Sunday, June 14, 2020

Alastair MacLean's The Guns of Navarone

A long movie that doesn't seem long is a carefully-crafted motion picture. Such is the case with The Guns of Navarone (1961), which clocks in at a brisk 158 minutes.

Based on Alastair MacLean's 1957 novel, it tells the story of a small military team tasked with destroying two huge German guns. The artillery are located on the island of  Navarone and prevent Allied battleships from rescuing 2,000 British soldiers marooned on an adjacent isle. Since the guns are housed inside a cave, they cannot be destroyed by aerial bombs. The team's only hope to scale a dangerous mountain on the most lightly guarded side of the island.

David Niven and Gregory Peck.
The team consists of: Captain Keith Mallory (Gregory Peck), a famous mountain climber who is fluent in German; Major Roy Franklin (Anthony Quayle), who hatched the plan; Corporal Miller (David Niven), an explosives genius; "Butcher" Brown (Stanley Baker), a mechanic and knife expert; a young soldier (James Darren) born on Navarone, but raised in New York; and Colonel Andrea Stavros (Anthony Quinn), a Greek officer who blames Mallory for the death of his family. Irene Pappas and Gia Scala co-star as two resistance fighters who live on Navarone.

Richard Harris has a brief cameo.
Each of the stars is perfectly matched with his role, even though Peck, Niven, and Quinn are too old for their characters. That fact becomes immaterial as the action speeds along to the thrilling climax. MacLean's story constantly throws obstacles in the team's path: a curious German patrol, a savage storm at sea, capture by the Nazis, and the presence of a spy. The highlight, though, comes in the film's first half when Peck and Quinn have to climb the treacherous cliff at the rain. On a DVD commentary, director J. Lee Thompson said he thought this nail biting sequence was too long (I disagree!).

The Guns of Navarone is so expertly made--and placed in historical context--that one assumes it was based on fact. Actually, the plot is wholly fictitious, although MacLean's tale was inspired by the Battle of Leros in the Aegean Sea during World War II. The novel was MacLean's second and become a bestseller. Following the box office success of the movie adaptation, other MacLean novels were made into movies, notably The Satan Bug (1965), Where Eagles Dare (1968), and Ice Station Zebra (1968).

Harrison Ford in Force 10.
MacLean wrote a sequel in 1968, Force 10 from Navarone, in which Mallory, Miller, and Stavros are sent on a mission to Yugoslavia. A movie version was planned in the late 1960s with Peck, Niven, and Quinn reprising their roles. However, the production was delayed and didn't reach the screen until 1978. By then, Robert Shaw and Edward had been cast as Mallory and Miller. The plot bore little resemble to MacLean's novel. The supporting cast included Harrison Ford (Stars Wars was released a year earlier) and Barbara Bach (who had just appeared in The Spy Who Loved Me).


  1. Did you time this post to coincide with James Robertson Justice's birthdate?

    On the drive home from a party where we heard someone comment how much he "hated" The Guns of Navarone, my husband mused that if we ever created an application form for friends, the first question should be their feelings about The Guns of Navarone so we could weed out the haters.

  2. Very nice review, Rick. McLean was one of those authors, like Michael Crichton or John Grisham, who seems to be relatively easy to adapt into film. Or, the popularity of his novels made adaptations less risky for risk-averse Hollywood.

    Fun fact: David Niven played a small, but instrumental role in England's effort to stave off Hitler during the Blitz in WWII. I am reading Erik Larson's excellent "The Splendid and the Vile" right now, and Niven makes a real life "cameo" volunteering to entertain (in London) a key figure in the US government at a crucial time when Churchill desperately needed the US to support England - prior to Pear Harbor, of course.

  3. MacLeans's books I couldn't read, his style didn't sit well -- but I didn't have a problem with the movie adaptations. "Guns" I liked, but right away I felt the same as you that the actors were too old for the parts.

    I'm afraid I haven't seen it since it came out in theaters. Sat through it halfway through a second viewing, and my friend and I decided to walk home instead of wait for his mother to pick us up at the arranged time. She was frantic searching for us. We both received wounds suffered in battle as a result of that escapade and I never wanted to relive the experience.

  4. I agree that Peck, Niven and Quinn were too old for these roles, but it's such a terrific film with a brisk pace and smart dialogue, you can overlook that. This is a film I watch regularly, and I always forget it's so long. Like you said, it doesn't drag or feel like a long film.

  5. I'm not a big action/war film fan...but I LOVE this movie! It's a nail-biter alright, but I think what makes it really stand out is the cast and its setting. I wish more adventure films were set in Greece. In Peck's later days, he reunited with Niven to make the wonderful Sea Wolves.