Ruth over at Flix Chatter has had another great blogathon idea, this time in honor of Gregory Peck, who would have been 96 (if my math is right) today, April 5. Her birthday tribute post: Beauty is Forever: Happy Birthday, Gregory Peck.
As my tribute, I’ve chosen to review one of my favorite WWII movies, The Guns of Navarone (1961). A lot of my love is due to Peck’s presence. He won his acting Oscar in 1963 playing the world’s greatest fictional Dad, Atticus Finch in To Kill A Mockingbird, and I believe that his character in Navarone, Mallory, may just be the world’s greatest commanding officer.
The basic idea of the film is that an Allied special forces team is sent to destroy two gigantic Nazi guns high up on a mountainous island in Greece. They must complete their mission in 6 days, before a British navy convoy is due to go through the nearby straits. If the guns are still operational, the ships will certainly be destroyed, and all the men on them killed. The odds, of course, are stacked against the team, and to a certain extent, they were stacked against the film. There were several screenwriters and a few directors working on it, so that the script changed from day to day, until J. Lee Thompson took over direction and Carl Foreman the script. David Niven cut his lip filming the boat scene in the studio water tank and developed a life-threatening infection. (PS: You’d never know the scene was filmed in a tank. Not for nothing did Navarone win the Oscar for Best Special Effects.)
There is a still center in all this chaos, and that is Gregory Peck. His character, Keith Mallory, known as “The Human Fly” for his extraordinary climbing abilities, is hoodwinked into leading the mission by the promise of leave and promotion. That, and the knowledge that if he doesn’t, 2,000 British soldiers will die. Although he states quite plainly, “I think the operation is insane,” he goes ahead with it. I don’t think it’s much of a stretch to say Corporal Miller the explosives expert (David Niven) is a bit of a malcontent. Greek assassin Andreas (Anthony Quinn) has sworn to kill Mallory after the war, and there’s spies and traitors along the way. Mallory puts up with quite a bit from his team, and the enemy, and only really loses his temper once.
The decency and authority that Peck brings so believably to the role, two years before Mockingbird, helps to focus attention on the film’s meditations on the nature of war. It isn’t that Mallory won’t kill anyone. It’s just that he won’t do it indiscriminately. His presence throws many questions into sharper relief. Questions like, When is it acceptable to kill someone? Is torture OK? Is revenge? How about executing a female traitor? Is it OK to send men on a suicidal mission? Not that Navarone devotes a lot of time to agonizing over this stuff…it’s an action picture, and Peck handles all of that well too.
Another fun fact I learned while watching this film on TCM…host with the most Robert Osborne recounted Niven’s claim that Peck could drink brandy all day (to stay warm) and “never drop a line.” Niven referred to this talent as “disgusting,” but I think it’s only remarkably appropriate for Gregory Peck.
Bonus video: The Specials — Guns of Navarone: