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The Guns of Navarone (Blu-ray Review)

24 Oct, 2011 By: Mike Clark

Sony Pictures
$19.99 Blu-ray
Not rated.
Stars Gregory Peck, David Niven, Anthony Quinn, Stanley Baker.

There’s some mild, if discernible, new snap to the Blu-ray of the No. 1 box office attraction from 50 years ago — though here is a movie whose restoration challenges were formidable enough to rate a bonus-section featurette, one of many carried over to this appropriately priced Blu-ray from the 2007 Navarone “Collector’s Edition” standard DVD.

My guess is that any chances for photographic splendor were doomed from the get-go when, notwithstanding the contribution of top-of-the-line cinematographer Oswald Morris, Columbia Pictures’ bean-counters redeemed just enough books of S&H Green Stamps to pay for the dreadfully cheapjack “Eastman Color by Pathe.” The result, as always, was a kind of brown-and-brown look — and this for Columbia’s “Big One” from the Maris-and-Mantle summer of ’61, if not the entire year.  Maybe they were saving the money to bankroll M&M in Safe at Home!, which the studio released the following spring.

In any event, producer/writer Carl Foreman’s 2-hour, 37-minute rouser is still short on dull moments, boasting reasonable (also Oscar-winning) special effects for its long-ago day and the last Dimitri Tiomkin score rightfully included with his most memorable from a career first put on the map by Frank Capra’s Lost Horizon. And Atticus Finch notwithstanding, I always liked Gregory Peck best whenever he’d morph from a slow burn into an unambiguous blistering of someone looking to sink into a hole. In one scene here, he does just that in a chew-out that almost matches his hall-of-fame ones: of slacker Hugh Marlowe in Twelve O’Clock High and of punk Skip Homeier at the end of The Gunfighter.

Foreman’s epic had its premiere engagements on my 14th birthday, and I caught it a few weeks later with my family on a lakeside vacation. Most of the bona fide “guys” in my just completed eighth-grade class were eagerly anticipating it, and I had already read the paperback of the source Alistair Maclean source novel, which was substantially changed. Then, as now, the movie is a strange mix: so entertaining that it is almost of the “isn’t war fun?” screen ilk — yet laced with anti-war dialogue from Left-ish Foreman, who had had some problems with the political Blacklist. There’s also some reasonably up-front gay subtext involving two of the story’s gun-detonating participants (played by David Niven and Anthony Quayle). This was around the time Leiber and Stoller’s “Little Egypt” by The Coasters was getting banned from the radio for its sexual content — and, dig this, a Mitch Miller rendition of Navarone’s title tune was making its way onto Columbia soundtrack LP. So it was an innocent time for innocent heads, and all but the war stuff was all way beyond me (though even then, I had a thing for featured player Gia Scala’s Cadillac cheekbones).

Another movie about a wartime suicide mission that can’t possibly succeed (but does), Navarone deals with an Allied assignment that involves blowing up two huge guns (radar-controlled, which I thought a neat touch at the time) that the Germans have fortressed inside some mountains over the Aegean Sea. Just getting to their location ends up forcing the recruited specialists to a) survive a typhoon in a very modest boat and then b) to scale a cliff that shoots straight up (and without any cessation of rain). To this end, the script rigs it so that commander Peck’s character is a former champ mountain climber who can speak German — though once his crew somehow scales it way to the top, there are perils anew (these involving human beings).

With a lineup that includes Peck, Anthony Quinn, the Brit-born trio of Niven, Quayle and Stanley Baker, Sicily-raised Scala, famed Greek actress Irene Papas and former teen idol James Darren, the movie comes reasonably close to having what used to be marketed as “a distinguished international cast” before the term became a codeword for anything that featured some combination of Vittorio Gassman, Michael York, George Kennedy, Robert Vaughn, Joe Namath and any of many European actresses with large breasts. Joining the production late was director J. Lee Thompson, who made so many stinkers that the mere mention of his name can now elicit a chuckle — yet who at this point was amid a pretty fair run that included Tiger Bay, Flame Over India, Navarone and the original Cape Fear (plus I’ll even give him an affectionate point or two for simply orchestrating the circus cast of What a Way To Go!). As with the other bonus featurettes, Thompson’s superb commentary — done when he was well into his 80s — is carried over from the DVD. One I’ve always prized, it saves its most amazing revelation for the end: that Niven took unexpectedly ill and nearly died late in production (he even had last rites) when the final scene hadn’t yet been photographed. And when you’re talking about the actor who’s playing the assignment’s munitions’ expert, it’s quite possible the film would have been scuttled in favor of a large insurance payout.

A Golden Globe topper for best drama, Navarone got seven Oscar nominations (best picture and director included), though the special effects nod was its only win. It may be that some obvious technical sleight-of-hand was actually obscured by the lousy Eastman/Pathe combo because the image during the typhoon scene, for one, isn’t exactly stiletto-sharp. But the Blu-ray does add minor visual pop, and the soundtrack surpassed my expectations. With my friendly amp, I really pumped up Tiomkin’s soundtrack (which, in the movie itself, finds no shoehorned-in time or room to sing along with Mitch).

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