Friday, November 12, 2010

Film Friday: The Guns of Navarone (1961)

The Guns of Navarone is a fascinating movie, and not just because of what’s on the screen. Based on a book by Alistair MacLean, the film was written and produced as anti-Cold War propaganda by Carl Foreman, a member of the communist party, who was blacklisted in the United States. His intent apparently was to suggest to Western audiences that they not fight the Cold War. But like so many other liberal message films, his message backfired, and he ended up creating a rousing film that remains one of the stronger World War II movies.

** spoiler alert **

Navarone ostensibly is the story of a commando team that must infiltrate a fictional Nazi-occupied island in Greece and destroy a large rail gun so the British Navy can pass by the island to save 5,000 trapped British troops. As they do this, they are repeatedly faced with nasty choices, such as whether or not to kill one of their own when he gets wounded or to feed him false information knowing he will reveal the information under torture. They also encounter betrayal, cold-blooded murder, and cowardice.

More importantly, the three main characters struggle with each other. Capt. Mallory (Gregory Peck), an American, is tired of the war, but continues with his duty even though it seems hopeless to him. Andrea Stavros (Anthony Quinn), a former Colonel in the Greek army, fights to free his home. Corporal Miller (David Niven), a British explosives expert, is anti-war and revels in criticizing Mallory’s actions.

I say “ostensibly” because the film is actually a metaphor for the Cold War. If we see this film as Foreman intended, then we would notice the following: the Nazis, who stand in for the Soviets, are ruthless, efficient, and nearly omniscient. It is hopeless to fight them. Mallory, who represents Americans, is a stupid man who is only doing what he’s been told and has no idea why he’s fighting. Miller, who represents America’s allies, is worn out, cynical and ready to make America carry the load. He also manipulates Mallory into doing all the dirty deeds. And Stavros represents the people of third world countries who are dying on these misguided American missions.

But here’s the problem for Foreman. Leftist propaganda doesn’t sell. To make the movie profitable, the characters had to resolve their issues before they could move ahead. And in so doing, Foreman’s anti-war message morphs into a call for everyone to understand the importance of fighting, i.e. the reasons why the West did fight, and to grasp their importance to the fight. In effect, to draw an audience, he turns an anti-war screed into an incredibly strong pro-war film.

Indeed, as the characters reach the make or break moment, Mallory suddenly realizes why he’s fighting -- he needs to make this realization if he is to be able to continue the mission. He realizes that he is not fighting just a different ideology, but an evil ideology, and that he must succeed if he is to save the people who are relying on him. In other words, he learns that he is part of a bigger picture and what he does matters because people are relying on him.

What brings about this epiphany is his observation of the Greeks. Up to this point in the film, Mallory and Miller have been little more than tourists. They see the island as just another battleground and they pay no attention to the locals. But as they are brought into the lives of the locals, they come to realize what the Nazis have wrought upon this community and the lives they’ve destroyed. This particularly strikes Mallory when he realizes this war is a matter of life and death to Stavros, and that Stavros can’t simply quit the war and go back to his old life. He knew this, just as he knew that 5,000 soldiers and sailors would die if he failed, but his experience finally personalizes this for him.

It’s at this point that Mallory has enough of Miller’s constant harping and disclaiming of any responsibility. Miller has disavowed responsibility for everything that happened, and criticized Mallory at every turn, safe in the knowledge that Mallory would do his duty no matter how asinine Miller behaved. But now Mallory has his fill, and he delivers one of the most pro-war speeches you will ever hear in a film. Indeed, he berates Miller for trying to pretend that he is only an observer and he tells Miller “whether you like it or not, you’re in this thing, up to your neck.” He then demands that Miller finally carry his own weight. Shamed, Miller realizes that his cynical pacifism had been disloyalty bordering on sabotage.

Thus, what was meant to present an image of America adrift facing an invincible foe as worn-out, whiny, worthless allies harp at America from the sidelines, suddenly becomes a rousing pro-war statement declaring the importance of everyone working together to win this struggle to set the world free. Basically, Foreman’s anti-war film turned into a crystal clear statement of why everyone needed to do their duty.

