Things happen in the Guns of Navarone. In fact, practically everything you can think of--shipwrecks, cliff-climbs, captures, escapes, explosions. And they happen one right after the other, with no dull lags in between.
If you think this would make an entertaining movie, you're right. Guns is one of the most enjoyable war pictures in some time. For all its tenseness, it has a sort of light-hearted attitude toward fighting, and while there isn't any characterization to speak of, it has one hell of a plot.
Based on Alastair MacLean's novel by the same name, the film covers four days, and tells the story of a handful of saboteurs sent to destroy a gun emplacement on the German-held Greek island of Navarone. The story line is direct, and, from the first briefing sessions to the final cataclysmic destruction of the guns, climax builds upon climax, without so much as a pause for breath.
The movie is, of course, hurt by some of the characteristics of its genre. One of these is overstatement. The action of the film is often unbelievable; one can't really see how a man who hadn't done any mountain climbing for five years could scale a sheer 400-foot cliff in a driving thunderstorm (after having just narrowly escaped death in a shipwreck).
Another drawback is the film's pretensions. It is difficult to turn out either a good action thriller, or a good psychological study of war (such as "Paths of Glory"). It is probably not possible to do both, and certainly the Guns of Navarone has failed in its half-hearted attempt. Writer-producer Carl Foreman would have been well advised to stick closer to the book, which aspires to do nothing more than tell a good story.
No matter how true the little speeches each character makes on the nature of war or good and evil, most sound foolish simply because of their incongruity. This is not the movie for speeches; it is the movie for shooting and fighting.
The speeches become more foolish by the fact that writer Foreman has made no attempts to give his characters motivation, to instill them with substance or individuality. To him they are merely puppets, the storyteller's devices in advancing the plot. There is, of course, nothing necessarily wrong with this--it permits a much faster pace. But interplay between puppets is likely to be unconvincing, and indeed it is. David Niven's cynical outbursts are dull unless they are funny, and the whole business about how Anthony Quinn is going to kill Gregory Peck when the war is over just doesn't come off. It makes no difference to the story, and one wonders why anybody bothered to mention it. Certainly all the subtle irony of Quinn's saving Peck on the cliff, and Peck later rescuing Quinn on the boat, could be discarded.
If the script gives little dimension to the characters, it must be said that the actors impart quite a bit to the roles themselves, and the level of acting is generally quite high. Some of the minor characters are cliches (witness the sadistic, perverted-looking SS officer), but most are acceptable. Gregory Peck, as usual, is better at looking rugged than anything else, but David Niven turns out an excellent performance as a college professor with a talent for blowing things up. And Anthony Quinn, as a Cretan guerilla, is in consistently top form. His bit in the interrogation scene should win over anyone not already convinced that he is among the finest actors in this country.
The ending of The Guns of Navarone is about as exciting and spectacular as anything Hollywood has ever dreamed up. What comes before the ending is also exciting and spectacular. If you want a fast-moving, tightly plotted piece of entertainment, this is the movie for you.