It’s interesting looking at Guns of Navarone in the context of the World War 2 genre of films. It’s contemporaneous with movies like The Longest Day, which I mentioned in my review of that movie that it’s something of a last hurrah of old Hollywood. Guns of Navarone feels like a middle ground. On the one hand, most of the film’s cast fit in that general age range (and also has Gregory Peck). On the other hand, it’s a little more cynical than that film – but it is not as cynical as a Bridge Too Far was (and considering the historical context, than this film could be). However, it still makes for a very solid film.
The film is set during the (generally less historically covered) Greek campaign of World War II. The campaign is going badly, aggravated by the ability to re-supply being impacted by some heavily fortified radar-controlled guns on the (fictional) island of Navarone. A regiment of British troops is due to be overwhelmed and taken down by the Nazis if they aren’t rescued soon – but to do that the guns have got to go. So it’s up to expert mountain climber Keith Mallory (Peck), demolitions expert John Miller (David Niven), and the rest of his team to infiltrate the island and destroy the guns.
The film is lightly cynical – the men are slightly hard, and they do make hard decisions, but they err on the side of humanity – a team member gets injured and can no longer actively take part in the mission, and the decision to have them eat a bullet is rejected outright – something a later more cynical film would go for. Characters doubt the mission, and argue if it’s worth it, but always decide to go forward, putting the many above the few.
This is not to say the film is without some very real flaws. In particular, the writing falls into the old chestnut of “Noble Wehrmacht Officer, Evil SS Officer.” The problem is this particular trope got used to excuse the complicity of the German army in Nazi war crimes of all sorts at the time, and later on (particularly in the 90s and Oughts) to push back as using Nazi soldiers as bad guys in movies, painting them as being victims too when no, they weren’t.
Otherwise, there are some really dumb action bits (two guys in the open shooting SMGs at each other from the hip without going for cover, lots of pulling pins in grenades with your teeth), but a lot of it is compensated by some really strong character moments – and some pretty good miniature and matte painting work. It’s a movie that I remember enjoying when I watched on cable as a kid, and which I enjoyed now, but which I didn’t find myself invested in enough to feel like this was something worth owning, necessarily.
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