This is one of the ironies of leftist propaganda films: they often backfire on their creators because the need to attract an audience requires certain elements that change the message of the film. In this case, had the characters surrendered to their cynicism, then there would be no doubt about the anti-war message of the film. . . but there wouldn’t have been an audience. Instead, the characters overcome the ideological confines placed upon them early in the film so they can try to end the movie successfully. And because of that, the “message” of defeatism actually gets converted from being the thing the audience was meant to take away from the film into the thing that must be beaten for a brighter future. And that's the exact opposite of what Foreman hoped to convey.

Whoops.

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26 comments:

Joel Farnham said...

I never knew that The Guns of Navarone was anti-american. Looking back on it, I can see it. Good review, Andrew.

AndrewPrice said...

Thanks Joel. I never did either, I always saw it as a really good war film until someone point out who that it was a cold war metaphor. Then I started looking into it and found out about Foreman and that he meant it as an anti-war piece, etc. Suddenly it all fell into place.

But like I say, it backfired because it's a very good movie and the overriding message is definitely "it's time to take a stand.".... at least, that's the message that comes across.

Dane said...

I can totally see everything your talking about. Good review.

AndrewPrice said...

Thanks Dane, I'm glad you liked it. It makes for an interesting film, and even more so when you get the "hidden" messages.

Dane said...

I agree. I've been lurking for a while now but I want to say how much I love your cite. I don't agree with you about Palin, but I agree about almost everything else.

Also how do I get an account?

AndrewPrice said...

Dane, Thanks for coming out of the shadows! We're happy to have, even when you disagree. We're not lock step here.

To get an account, you can sign up at the blogger homepage: "www.blogger.com". That will let you use an avatar and everything.

Joel Farnham said...

Dane,

We are not lock-step here, but you have to have your A-Game on. :)

AndrewPrice said...

Joel, LOL! Well said! :-)

Dane said...

Joel, Man are you right. Everybody around here is sharp, even the comments. I'll try to live up to everybody's expectations!

LawHawkRFD said...

Andrew: Well done. I knew about Foreman's background, and McClean's dreary and "meaningless conflict" view of the cold war (he succeeded in his ennui with The Spy Who Came In From The Cold). But until I read your summation of how The Guns of Navarone came together, I hadn't realized just how much market forces can affect the final version of movies put together by anti-capitalist peaceniks.

AndrewPrice said...

Lawhawk, Thanks! It really is one of the ironies that to make a film that appeals to non-ideological audiences, they need to abandon their leftist view of the world. Funny isn't it? You'd think that would tell them something. For example, it might tell them that average people don't believe in their view of the world, that they instinctively believe in the Western view of the world, where people stand up for what they believe and strive to overcome hopelessness.

Good point raising The Spy Who Came In From The Cold. There really aren't many good movies about the Cold War. So when I first heard about that film, I said, "cool, Richard Burton and a Cold War spy film!" Then I saw it. What utter garbage. It was defeatist and depressing, and it did try to dismiss the Cold War as a a pointless endeavor and it treated both sides as equivalent -- forget that the Russians killed tens of millions of people and oppressed hundreds of millions more.

CrispyRice said...

I have a bone to pick with you Andrew. Your movie reviews always make my Netflix queue grow! And I can't keep up with what's already on there, LOL.

Plus, then I find I start adding things like this, in a genre I don't even watch. Oh boy...

Well, thanks. I'll post back after I watch it.

AndrewPrice said...

Crispy, LOL! I'm glad to hear it. I think you'll like this, because it's not truly a war movie so much as a war-related drama with some very interesting characters and choices.

Plus, it never hurts to have things to watch! :-)

Please do let us know what you think after you've seen the film.

Ed said...

I'm with Joel, I never spotted this before but now that you mention it, it's all there. Well done!

AndrewPrice said...

Thanks Ed. That's actually the point of the article, that often leftists make these message movies (like Wall Street or Platoon) and audiences interpret them very differently than intended.

BevfromNYC said...

Total non sequitur, BUT, if you can stomach Rachel Maddow long enough, this interview she did with Jon Stewart is worth the time.

http://www.breitbart.tv/jon-stewart-reprimands-rachel-maddow-and-msnbc-for-using-teabagger/

You may hate it, but Stewart is trying to make some really good points.

