Based on a popular 1957 novel by Alistair MacLean, The Guns of Navarone was a smash hit in 1961, and the highest grossing film of that year. It’s a World War II movie, and for its time was considered to be packed with excitement. While it definitely has some great action sequences, for modern standards the film has nowhere near the fast pace or high action-to-dialogue ratio we’ve come to expect from the genre.
So many years later, can a slow, talky action movie still excite audiences? And is The Guns of Navarone – 2-disc Collector’s Edition a worthy upgrade over the 2000 special edition release? Read on to find out.
The Guns of Navarone is set in 1943. The Germans have trapped 2,000 British soldiers on Kiros, an island in the Aegean, with only one sea route for evacuation. The problem is the route is protected by the Germans, who have installed some serious firepower in a cliff-side bunker on the island of Navarone. The Allies can’t take out the German guns by air or by sea. Their only hope is a sneak-attack up a treacherous cliff.
Enter Captain Keith Mallory (Gregory Peck, To Kill a Mockingbird), British commando and expert mountain-climber. Mallory’s assignment is to lead a small team up the cliff on a side the Germans aren’t watching, meet members of the Greek resistance who will guide them past enemy patrols, and then take out the German artillery. It’s an incredibly dangerous mission, with any number of things that could go wrong, especially when the team realizes they have a traitor in their midst.
Sounds like an adventurous story right from the start, I know. The thing is, nearly the entire first half of the film is devoted to setting up the mission, which means plenty of military officers sitting around talking and looking at maps. And once the mission is underway, there are still plenty of pauses for further exposition. It doesn’t make for a bad film, but it would likely prove much too slow for many modern action fans.
When the action does kick in, though, The Guns of Navarone can still ratchet up viewer excitement even with 1961 effects. The film won an Oscar for Best Special Effects, thanks to Bill Warrington (Raiders of the Lost Ark) on visuals and Chris Greenham (Superman) on sound. While today’s CGI work far exceeds the capability of even the best miniature artists, the old school stuff doesn’t always look like dad’s old pong videogame.
The film also succeeds on the strength of its all-star cast. With Peck, David Niven (Casino Royale (1967)), Anthony Quinn (Requiem for a Heavyweight), Stanley Baker (Zulu), Anthony Quayle (Lawrence of Arabia) and Irene Papas (The Message), The Guns of Navarone had no end of talent. This helps counteract the lack of wall-to-wall action, as the quieter, dialogue-heavy scenes – largely debating the morality of war – give the cast room to deliver, and great acting tends not to fade with time.
Unfortunately, there’s no getting around the fact the film runs nearly three hours when its plot only supports two and a bit. The dialogue scenes that drag things out are unnecessary to tell the exciting tale of an impossible mission, and likely should have been left to MacLean’s novel.
So The Guns of Navarone is a WWII classic that won’t quite cut it for modern audiences with a hunger for action and low attention spans. For those with an appreciation for a slower burn, though, the film has its appeal. How’s the DVD set?
The Guns of Navarone – Collector’s Edition is a two-disc release, with the film on disc one and special features on disc two. The film is presented in 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen format, with a newly re-mastered transfer. The film was also meticulously restored, a process you can learn about in the special features, but said restoration had already been done for the previous Special Edition release. Since I haven’t seen the special edition, I can’t comment on how much better this new transfer is, but I can tell you the film looks really good for its age. There are a few issues left over from the source film, with the odd scratch or dirty spot popping up here and there, but for the most part the picture is very clean. Colours have been handled particularly well, with nice saturation levels that remain consistent for most of the film. The level of detail is fairly good, though as you might expect, the picture is a just a tiny bit on the softer side. All told, this is as good as the film will likely ever look.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 track, remastered from the film’s original four-channel mix, is the best audio option. Thanks to that four-channel source, the 5.1 presentation is remarkably good for a 1961 film. All dialogue and effects are clearly audible, of course, but even better than that, the sound is quite full and it actually makes use of the surrounds for directional effect on a few occasions. This would never stack up against a recent DVD release, but I’m sure The Guns of Navarone has never sounded better.
English audio is also available in Dolby Digital 2.0, along with Portuguese in Dolby Digital 5.1 and French and Spanish in Dolby Digital Mono. Subtitles are offered in English, French, Spanish and Portuguese.
The Guns of Navarone – Collector’s Edition brings out the big guns in the bonus materials department, with a variety of extras to broaden your viewing experience. Here’s what we get:
- Audio Commentaries: one by director J. Lee Thompson, and another by film historian Stephen J. Rubin. The former is obviously the more personal of the tracks, but Rubin’s wins out for sheer informative quality. If you’re only going to choose one, Rubin’s is your best bet.
- Memories of Navarone: this featurette runs just under thirty minutes, and is a repeat from the special edition release. It features interviews with cast members as they take a trip down memory lane.
- Forging The Guns of Navarone – Notes from the Set: this all-new featurette runs about 14 minutes, and covers some of the more technical aspects of the production. It works well as a companion to the above retrospective piece.
- Ironic Epic of Heroism: courtesy of film historian Sir Christopher Frayling, this 25-minute featurette addresses a variety of the film’s thematic elements, and the nature of the story.
- A Heroic Score: presents about 10 minutes on the score by four-time Oscar-winner Dimitri Tiomkin (The Old Man and the Sea).
- Epic Restoration: 9 minutes with Robert Gitt, UCLA Film and Television Archive Preservation Officer, as he explains the difficult process of bringing The Guns of Navarone back to life. Of particular interest is the revelation of just how bad the available source films were.
- Narration-Free Prologue: listening to the film’s opening with score only, no narration. Fans of Tiomkin will likely appreciate this opportunity, but I could take it or leave it.
- Roadshow Intermission: a rare opportunity to appreciate what the film’s Roadshow presentations were like. Again, this isn’t particularly interesting.
The Guns of Navarone – Collector’s Edition presents a WWII classic that just might bore fans used to modern action movies that go boom from start to finish. If you like it anyway, all you need to know is this collector’s edition is a step up from the 2000 special edition, though not by a lot. If you bought that one, stick with it. If it’s your first time, this one’s a no-brainer.