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The Guns of Navarone and The Dambusters
"The Guns of Navarone" delivers on action packed suspense and an "explosive" finish in this classic wartime adventure story. In the second feature, Michael Redgrave plays the brilliant bumbling professor who invented the bounce bomb in the the British WWII docu-drama, "The Dambusters". Richard Todd made his name in film by playing this RAF wartime hero, Wing Commander Guy Gibson. Certainly an interesting find on TVOntario's SNAM for war film buffs, but a bit of a "sleeper" for me. (Sorry, I fell asleep in the middle part of the action both times I viewed the film!)
Well, I guess it’s only fair. The ultimate Jane Austen chick flick night was to be followed by a “Guys Night In”. Justice must be done and the balance of power when it comes to the almighty TV remote must somehow be restored. Fortunately or unfortunately for our household, I was out of town when “The Guns of Navarone” and “The Dam Busters” were playing on Saturday Night at the Movies on TVOntario. My husband did not watch the movies even though I did - loyal fan that I am.
It is not as if watching these two wartime guts and glory cinematic tales was a terrible penance to perform after the previous week’s indulgence in feminine fancy. I’m as much of a good sport as the next guy. I do have to take exception to Johanna Schneller’s remark that the body count in the first film, “The Guns of Navarone” was acceptably low. I found that, as in most war films, the bodies did rather pile up along the way, although that was certainly not the focus of the film.
The focus was, as advertised in the title, the spectacular blow-out of the famous “Guns of Navarone” at the movie’s climax. Now, that surely was a feel-good moment. I’ll admit that the emotional satisfaction of watching those guns tumble into the sea after sitting on pins and needles waiting for the fireworks to start was worth the price of admission. The British fleet is safe from attack, the pinned down British troops will be saved, the war will be won and all will be right with the world – hurrah!
There was, however, more to enjoy in this film before we got to the big finale – suspense, intrigue, humour - even a hint of romance. Gregory Peck gives a good performance as expert mountaineer and disinclined commando officer, Captain Keith Mallory. Peck certainly gets a run for the money though from the two other strong male lead performances from David Niven as Corporal Miller and Anthony Quinn as Andrea Stravos.
Anthony Quinn as the Cretan, Colonel Stravos, shows us his acting abilities as he puts on “an act” during the interrogation scene. Stravos goes from a hardened military veteran to a craven coward in seconds for the benefit of the Nazi capturers. This scene, besides providing Niven with the opportunity for the comical throw-away line about the “awful underwear” during the uniform swap, also gives the occasion for the exploration of the sub theme concerning “civilized behaviour”.
The German colonel responsible for the fortress at Navarone who first interrogates the captured commandos is portrayed as a civilized aristocrat in uniform. Since he is unable to obtain the needed information from the captives, the Herr commandant turns them over to the S.S. officer for questioning, a man who is supposed to be evil incarnate. As the complications of the plot unfold, the line between good and bad, civilized and uncivilized behaviour become more blurry. It is no longer just a matter of swapping uniforms with the bad guys to get out of a pinch. Real questions about real moral issues are raised.
The main mouthpiece for giving voice to these moral issues is David Niven in the person of Corporal Roy Miller. Aside from being a crackerjack demolitions expert and a capable humourist, Miller manages to come up with an examination of some of the most compelling and uncomfortable issues of the film. Often while sparring with Peck’s character, Niven helps us to think about the nastier side of the adventure. There are issues such as deciding when it is acceptable to deliberately sacrifice a fallen comrade, killing a civilian woman in cold blood, using a team member to feed false information to the enemy while under torture, and the dilemma of taking responsibility for what would otherwise be immoral actions simply because you have been commandeered into a war you don’t agree with. The jaunty Niven is surely a scene stealer in this film, so much so that we are entirely willing to give him the hero’s badge in the end even if he can’t swim and even if we are not entirely sure he has acted the hero’s part.
Throughout the film, Mallory and Stravos are wrapped up in their own personal dangerous duet. More than a hint of suspense is added as Mallory dangles by a thread from the side of the cliff with only his sworn enemy, Stravos, to save him. Will Stravos let go and thus avenge himself on Mallory in a most convenient and timely manner?
The better, more suspenseful question for me is whether Stravos will let go of the desire for revenge that has a stranglehold on him in order to move on with a new life. The possibility of a new life for the war-weary Stravos is enticingly offered by the rather down-to-earth and forward Maria (Irene Papas). Maria does not see any point in getting caught up in vengeance that has to do with the past. She does not have time to weep endlessly over the tragedy and loss that the war has brought to her. Maria just wants to get on with life and, fortunately for Stravos, Maria is a very strong and determined young woman.
“The Dam Busters” was the second offering. I must admit that was a bit of a tough one to get through for me. The semi-documentary feel of the real historical events surrounding the development of the “bounce bomb” and the demolition of several key dams in the industrial heartland of WWII Germany did not really “grab me”. Not being the engineering type myself, some of the technical details of the bomb’s development and the meticulous trials undertaken were a bit too much to be endured by my sleepy brain.
I did find the eccentric genius of Dr. Barnes Wallis as brought to life by Michael Redgrave to be a more than respectable performance. The brilliant and understated Barnes Wallis is the quintessential bumbling professor. Wading out in his bare feet to retrieve yet another failed experiment, Dr. Barnes Wallis, with his dogged perseverance is every bit as much the hero of the film as the fly boys who actually deliver the pay load.
It was interesting to see this re-enactment of a piece of World War II history. As for which one is the better story, the fiction or the reality of wartime heroism, well, both are great stories but “The Guns of Navarone” is the better movie that we will still be watching decades hence as a film classic.
- The story of the Dambusters was redone in a real documentary format in 2001.
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