Lost in Translation 431: The Guns of Navarone (1961)

Adventure novels have a long history. Audiences use the stories as escapism, a way to separate from their own lives while they read. In the Fifties and Sixties, World War II provided the backdrop for stories and characters, with authors having served during the war. Among those who served was Alistair MacLean, who served in the Royal Navy beginning in 1941. His service on a cruiser led to his first novel, HMS Ulysses, about a convoy crossing the North Atlantic trying to avoid German U-boat wolf packs. The novel was a bestseller, allowing MacLean to become a writer full time.

His next novel was The Guns of Navarone, published in 1957. The novel covered the fictional assault on a pair of massive artillery guns that were preventing the Royal Navy from evacuating British troops from Kheros. The plot is inspired by the Dodecanese Campaign during WWII, where British forces were forced to leave the Greek islands, including Rhodes and Kos.

The fictional assault is the last chance for the men on Kheros. The Wehrmacht had plans to invade in a few days time and the last attempt to bring down the titular guns decimated a bombing squadron with no damage to the artillery. The last, desperate mission is to send a hand-picked commando team to infiltrate the fortress and destroy the guns from within. To do so, the proposed means to get on Navarone is to scale a cliff that isn’t watched by the German garrison because the climb is impossible.

The team chosen has Captain Keith Mallory, a New Zealander acknowledged as one of the best mountain climber in the world. Joining him are Lieutenant Andrew Stevens, a naval officer acting as navigator and also a mountaineer; Petty Officer Casey Brown of the Special Boat Service, radioman by trade and engineer by training; Corporal Dusty Miller, American demolitions expert, and Andrea Stavros, former Lieutenant-Colonel in the Greek army and Mallory’s confidant. Miller has had boats sunk and planes shot down while he was on them, so is very much opposed to leave solid ground. Stevens has Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder due to childhood abuse; not called that but the description in the novel fits. Other than Mallory and Andrea, none of the group had worked with the others before. One thousand, two hundred lives depend on these men succeeding at the impossible.

Problems arise before the men leave Castelrosso. The men catch the laundry boy listening in. Senior staff at Castelrosso claim he doesn’t speak English. Mallory is skeptical. When the mission begins, the men leave on an aging caique, a traditional fishing boat used in the Aegean. The early trip goes without a hitch, but complications arise when a German patrol boat intercepts them. After trying to bluff their way past the patrol boat, they wind up having to destroy it and kill the crew. Once could be happenstance, but an encounter with a German patrol when shoring up for the night is definitely enemy action. In both cases, the Germans appeared to be expecting the caique and her crew.

The next day, the team resumes its route, trying to make up time. A storm rolls in, threatening to swamp the barely seaworthy caique. However, the looming waves are hiding the cliffs of Navarone. The rough water and the darkness makes for a difficult climb. Stevens is sent up first, a free climb to find the handholds and anchor points for rope so the non-climbers and the gear can get up the cliff. However, Stevens slips and falls, getting a severe break in his leg. Mallory makes the climb, and helps get everyone, including Stevens up.

Once up, they find shelter, then move out in the morning. They run into another German patrol, looking around the impossible-to-climb cliffs. The small patrol is dealt with, but they need to move before the squad is discovered to be missing. The team finds their contacts on the island, Louki and Panayis, natives of Navarone. Louki finds them proper shelter and food. Brown makes contact with HQ over the radio, where he is told that the timetable has been moved up as the German Army was going to assault Kheros a day earlier than expected. The guns need to be destroyed that night.

The problems seem insurmountable. Stevens’ injury has turned gangrenous. German troops are on alert for the team. And as Dusty has discovered, the gear, especially the explosives, have been tampered with. He has figured out who the mole is, pieced together from when the Alpinkorps tried to trap them. The mole is shot and a haphazard plan is made. Mallory and Miller will go into the fortress to destroy the guns, with Dusty improvising the explosives and their triggers. The rest will act as a diversion, leading the German troops around It’s a close thing, but the guns of Navarone are destroyed as the first of the British ships are in range.

