"Men-on-a-mission" films are almost always great fun. Watching a disparate group of no-nonsense soldiers band together for the greater good against a common enemy can be popcorn entertainment at its best. While it may be a pretty tried-and-true formula, it's also one that happens to work more often than not, and sometimes manages to serve as a perfect basis for action-packed cinematic bliss. A classic and highly influential entry into that irresistible genre, 'The Guns of Navarone' sparks with exciting action, memorable performances, and a surprising amount of depth. Far from a brainless exercise in tough guy bravado, the film manages to form a thought provoking and well rounded examination of wartime ethics and morality. Also, it kicks ass. So, much like Hugh Jackman, it's the best of both worlds.
Based on the novel of the same name, the script details a fictional mission set during WWII to blow up two incredibly large, long-range field guns on the Greek island of Navarone (which doesn't actually exist). In classic genre fashion, the team is made up of a group of specialists, each with their own specific skill, personality quirk, fatal character flaw, and irresistible charm. Headlining the gang are Capt. Keith Mallory (Gregory Peck), a steadfast leader and skilled mountain climber, Cpl. Miller (David Niven), an explosions expert, and Col. Andrea Stavros (Anthony Quinn), a Greek solider with a personal vendetta against Mallory. Together they must embark on the dangerous and potentially suicidal mission, outsmarting and outgunning German soldiers through equally perilous seas and terrain. Filled with exciting set pieces, powerful emotional conflicts, and ambiguous moral dilemmas, the story runs the full gamut of suspense and drama.
With an ensemble piece like this, the success of the film really lives or dies on the strength of its performers and the chemistry between them. Thankfully, all of the actors do a wonderful job, and the dynamics that develop within the group are fun to watch grow and evolve. Peck is fantastic as the stalwart leader, exuding confidence and compassion all at once. From the moment he appears on screen, he instantly embodies exactly the type of man one would follow into battle. Niven is also great as the British explosives expert. The conflict that develops between his character and Peck's Mallory helps to form the central moral question of the film and serves to elevate the material. As Stavros, Quinn oozes cool and becomes a genuine on-screen badass. Tension hangs high between the Greek and Mallory, and one gets a sense that their conflict could turn deadly at any moment. The rest of the team is rounded out by several more extremely capable actors, including Anthony Quayle, Stanley Baker, and James Darren. Though their characters are given less focus (particularly Darren and Baker's) each member gets their moment to shine and little details are organically revealed throughout the picture, helping to flesh out back-stories and inform present-day decisions. Two female stars also join the team, and Irene Papas and Gia Scala do an admirable job of holding their own against the men, creating strong female characters that are much more than mere love interests.
Director J. Lee Thompson utilizes the cinemascope presentation to its fullest, injecting the widescreen frame with big budget action and exotic locales. Shot in part on studio sets and real locations (primarily the Greek island of Rhodes), the film features some strong production value and occasionally lush cinematography. Thompson does a great job of creating tension, and as pointed out in the included commentary with film historian Stephen J. Rubin, the climax plays out more like a Hitchcock thriller than a generic war picture. Most notable of all, however, is a brilliant dialogue free section where the team gets shipwrecked by a massive storm and then has to scale a mountain in the unrelenting downpour and dead of night. With only score and effects, Thompson creates a truly visceral experience that manages to remain gripping through visuals alone. Though the director expresses regrets about the sequence's length and the film's pacing as a whole in his own commentary, I actually found the slower, methodical rhythm to be a refreshing contrast to the more quick cutting style of today. With that said, the movie definitely is on the slow side, and at two and a half hours in length, it might test some viewers' patience.
In between all of the blazing guns and explosions, Thompson and writer/producer Carl Foreman layer the film with several interesting ethical quandaries that all work together to form a pretty strong anti-war message. Questions about manipulating and risking the lives of fellow soldiers for the greater good, and the potential penalties for betrayal, are all brought up and examined with intelligence, and even after the credits roll, there are no easy answers presented. While some of the philosophical musings might get lost in all the heroics and excitement, to the filmmakers' credit, the script really does pack in some thought provoking material that actually makes the movie's quieter moments among its most powerful.
