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WWII in the Movies: Allied Powers
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The Guns of Navarone

The Guns of Navarone

Shortly after completing On the Beach (1959) for director Stanley Kramer, Gregory Peck joined forces with Kramer's former partner, Carl Foreman, for a rousing adventure tale based on Alistair MacLean's best-selling novel, The Guns of Navarone (1961). The story - a sabotage team of six are sent to the Aegean island of Navarone to destroy a Nazi military installation - was transformed into an unprecedented $6 million dollar production and filmed on location on the Island of Rhodes and at the Shepperton Studios in London. It ranked at number three for the year at the box office and would be Gregory Peck's most financially rewarding film (He received a percentage of the gross) until The Omen in 1976. More importantly, it garnered seven Oscar nominations including Best Picture and would effectively revive the career of screenwriter Carl Foreman who was also serving as executive producer on The Guns of Navarone.

Foreman was blacklisted from Hollywood after testifying before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1951 and had been living in self-imposed exile in England for years, working on scripts anonymously. By 1958, however, he resurfaced publicly as writer and executive producer on The Key. The Guns of Navarone marked his first foray into a new genre - the international blockbuster - and started a trend that would endure for years (Subsequent examples include The Longest Day (1962), The Secret Invasion (1964), and Tobruk,1967). The key to the success of The Guns of Navarone was the casting and Foreman was a master at it, assembling the ultimate movie commando team after some false starts. The first A-list teamed up Hugh O'Brian, Trevor Howard, Alec Guinness, Marlon Brando, and Cary Grant. A second list of possibilities included William Holden, Jack Hawkins, and Gary Cooper. The final lineup, however, couldn't be bettered and showcased Gregory Peck, Anthony Quinn, David Niven, Anthony Quayle, Stanley Baker, and James Darren.

As expected, there were problems to be overcome during production. Peck felt that the story was basically preposterous and required a major suspension of disbelief on the part of the audience. In Gregory Peck by Freedland, the actor said "Those commandos were performing miracles. Five or six commandos outwitting a whole German regiment, getting right into the middle of them, stealing their uniforms and masquerading as Nazis. Well, to do that, you have to do with the Nazis what Mack Sennett did with the Keystone Cops. There were 550 chances for them to kill us before we even set foot on the island, but we had to do it with total conviction, even though we were aware that it was flirting with parody."

Alexander MacKendrick, the first director on The Guns of Navarone, was fired and so was a second one before Foreman settled on J. Lee Thompson, a former pilot in the Royal Air Force who was quickly establishing himself as a top action director (Flame Over India,1959). Thompson's directing style was completely unorthodox. According to Anthony Quinn in his autobiography, One Man Tango, Thompson was "one of the few men I have known who was not afraid of change. He never did the same thing twice...He was a tiny man who carried a large sketchpad, and refused to read a script. I had never heard of anything like it. His direction consisted of one arbitrary decision after another: Gregory Peck would smoke a pipe; I would grab a knife and look menacing; David Niven would tinker with the dynamite....Thompson had a tossed-off piece of business for each of us. He never read a scene until he had to shoot it, and approached each shot on a whim. And yet the cumulative effect was astonishing. Lee Thompson made a marvelous picture, but how?"

It's true the odds were against him. There was rivalry between some of the actors. Anthony Quayle thought Anthony Quinn was difficult to work with and Niven was afraid he would be upstaged by other cast members, particularly Gregory Peck. But Thompson's unflappable temperament unified the ensemble cast and smoothed over other dilemmas like the hiring of a thousand Greek soldiers to play German troops or filming in a location that was only accessible by donkeys. Toward the end of production, Niven was almost drowned in a huge water tank while Thompson simulated a storm at sea. To add insult to injury, the actor also cut his lip on the water tank and developed septicemia which forced him into a month-long hospital stay.

Miraculously, The Guns of Navarone was completed without a fatality and at the 1961 Oscar ceremony the film scored a well deserved Oscar for its special effects which are particularly impressive in the final scenes when the big guns are destroyed. The film would belatedly inspire a sequel, Force 10 From Navarone (1978), with Robert Shaw and Harrison Ford, but it couldn't compare to the original in terms of sheer excitement.

Director: J. Lee Thompson
Producer: Cecil F. Ford
Producer/Screenwriter: Carl Foreman
Cinematographer: Oswald Morris
Composer: Dimitri Tiomkin
Editor: Alan Osbiston
Production Designer: Geoffrey Drake
Songwriter: Alfred Perry, Paul Francis Webster
Costume Designer: Monty Berman, Olga Lehmann
Cast: Gregory Peck (Capt. Keith Mallory), David Niven (Corporal Miller), Anthony Quinn (Col. Andrea Stavrov), Stanley Baker (CPO Butcher Brown), Anthony Quayle (Maj. Roy Franklin), Richard Harris (Squadron Leader Barnsby), Irene Papas (Maria Pappadimos), James Darrin (Private Spyros Pappadimos), Gia Scala (Anna), James Robertson Justice (Commodore James Jensen)
C-157m. Letterboxed. Closed captioning.

by Jeff Stafford



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