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Monday, March 24, 2014

The Guns of Navarone: David Niven and the Scene of his Career

The Guns of Navarone, Directed by J. Lee Thompson.

There are few movies that get my attention like J. Lee Thompson's Navarone.  (It was actually Alistair MacLean's first, though the screenplay strays from the book quite a bit.)  Full of action, tension, exotic locations, all centered around a band of men on an epic mission, it never fails to captivate.  With a strong ensemble cast, led by Gregory Peck, Anthony Quinn, and David Niven, there is plenty of action, drama, and even a bit of comedy to go around.  Filmed in 1961, the cast includes the obligatory teen star James Darren (in a failed attempt to break out of his teen-idol status into the role of a serious actor), a fairly unknown (and troubled) Gia Scala, Greek actress Irene Papas, British star Stanley Baker, and the veteran stage and screen Shakespearean actor/director Anthony Quayle.  Producer Carl Foreman was aiming for international appeal when he assembled this group.  I suppose he just couldn't figure out how to stick an Asian into this story.

I won't spend much time on the plot of this movie.  It is largely a fantasy, or as Gregory Peck suggested, a parody (he even went so far as to complain that it was more like a Keystone Cops caper).  Simply put, this band of intrepid, quarreling, reluctant men are sent to destroy massive guns that are blocking the one shipping lane that is holding up the entire war effort.  It seems that there is no way that the Allied Navy can avoid this island.  But that hardly matters.

David Niven as Corporal Miller

Early in the film, as we're getting to know the crew, David Niven shows off his comedic flair as the men prepare to sail a decidedly un-seaworthy boat into the German-held Aegean.  An explosives expert who's been assigned this mission against his will, Niven's character, Corporal Miller, spends most of the film cracking jokes and making sarcastic remarks about Captain Mallory's (Peck) determination to win at all costs.  He complains to Mallory: "Sir, I've inspected this vessel and I think you ought to know that, ah, I can't swim."  This sums up his character perfectly.  He's smart enough to know the limitations of their equipment, determined to make sure Mallory knows how disgruntled he is, and is not ashamed to point out that his main concern is for his own safety.

Anthony Quinn, a Mexican playing a Greek, as Andrea Stavrou.

Niven is not the only actor showcasing his skills in this film.  Anthony Quinn, already a two-time Oscar winner for supporting actor (Viva Zapata!, and Lust for Life) and three years away from his signature role in Zorba, the Greek, displays his wide range of skills.  Despite his intimating presence (his character has sworn to kill Peck's character when the war is over), one of his best scenes is when he grovels before the German officer as he attempts to con the man into believing that he has nothing to do with the resistance fighters.  He can be mesmerizing, even when he is only in the background.

Anthony Quayle, who actually organized resistance fighters in Albania during WWII, takes something of a backseat in this film, spending most of his time on a stretcher, merely a prop brought along to spur on Miller's debates with Mallory over which is more important; the men or the mission.  Darren, in what must have been his best attempt to be a serious actor, just looks mad all the time, and impatient, and well, basically a teenager.  I've always been intrigued by Irene Papas in this movie.  She is full of mystery, and I always felt that her character should have been brought to the front more.  She's tough, but retains her dignity and humanity.  But in this massive story there wasn't much room to do this.

Now let me explain why I've written this post.  It isn't for the massive guns that are inevitably destroyed.  It isn't for the large, talented international cast.  It isn't for the chase scenes and the intricate rock climbing scenes or the silent, lengthy infiltration scene as the men break into the gun emplacement.  (Which, by the way, is marvelously filmed like the nerve-wracking heist scenes in movies like Rififi and Topkapi.)  The one scene that really sets this movie above so many of its fellow WWII escapades is when David Niven's Miller exposes the traitor in the group.

(Severe Spoiler-Warning: If you haven't seen this movie, and you want all of the surprises to be intact when you watch it, simply know that you've got to see this movie, then stop reading.  Come back later to read the rest of it.  I'm not a fan of spoilers, but no matter that this is supposed to be a major revelation in the movie, I don't feel that this ruins anything.  I've seen this movie over a dozen times, and the impact of this scene is never diminished by my foreknowledge.)
David Niven points out the traitor.

Miller, the explosives expert, discovers that his toys have been tampered with.  Ruined, in fact.  Piecing together all of the pitfalls they've encountered, he has finally figured out who's to blame.  Like Hercule Poirot, he methodically talks through his reasoning to the entire crew and when he finally reveals the traitor, the assembled team is shocked: he suspects Anna (Gia Scala), the emotionally disturbed mute island girl who had been tortured by the Germans.  His accusation is easily proved.  Tearing the back of her dress, they see that her scars are non-existent.  She had never been tortured.  To avoid this, she'd agreed to spy for the Germans.  While this is good drama, it is not yet that which sets this movie apart.  That comes next.
Niven, stripped of his humor, delivering the performance of a lifetime.

