The Oscar nominations are finally due to be announced on March 15th and the Oscars themselves are scheduled to be awarded at the end of April. In anticipation of the big event (and the end of this current lengthy awards season), I am going to spend the next two months watching and reviewing Oscar nominees of the past. Some day, I hope to be able to say that I have watched and reviewed every single film nominated for Best Picture. It’s a mission that, with each passing year, I come a little bit closer to acomplishing.
Tonight, I decided to start things off by watching the 1961 best picture nominee, The Guns of Navarone.
The Guns of Navarone takes place in 1943, during World War II. 2,000 British troops are stranded on the Greek island of Kheros and the Nazis are planning on invading the island in a show of force that they hope will convince Turkey to join the Axis powers. The Allies need to evacuate those troops before the Nazis invade. The problem is that, on the nearby island of Navarone, there are two massive guns that can shoot down any plane that flies over and sink any ship that sails nearby. If the British soldiers are to be saved, the guns are going to have to be taken out.
Everyone agrees that it’s a suicide mission. Even if a commando team manages to avoid the patrol boats and the German soldiers on the island, reaching the guns requires scaling a cliff that is considered to be nearly unclimbable. Still, the effort has to be made. Six men are recruited to do the impossible. Leading the group is Major Roy Franklin (Anthony Quayle), a natural-born leader who is described as having almost supernatural luck. Franklin’s second-in-command is Keith Mallory (Gregory Peck), an American spy who speaks several languages and who is an expert mountain climber. Spyros Pappadimos (James Darren) and Butcher Brown (Stanley Baker) are both assigned to the team because they have fearsome reputations as killers, though it quickly becomes clear that only one of them kills for enjoyment. Colonel Stavrou (Anthony Quinn) is a member of the defeated Greek army and he has a complicated past with Mallory. Finally, Corporal Miller (David Niven) is a chemistry teacher-turned-explosive expert. Waiting for the men on the island are two members of the Resistance, Spyros’s sister Maria (Irene Papas) and her friend, Anna (Gia Scala). The mission, not surprisingly, the mission doesn’t go as planned. There’s violence and betrayal and not everyone makes it to the end. But everyone knows that, as tired as they are of fighting, the mission cannot be abandoned.
The Guns of Navarone was a huge box office success when it was originally released, which probably has a lot to do with it showing up as a best picture nominee. It’s an entertaining film and, watching it, it’s easy to see how it served as a prototype for many of the “teams on a mission” action films that followed. Though none of the characters are exactly deeply drawn, that almost doesn’t matter when you’ve got a cast that includes actors like Gregory Peck, Anthony Quinn, and David Niven. At it best, the film works as a triumph of old-fashioned movie star charisma. Peck is upright and determined to do whatever needs to be done to get the job done. Quinn is tempermental and passionate. David Niven is cynical, witty, and very, very British. Quayle, Darren, and especially Stanley Baker provide strong support. Before Sean Connery got the role, Stanley Baker was a strong contender for James Bond and, watching this film, you can see why.
Seen today, there’s not a lot that’s surprising about The Guns of Navarone. It’s simply a good adventure film, one that occasionally debates the morality of war without forgetting that the audience is mostly watching to see the bad guys get blown up. Some of the action scenes hold up surprisingly well. The scene where the team is forced to deal with a German patrol boat is a particular stand-out.
The Guns of Navarone was nominated for 7 Academy Awards, including Best Picture. Though it lost the top prize to West Side Story, The Guns of Navarone still won the Oscar for Best Visual Effects.