This week, we follow Peter Yates, director of Breaking Away, back to 1961, when he was employed as assistant director to the great WWII action flick - The Guns of Navarone.
There are two types of WWII films - those that are deeply realistic and serve to honour the efforts of the Allied soldiers, and often try to make sense of man's inhumanity to man; and then there are those films which feature a group of men thrown together from various walks of life, who are sent on some hair-brained suicide mission and in the process of which they get to kill a lot of Nazis.
The Guns of Navarone is the champion of the later kind.
Adapted from a novel by the great master of suicide mission plots, Alistair MacLean, Guns is sadly yet another one of those that must be added to the "they don't make 'em like that anymore" list (for some reason all my flicks of the week seem to be on that list).
It stars the great Gregory Peck, as Keith Mallory a famous mountain climber - in the novel he is a New Zealander, in the film it;s left unsaid - who is now working for British Intelligence behind enemy lines in places around the Mediterranean. With his is Anthony Quinn as Stavros - his Cretan friend and enemy. Add in David Niven as an explosive expert, Stanley Baker as an assassin, James Darren fresh from playing Moondoggy in Gidget, and Anthony Quayle (who the following year would co-star in Lawrence of Arabia) playing the notional man in charge of the expedition, and you have just about the best group of actors you could ask to go blow up a German fortress.
Their mission is to sale to the Greek island of Navarone and blow up the two massive anti-ship guns that are unable to be destroyed by bombs, and which for some reason guard the only passage available for ships carrying thousands of Allied troops - the geography etc of this is all a bit hazy, and not terribly important - what you need to know is they need to do it, and that it can't be done!
But if you think Gregory Peck is going to fail, then by God you obviously haven't watched many films of the 1950s. If there's one man you can count on in the 1950s it's Gregory Peck.
Despite being one of his best ever roles, it was actually the beginning of the end for him. The following year he would star in To Kill a Mockingbird (perhaps his greatest role), but from then on he never really starred in anything anyone really cares to remember.
The film, as it must with such films, includes double crosses, red herrings, over coming impossible odds, and then doing it again. A pause for a bit of thinking about the morality of it all, and what you'll do after the war. And then back to killing more Nazis.
Now, I am not by nature a violent man, but I do love a good WWII flick; and similarly I am not really into first-person shooter computer games like Half-Life, or Quake; but give me a chance to be an Allied soldier shooting Nazis and I'll be playing Call of Duty all night long. The reason of course is simple; it's hard to like Nazis, and it's even more fun to be attacking them when they are full of "master-race" type stereotypes.
Alistair MacLean is not one for tossing up too many moral dilemmas - and there's certainly no time to worry about the German soldiers on Navarone as anything other than those who would stand up for evil - but he does throw in one question for the men involved, when the issue of a traitor in their midst becomes known. It is refreshing to see that the men are not especially Jack Bauer-like when it comes to working out who is selling them out. Peck at one point says to defeat the enemy you have to be "as nasty as the enemy", but the over-riding theme of the film is that that statement is not true.
However, most of all, The Guns of Navarone is fun. It's high adventure, with a great theme by Dimitri Tiomkin, and is almost the perfect Sunday afternoon family matinee fare.
Forget the crummy sequel with Harrison Ford (Force 10 From Navarone), get this one - I think it's about $10-$12 from Big W - and take yourself back to a time when an action film meant it must be a WWII film (and where you get to see Richard Harris do his best Chips Rafferty impersonation by playing an Australian pilot who says "bloody" a lot).
Mallory: [Of Stavros] He's going to kill me when the war's over.
Major Franklin: You're not serious.
Mallory: Yes, I am. So is he...