Miller now goes after the real target of his anger: Mallory.  The man who has been constantly putting every man's life below the success of the mission.  As I said, Anthony Quayle's character, Franklin, is a prop who has been carried around on a stretcher this whole time for just this purpose.  You see, Miller is Franklin's best friend, and he knows that Mallory doesn't give a damn about what happens to Franklin.  And now Miller goes after Mallory.  He demands that Mallory be the one to shoot the girl.  They can't leave her behind to warn the Germans, and they can't take her with them.  Someone's got to shoot the girl.  And Miller wants his pound of flesh.  Mallory must be the one to shoot an unarmed and terrified young girl.

Niven is riveting in his delivery of this speech.  His comedic lines are all gone, his jaunty, British ease now vanished, made all the better by the director cutting to Peck and his iconic, jaw-clenched simmering-to-a-boil glare.  Niven's Miller has set the trap, and Peck's Mallory is caught in it.  Will he do it?  How can he not?  Gregory Peck, our once beloved Atticus Finch, the white knight of this film, is going to have to execute what is essentially an innocent girl.  Sure, she was helping the Germans, but it was out of fear, not ideology.  And now Peck/Mallory is going to have to put a bullet in her.

What happens next is pure cinema gold.  Not because the writer found a way to get Peck out of his trap.  That was a given.  Gregory Peck was not going to gun down a girl who is splayed on the floor, half-undressed and crying.  Especially not when he was wearing a German uniform.  They couldn't pay him enough money to tarnish his reputation like that.

Let's look at the sequence:

First, Peck is goaded into killing the girl by Niven who says "Come down off that cross of yours, close your eyes, think of England and pull the trigger!"  Exasperated, Peck stalks over to the girl.  She looks up at him, eyes filled with tears.  He unholsters his gun.  A cut to the profile of Niven, who turns apprehensively to see what Peck will do.  A shot of Quinn, then Papas, the girl's only friend.  Back to the girl, who raises her head, as if placing her head on the chopping block.
Gia Scala, as Anna, awaiting her fate.

  Now Peck, raising the gun.
Gregory Peck as Captain Mallory.  Will he kill the woman?

  And a quick shot of Niven, suddenly dashing forward, a split-second realization that Peck is actually going to shoot her.  A sickening realization that this girl is going to be executed because of him.  A last second decision to stop what he has started.  But it is too late.  A close-up of a gun firing.  A gun with a silencer.  The girl now, rocked back by the impact of the bullet.  She looks at her killer, shocked.  Now, a second close shot of the gun, pan back, and we see Irene Papas, a grim, bleak stare smoldering from her dark eyes.  The girl slides to the ground.  Reactions from Peck and Quinn, then a wide screen shot of everyone, the girl's body in the foreground.
No more debates, no more flippant one-liners.  Nothing more to say.
Niven drops his hands, all of his anger and sarcasm drained away.  Peck, still conflicted, stares at Papas, trying to fit the facts into his ordered mind.  We, the viewers, take a breath, trying to process our own feelings on what just happened.  Some of us, who had been rooting for Niven, now doubting our own judgement in wanting Peck to shoot her.  Some of us, firmly believing in Peck's fatherly leadership, refusing to believe he was actually going to kill the girl.  All of us in awe that Papas took on the role of executioner.

Well, not all of us.  See Anthony Quinn there in the background?  He's watching this whole scene almost casually.  He's a hard man in this film, and he not only isn't fazed by violence, he's rather attracted to the tough character of Papas.  As I said, he stands out, even when he doesn't have lines.
Oh yeah, they still have to destroy those guns.

For me, the rest of this movie is just tying up loose ends.  It's all grand adventure, but the execution of the traitor raises this movie to the upper echelon of war films.  It is no wonder that it was nominated for seven Academy Awards, including best picture.  One rarely finds an action epic of this proportion with such a profound and disturbing scene tucked inside it.  And David Niven never had such a plum role as that of Corporal Miller.

Now that you've read about it.  Watch the movie, and this scene and decide for yourself.  I'd love to hear your opinion of it below.  (Oh yeah, one more thing.  At the end of the scene, don't miss Gregory Peck's delivery of one of his best lines ever as he threatens to shoot Niven.  Just the icing on the cake for this scene.)

You can watch this movie at Amazon, just click on the link.


  1. I'm kind of partial to Peck's response to Niven's perceived disdain for the hard decision at the end of that scene.

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