'The Guns of Navarone' is a classic "men-on-a-mission" flick that offers much more than simple thrills and action. Beneath the exciting and tense battles are some heavy questions about brotherhood, loyalty, and justice in the midst of war. Though the pacing is certainly on the slow side, some characters are a bit marginalized, and there are clichéd elements to the storytelling, the stellar cast, strong script, and confident direction overcome any small flaws. This is an entertaining and intelligent war epic, that's influence can be seen in countless similar efforts since.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
Sony brings 'The Guns of Navarone' to Blu-ray on a BD-50 disc housed in a standard case with a cardboard slipcase. After some skippable trailers the disc transitions to a standard menu. An option is included to play the feature with or without its original roadshow intermission card. The packaging indicates that the release is region A, B, and C compatible.
The movie is provided with a 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer in the 2.35:1 aspect ratio. Though mistreated quite badly over the years, restoration attempts have resulted in a strong but still occasionally inconsistent video presentation.
The restored print is in good shape and while some scenes look rougher than others, there are no major signs of damage. A light to moderate layer of grain is present throughout that often gives the picture some nice texture. Detail is quite strong, especially in brightly lit scenes which exhibit some pleasing dimension and pop (the scene where the gang first arrives at their doomed vessel is among the most impressive). Colors can be vivid with rich vibrancy, again, especially in brightly lit outdoor scenes which show off the beautiful shooting locations in Greece. Unfortunately, dimly lit and nighttime scenes are fairly underwhelming, and like many movies which utilize a day-for-night shooting method, these sequences exhibit a washed out and unnatural quality. With the exception of these instances, black levels and contrast are consistent and offer a solid experience without blooming. Numerous effects shots featuring rear projection, matte paintings, and various optical techniques do stick out, but that is to be expected and is certainly forgivable. The most irksome feature of the transfer involves some pretty thick halos that are periodically visible around characters and objects, but thankfully this doesn't detract too much from the presentation.
Due to the extent of damage done to the original film elements, there are simply limits as to how strong this movie can look on Blu-ray. Still, I found myself very impressed with several scenes throughout, and honestly I think the movie looks pretty good even if one doesn't factor in its troubled history. Though not quite as impressive as other more diligently preserved cinemascope films, 'The Guns of Navarone' is no visual slouch, and presents a solid and at times very strong experience.
The audio is presented in an English DTS-HD MA 5.1 mix with several subtitle options including English, English SDH, Spanish, and French. French and Portuguese Dolby Digital 5.1 tracks are also available. Utilizing the film's original four channel design, the track is solid but not as immersive as one might expect.
Dialogue is clear with no major signs of crackle or hissing. Directionality and separation across the front sound stage is good, especially during various battle and action sequences. Surround use is disappointingly rare, however, and while there are many opportunities for rear speakers to add immersion to the experience, there are only three real instances where they are active (the end of the shipwreck, an aerial attack, and the film's climax). Bass activity is decent with some instances of nice punch, but some of the gun fights lack the kind of thump that most war films have. Dynamic range is good, with no signs of distortion, and balance between the various elements is handled well.
Though surround use is infrequent, the track respects the film's original sound design, and it's hard to fault a mix for remaining authentic. Even if the audio lacks a bit of immersion, I actually have to commend Sony for staying faithful to the movie's roots and resisting the urge to produce a new spruced up and overdone remix. It may not come close to matching contemporary war movies, but the audio does a solid job of bolstering the action.
Sony has included a strong collection of supplements, including two commentaries and several documentaries and featurettes. All of the special features are presented with Dolby Digital 2.0 sound and optional French, Portuguese, Chinese, Dutch, and Spanish subtitles.
'The Guns of Navarone' is a fun and thematically rich war film that manages to raise important ethical questions while still providing classic popcorn entertainment. Though the film has been poorly treated over the years, the print has gone through some painstaking restoration, resulting in an uneven but mostly strong presentation. Audio is pretty front heavy but authentically represents the original sound design. Supplements are plentiful and informative, rounding out a strong disc for a strong film. Highly recommended (and at its current price, a steal).