"The Guns of Navarone" is widely hailed as one of the greatest adventure films of all time. And itís no wonder, considering the wealth of talent that was involved in its production. Starring Gregory Peck, David Niven, and Anthony Quinn; directed by J. Lee Thompson ("Cape Fear"); script by Carl Foreman ("Bridge on the River Kwai"); and adapted from the novel by Alistair MacLean ("Ice Station Zebra," "Where Eagles Dare"); the movie clearly benefited from the hard work of these artists, all of whom were at the peak of their careers.
Set during World War Two, "The Guns of Navarone" is the story of an Allied commando team sent to destroy two massive German guns that are built into the side of a mountain on the Greek isle of Navarone. 2,000 British troops are trapped on a neighboring island and are about to come under attack from overwhelming German forces. The British Navy is unable to mount an evacuation as all sea lanes leading to the island fall within range of the mighty guns. The only way a rescue can be attempted is if the German guns are silenced. All previous air and naval bombardments have failed and the only plan left is to send a small team straight up the sheer side of the mountain to sabotage the guns. It is a plan that no one expects to succeed.
Gregory Peck plays Capt. Keith Mallory, a famous mountain climber who is the only man alive with even the slightest chance of pulling off this feat. David Niven is Cpl. Miller, a disgruntled demolitions expert who has refused all attempts to promote him to officer rank and whose only loyalty is to the teamís leader, Maj. Roy Franklin, played by Anthony Quayle. And Anthony Quinn stars as Greek Col. Andrea Stavros, Malloryís right-hand man, but also the man who blames Mallory for the death of his family and has vowed to kill him after the war ends. Rounding out the cast are James Darren, Stanley Baker, Irene Papas, and the stunning Gia Scala.
What is striking about all of these characters is that there isnít a gung-ho hero in the bunch. At this stage in the war they have seen more than their fair share of killing and the lines between right and wrong have blurred to the point where they hardly care who wins or loses. They take the job because itís their duty. Only as the obstacles mount and the end seems near do they band together as a team and reaffirm their faith that what they are doing is important and justified. The complexity of the characters is what helps to elevate "The Guns of Navarone" above the usual wartime adventure fare.
"The Guns of Navarone" is presented in a stunning 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen format. Just seeing this masterpiece in all of its widescreen glory is thrilling enough. A movie like this really must be watched in widescreen as so much activity goes on at the sides of the frame. The print is almost blemish free although there are a few white specks that pop up here and there. Some of the nighttime scenes display a bit of graininess and a few of the scenes on the boat during the storm are very grainy. Other than that the image is always very sharp and well defined. Colors are quite vibrant, especially the Greek sea and sky, although much of the film is very muted in appearance due to the drab gray military setting. However quite a bit of discoloration is evident throughout the film, as colors shift throughout and within single shots. Some extensive color correction would be necessary to fix these problems. Brightness has a tendency to fluctuate during the darker scenes and blacks are not as well-defined as one would see in a newer film. But, all in all, I was very pleased at the quality of the transfer used for this almost 40 year old film. Coming from Columbia TriStar perhaps I shouldnít have been. None of the nitpicks mentioned above do anything to detract from the movie and I would have paid them no mind at all if I hadnít been watching the DVD eagle-eyed for the purposes of this review.
The audio comes in either a Dolby Digital 2.0 surround or Dolby Digital 5.1 format for English, and a Dolby Digital Mono presentation for French and Spanish. I actually found the 2.0 track to be a bit louder and in your face across the front soundstage but the 5.1 track does a better job of integrating the wonderful musical score and balancing the sound across the front speakers. The surrounds are only rarely used but in a few key scenes they come alive very effectively. The LFE, while indicated on the receiver, never seemed to kick in with more than a quiet rumble. But this is the way a remastered 5.1 soundtrack should be presented. Instead of trying to make it something more than it is, just take the sound elements that are already there, clean them up, and present a very well-balanced soundtrack that offers clear dialogue, good sound effects, and a sweeping score.
"The Guns of Navarone" also offers up a number of fine extras. First off, there is a running commentary by director J. Lee Thompson. He starts and ends with quite a bit of interesting discussion but there are some very long stretches where he says absolutely nothing or only mentions where a particular scene was filmed. I was just glad to hear this great director speak and I wonít hold his lack of words against him. One tidbit gleaned from the commentary is that David Niven fell gravely ill toward the end of the shoot and Thompson didnít know if he would survive, much less return to the set. All through the filming of the final, climactic scenes, it remained to be seen whether the whole film would have to be re-shot with a new actor in Nivenís role. So, if you do stick with it, the commentary does reveal some very interesting facts.
Also included are four short (5 minute or so) promotional featurettes that were created during the filming of the movie. The first, "Great Guns," is a very general look at the filmís setting. "No Visitors" deals with the filming on the island of Rhodes and the impact it had on the locals. "Honeymoon in Rhodes" is narrated by James Darren and discusses how he tried to fit in a honeymoon with his new wife, Evy, during breaks in the shooting. And finally, "Two Girls on the Town" takes you shopping in Rhodes with co-stars Irene Papas and Gia Scala.
The real treat on this disc is the 30 minute documentary "Memories of Navarone" which was newly created for this DVD release by Sharpline Arts -- best known for their work on the "Alien Legacy" box set. Featuring interviews with J. Lee Thompson, Gregory Peck, Anthony Quinn, and James Darren, the documentary focuses on the personalities of those who were involved in the making of this movie. It is not the more typical behind-the-scenes, "making of" feature that one is used to seeing. Running the gamut from the hair cutting abilities of Gia Scala to Anthony Quinnís chess prowess, "Memories of Navarone" is a very affectionate look at those who were part of this classic film, presented in a top-notch look.
Rounding out the extras are "A Message from Carl Foreman," in which the screenwriter offers a very brief introduction to the film for its Sydney, Australia premiere; theatrical trailers for "The Guns of Navarone" and "Behold a Pale Horse;" and short talent files for the director and the three top-billed stars.
"The Guns of Navarone" was nominated for 7 Academy Awards (unfortunately it was up against some stiff competition in the form of "West Side Story") and has endured to this day as the preeminent example of adventure filmmaking. Just be thankful that the task of transferring this film to DVD fell to Columbia TriStar and Sharpline Arts. While other companies are content to treat their catalog titles with little more than a widescreen transfer and maybe a trailer, Columbia once again rolls out the red carpet and gives "The Guns of Navarone" the five star treatment it deserves. The movie is a classic, pure and simple, and the presentation and abundant extras really make this release shine. I canít recommend it highly enough.