AndrewPrice said...

Bev, Are you sure it's a non sequitur? It sounds like the beginning of a war to me! ;-)

I'm honestly amazed that Stewart would attack her for this. Isn't he violating some sort of liberal rule that it's ok to slur your enemy in any way possible?

Thanks for the link.

StanH said...

Great movie. As a kid it was a movie that we enjoyed several times, and you’re right they were reluctant warriors, but jelled as the story moved forward, becoming inevitable heroes. I never viewed it as an anti-war movie, that being the case, epic fail.

AndrewPrice said...

Stan, That's exactly the problem with what Foreman intended -- people took the opposite message out of the film from what he intended.

Ed said...

Bev, Stewart's still dancing way too carefully around her, he would never be that careful with a conservative.

Tennessee Jed said...

As luck would have it, I have the superbit version of the DVD and just screened this about six months ago. The telecine (transfer) is superb as was the conversion to a 5.1 soundtrack. I will also admit to having seen the movie as a young teenager who was blissfully unaware of the underlying theme. I didn't see it again until picking up the DVD in the past year. That begs the question of whether this was a book made into a teleplay. In other words, was the original story propaganda or did Hollywood merely convert it to such.

AndrewPrice said...

Jed, I do really like the film, even with the context. I think Niven and Peck give great performances, which make the film very re-watchable.

The movie came from a book of the same name. The book was written by Alistair MacLean, a Scottish novelist. As Lawhawk mentions in his comment, MacLean is one of those guys from the era who viewed the Cold War as a struggle between equivalent sides and he doesn't see either side as being morally superior. So a lot of it was already in the story. However, Foreman made numerous changes to the story regarding the relationships of the characters, and it's my opinion that Foreman added the rather nasty subtext to the story.

But fortunately, as we all seem to agree, whatever he tried, it backfired and turned out one heck of a good movie.

BevfromNYC said...

ED: The fact that he even WENT there with her is amazing to me. Of course he wouldn't treat a conservative that way, but I think he surprised her by putting her on the spot about MSNBC and they are no better than what they accuse Fox of being. She wasn't buying any of it, and more importantly she just didn't get it. She really isn't interested in a dialogue about the Left's prejudices.

AndrewPrice said...

Bev, She definitely looked surprises. She looked like she had been insulted and she wanted to blast him.

Gordon Winslow said...

Alright, fellas, even though I haven't been around much lately, you know I love you and hope you don't mind me dropping by with some criticism.

The Spy Who Came in From the Cold is by John LeCarre, not Alistair MacLean. LeCarre is a huge lefty. I don't know what MacLean's politics were, but I'd be shocked if he were of the same cloth.

A Soviet-sympathetic Communist made a film where the Nazis represented the Soviet Union? And encouraged people to think that it wasn't worth the trouble to fight Nazis? No Communist would ever do this, given that they have been peddling the lie that Nazis are Communists' opposite since before this movie was made.

I can't buy this interpretation. I suspect, like many Commies, Foreman actually really loved to make a buck and would happily set his ideology aside for it. He either rationalized it, wasn't that committed in the first place, or had a change of heart before the film was made.

AndrewPrice said...

Gordon, Good catch on LeCarre writing The Spy Who Came In From The Cold -- I should have doubled checked that before I agreed with it.

In terms of the Nazis v. commies issue, I don't mean to imply that he was writing something that was pro-Nazi. The Nazis are clearly made out as rotten, evil bastards in this film. What's important though, is that the allies (British, Americans and Greeks) are presented as not up to the task of fighting. The Americans are shown as dupes, the British as cynical manipulators and cowards, and the Greeks are shown as suffering for joining in this war. The Nazis are simply the vehicle in this case for showing that the allies simply aren't up to the task of fighting. And the point is that America needs to rethink its alliance with Britain and the rest of the world should think twice about joining America.

Also, keep in mind, everyone sees the Nazis as evil and worth destroying. So if the Americans and Brits don't really understand why they are fighting Nazis, that says something too about the weakness of their cultures.

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