Saturday, May 2, 2009

Classic Commando Cinema

The Guns Of Navarone
Sony // 1961 // 158 Minutes

By Steve Evans

“An impenetrable fortress, an invincible army…and the unstoppable commando team.” ~ From the Promotional Poster.

Opening Shot
“Look, sir. First, you've got that bloody old fortress on top of that bloody cliff. Then you've got the bloody fortress inside the cliff. You can't even see the bloody cave, let alone the bloody guns. And even if we could, sir, we haven't got a bloody bomb big enough to smash that bloody rock. And that's the bloody truth.” ~ So sez David Niven to Gregory Peck.

A classic thriller of World War II action and espionage explodes off the screen. Nominated for seven Academy Awards in 1961, including Best Picture, The Guns of Navarone won for Best Special Effects, which still hold up well nearly half a century later. Budgeted at $6 million, it was among the most expensive movies made up to that time, and that money is all on screen.

Hugely influential, The Guns of Navarone is a legendary action film, with excellent production values, a sterling international cast, a literate script (from the bestselling novel by Alistair MacLean), hair-raising escapes, and suspense galore.

A Bit of Plot…
Gregory Peck and David Niven lead an international cast on a covert operation through Greece in the waning days of the Second World War. Their mission? Destroy German cannons in a fortified position high on the rocky cliffs of Navarone, an island on the Aegean Sea. The Germans use the deadly artillery installation to sink British ships attempting to rescue some 2,000 Allied troops stranded on a nearby island. The commando team has six days to infiltrate and destroy Navarone before the Germans massacre the troops. Mountain climber Peck and demolition man Niven resolve to destroy the guns and clear the sea passage. They assemble a strike force of war-movie archetypes, including the deadly Greek soldier Stavros (Anthony Quinn), a sniper, a war-weary commando, and a Greek freedom fighter (Irene Papas). Following a few truncated scenes of character development, the group sets off on their mission, armed with automatic weapons and enough explosives to bring down a mountain.

Long before they reach Navarone, the team must face enemy fire, outflank German patrols, work their way through several nail-biting escapes, commandeer a leaky vessel, deal with personality clashes among themselves, and unmask the traitor in their midst.

Peck brings grim resolve to his role, nicely counterbalanced by the more sensitive Niven, who pessimistically observes that they are on a suicide mission. Quinn defines machismo and Papas adds another layer of realism to the story as a hardened fighter who is unafraid to kill — or to reveal her sensitive side. Look fast for Richard Harris as an impudent Australian pilot early in the picture.

The climactic attack on Navarone still packs an explosive wallop, as our saboteur heroes infiltrate the fortress and attempt to blow it to the bottom of the sea.

Navarone can also be seen as the granddaddy of commando movies. Its success paved the way for such action vehicles as The Dirty Dozen and Kelly's Heroes. Quentin Tarantino’s upcoming Inglourious Basterds (21 Aug. 2009) owes a nod to Navarone as well.

What’s on the Disc, Steve?
I’ll tell ya. The DVD offers a vibrant print with crystal-clear sound in re-mixed Dolby 5.1. This seriously good-looking transfer fills the widescreen image with breathtaking color. One of the highlights of Navarone is the gorgeous cinematography, as much of the picture was filmed on location in Greece, with the plentiful special-effects work shot in England at Shepperton Studios in Surrey.

The disc includes a choice of subtitles in eight languages, two audio formats, and an easy-to-navigate scene selection menu. Additional extras include:

• Director J. Lee Thompson’s commentary track, recorded just before his death in 2002.
• Retrospective Documentary
• “Message from Carl Foreman” – blacklisted screenwriter who also penned High Noon.
• Four Original Featurettes
• Talent Files
• Theatrical Trailers
• Production Notes

For a 48-year-old film, clean audio in a nicely re-mixed Dolby 5.1 soundtrack is a definite plus. The subwoofer gets a vigorous workout and the rear-channel speakers are fairly involved during action sequences for an immersive sonic experience. At times, it feels like a mountain is coming down on top of us. Cool.

As for the Oscar-winning special effects, contemporary audiences will note instantly that the climactic battle relies heavily on models and miniature pyrotechnics, although editing helps obscure this to some degree. Still, these are certainly elaborate models, photographed with the best optical printing systems available in 1961, and it is in that context that modern viewers are encouraged to enjoy the film.

Thompson allows the action to bog down in several sections as though he has confused careful pacing with inducing boredom, but these scenes pass and the momentum builds inexorably toward a raucous finale.

An intelligent, action-packed thriller, The Guns of Navarone is a must-have for any serious collector of adventure films. Cast and crew acquit themselves with honor. The famous guns are fated to a fiery demise.

Copyright © 2009 by Cinematic Cteve // dba Cinema Uprising. All rights reserved.

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