of the many Greek islands, Kheros, there are 2,000 British prisoners being held. In order to get them, the British Admiralty decides that two long range, radar directed artillery pieces on the nearby island of Navarone need to first be destroyed. To do so, British officer Major Roy Franklin (Anthony Quayle) assembles a commando team. As their plan involves scaling a sheer, seaside cliff, their first recruit is Captain Keith Mallory (Gregory Peck). Before the war, he had an international reputation as being the best climber in the world. There is also an assortment of cutthroats and other soldiers known for their violence, including a former associate of Captain Mallory’s, Colonel Andrea Stavros (Anthony Quinn). Colonel Stavros has a personal vendetta against Captain Mallory, the Greek officer blaming the British one for the death of his family. I would think this would make for a less than ideal command arrangement, but I guess it adds tension to the movie. Anyway, they set out for Navarone from Crete, and when they get close to their target rocky outcrop, a storm makes their approach more complicated. Major Franklin does his best to maneuver around the crags jutting into the massive waves, but their rickety trawler gets tossed into the rocks and hung up. They hastily get as much of their supplies offloaded as they can, but Major Franklin is wounded in the process. Matters are made worse when they have to scale the vertical wall in front of them in the rain, which results in Major Franklin breaking his leg. Once on top, they have to decide what to do with their incapacitated leader. The others, including Major Franklin’s close friend and demolitions expert Corporal John Anthony Miller (David Niven), favor leaving their commander behind. Captain Mallory assumes command and has a stretcher made to carry Major Franklin to their next objective. This is to link up with members of the Greek Resistance, who come in the form of Maria Pappadimos (Irene Papas), sister of team member Spyros Pappadimos (James Darren), and her friend Anna (Gia Scala). They hope to leave Major Franklin in a hospital in a nearby town, but they find the building overrun with German soldiers when they enter. The others who did not take Major Franklin to the doctor’s officer are captured shortly thereafter. What saves them is a performance from Colonel Stavros. While under interrogation, he plays the part of the innocent victim forced to go along with this mad British plan, even throwing himself on the ground and writhing in agony. This buys the team enough time to overwhelm the guards and get away. Before they go, Captain Mallory tells Major Franklin, who they are leaving in the hands of the German doctors, that their mission has been called off and that a conventional landing on the island will soon take place. Captain Franklin is banking on the Germans using drugs on Major Franklin to get the wounded officer to reveal their intentions. When this happens, much of the garrison guarding the gun emplacement goes out to meet the bogus invasion. Still, they must deal with a traitor in their midst, who happens to be Anna, who is shot dead by Maria. It is then left to Captain Mallory and Corporal Miller to get into the vacated artillery bunker and plant the explosives. The others are to distract the remaining garrison, while Maria secures for them a boat in which to make their getaway. This part goes relatively to plan, though there are some tense moments as they wait for their improvised charges to detonate. Job done, Colonel Stavros decides to stay with Maria, while the rest steam away with a small fleet of British destroyers.
There is not a lot of character development in The Guns of Navarone, which makes it a little hard to come up with a Catholic perspective about which to write. One could make an argument for Corporal Miller, who is distrustful of authority, learning to see a point in what they are doing. There is something to be said, actually, about the war taking its toll on all the characters, but it is Corporal Miller who gives these feelings their most poignant voice when he says that he does not care if the world blows itself up. It is interesting for a film as long as it is, and with drawn out lulls in the action, that there is not more character development. However, the reason for the movie is to show a daring secret mission plant explosives on big guns. Besides, I have talked about redemption stories enough in films. Instead, I will focus a little on the presence of the Greek Orthodox Church in the film. That is not a subject often covered in these reviews. In truth, there is not a lot of difference between the two, and from the Catholic side of things, we are in Communion with each other. This simply means, among other things, that I could take Communion at an Orthodox service. This may seem trivial, but keep in mind that other Christian sects that reenact the Last Supper, as the Bible tells us to do, see the bread and wine as mere symbols rather than the actual Body and Blood of Jesus. This is a cornerstone of Catholicism, and in order for our Faith to be in Communion with another, it must be in agreement on this principle. It is also nice to see the role the Orthodox Church plays in helping our team of saboteurs. The best example of this is the shelter Captain Mallory and his group are offered after they escape the Germans. The history of the Catholic Church during World War II is not sparkling by any means, but more often than not it was on this same level.
If nothing else, I can check The Guns of Navarone off my list. While watching it, I noted how neat were the special effects for a film made in the early 1960s, for which it won an Academy Award. So, there is something there for the avid movie watcher. Otherwise, it moves a bit slow, dragging out a number of scenes for no discernible reason. If you must watch a classic World War II film, there are better choices.