The Guns of Navarone was a bestseller for MacLean, a solid follow up to his debut novel, HMS Ulysses. The film adaptation was released to theatres in 1961 and had a solid cast. Gregory Peck starred as Keith Mallory, with David Niven as Corporal Dusty Miller and Anthony Quinn as Andrea Stavros. The film covers the novel’s beats well, with a few changes. As part of the changes, Stevens becomes Major Roy “Lucky” Franklin, commander of the team and known for his luck, played by Anthony Quayle, and CPO Brown becomes Private “Butcher” Brown, gaining a reputation as a knife fighter, played by Stanley Baker. There’s also an addition to the team, Spyros Papadimos, originally from Navarone but left to see the world before enlisting to fight against Germany, played by James Darren. Replacing Louki and Panayis are Maria Papadimos, played by Irene Papas, and Anna, played by Gia Scala.

As mentioned, the movie follows the novel closely. The only changes stem from the changes in the characters. Franklin is the one to fall and be injured. Maria and Spyros are siblings. “Butcher” Brown has been fighting the Nazis since before the war, starting in Seville in ’37. Andrea blames Mallory for the death of the Greek’s wife and children. Miller is a professor of chemistry, leading to his knowledge of demolitions. He also has turned down every promotion to officer offered. Inter-character drama was ramped up in the film.

The climax of the film takes liberties with the novel. The novel has Miller and Mallory setting explosives and escaping before the explosion destroys the guns. The film, being a visual medium, shows Mallory and Miller infiltrating the fortress, blocking the door, laying down explosives, and gets into the details of how Miller intends to have the explosives detonate. Miller has set up a circuit such that when the hoist lowers, the circuit is completed, triggering the explosion. With the explosives set, Mallory and Miller make their escape, over the edge and into the bay despite Dusty not knowing how to swim.

The titular guns, Miller and Mallory to scale. (Screenshot from The Guns of Navarone, 1961.)

German troops swarm the guns searching for saboutage. Dusty’s decoy explosives are found and removed. With the all-clear, the artillery troops take their places and prepare the guns for firing. The tension increases with every trip the hoist makes. The guns get several shots on the British warships, close but no direct hits. When the hoist does make contact, the explosion not only knocks out the guns, it destroys the fortress and sends the guns into the bay. The warships celebrate by sounding their horns.

At the end of the film, Franklin is alive but a prisoner of war, having been given medical care. Spyros is dead after a gunfire exchange with a German trooper. Brown dies in a knife fight having hesitated, though he does kill his opponent. Mallory and Andrea have worked things out. Miller is just happy to be somewhere warm on board warship that isn’t being shot out from under him.

The film demonstrates that it is possible to hold to the plot of a novel while still making changes. What helps is that MacLean was good at being descriptive. Later in his writing career, he often wrote the screenplay adaptation of his novels as he wrote them. The changes come from the needs of the studio in an attempt to broaden the appeal of the film. Thus the gender flip of Louki and Panayis to Maria and Anna; it gives Andrea a love interest for the portion of the audience The gender flip remained within the main plot.

Casts can make or break a film, adaptation or original. The cast of The Guns of Navarone is solid. Gregory Peck began acting in 1941 and starred in a number of films directed by Alfred Hitchcock. David Niven began acting in 1932, working as an extra in Hollywood before being noticed in Mutiny on the Bounty in 1935. Niven took time off from acting to serve in the Royal Army during WWII, eventually being transferred to the Royal Commandos, then returned to acting after the war. Anthony Quinn began acting in 1936 and starred in a number of historical epics in the Fifties. James Darren is the relative newcomer, having started acting in 1958 with his largest role being Moondoggie in the 1959 film, Gidget. However, Darren’s singing gets integrated into the The Guns of Navarone organically, during a wedding that is described in the original novel. There are no problems with the cast, who portray the seriousness of the mission and their predicament without flaw.

The Guns of Navarone demonstrates how it is possible to adapt a novel, make changes for the studio, yet still remain true to the original. The setting is rich enough that adding and changing characters didn’t break the story. Alistair MacLean invokes imagery with his writing, making adapting his works easier. With Guns, the core plot is flexible enough for the changes made without losing what made the novel a bestseller.


This article was originally published at THE REMAKE ZONE.

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