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Posted on May 25, 2007 in Books and Movies, Front Page Features

The Impossible Mission Films

By Wyatt Kingseed

3.jpgTHE GUNS OF NAVARONE. A big budget blockbuster adapted from Alistair MacLean’s first bestseller. The mission target has shifted from a bridge to a formidable artillery position. Germans control the approach to an island in the Aegean Sea with a massive pair of radar-controlled guns tucked away in a granite outpost, preventing the allies from evacuating 2,000 British soldiers trapped on an island.

Gregory Peck leads an international cast that includes Anthony Quinn, David Niven, Anthony Quayle, James Darren, Stanley Baker, and Irene Pappas. Together they make up a multi-talented, multi-ethnic team of saboteurs hoping to spike the guns. They have one week to act before Germans plan to destroy the stranded soldiers as a show of force to bully Turkey into entering the war on its side, and before the British send six destroyers in a last ditch rescue effort. If the guns aren’t silenced, the ships will be sitting ducks.     


Obstacles are aplenty. Along the way Peck’s squad must deal with personality conflicts, including Quinn’s misdirected grudge against Peck. He holds Peck responsible for the death of his family and has promised to kill him once the war is over. German patrols, lousy weather, an incredibly difficult climb up a sheer cliff, and a traitor in their midst also threaten the mission.

Carl Foreman wrote the screenplay for this and The Bridge on the River Kwai, and gives the major stars room to show their acting chops. The best is Niven, whose character has the most depth with the right amount of emotion and humor. Troubled with war’s cruelty, he’d rather leave the killing to someone else. It is one of his finest performances. One character who has no problem killing is Quinn, as Colonel Andrea Stavros, a practical Greek officer who would shoot an injured comrade rather than endanger the mission.  
The film scored big at the box office—it was 1961’s highest grosser—and earned seven Academy Award nominations, including one for Best Picture. It won just one—for Best Special Effects, which by 1960 standards were terrific, despite its occasional rear-screen projection photography and obvious miniature work. 

Director J. Lee Thompson doesn’t skimp on the action. Two scenes stand out. The first reveals the professionalism of the saboteurs, who, without remorse, execute the crew of an enemy vessel. The action is swift and unexpected. The second is the film’s finale and payoff. Thompson skillfully builds suspense. By the time Peck and his men arrive at the guns, the pace is fast and the danger real. Heightening the tension throughout is an exciting score by standout composer Dimitri Tiomkin, whose other credits include The Alamo, Rio Bravo, and Champion. The score is particularly effective during the last twenty minutes as Peck and Niven rush to lay explosives before the Germans arrive. The rousing and dramatic brass and drums seem perfect here.   

A minor distraction is the age of the principals, who seem a little too old for their physically demanding roles. At the time of release Niven was 51, Quinn 46, and Peck 45. Still, the pace and generous explosions and small arms fire make this a highly enjoyable film.

4.jpgTHE DIRTY DOZEN. Lee Marvin at his gritty best leads a raid on a French chateau where German officers are relaxing on the eve of D-Day. Marvin is tough and needs to be. The film puts a twist on the previous impossible mission efforts by replacing the usual elite commando squad with societal dregs—military prisoners who are murderers, rapists, outcasts, miscreants, and creepy thugs. Telly Savalas in a signature, though typical role, exemplifies the lot; his character’s name is Maggott.

Because the Dozen face the gallows or life sentences for their crimes, they agree to join Marvin on a likely suicide mission to win parole. Big and little action stars from the 1960’s and 1970’s up the testosterone level in one of the best “guy flicks” ever made. Besides Tavalas, Charles Bronson, Clint Walker, John Cassavetes, and Donald Sutherland are along for the ride. Best of all is the formidable Jim Brown, whose sprint across a courtyard to drop grenades down air chutes after the gang has poured gasoline on the trapped Germans, makes you glad you never met him on a football field. 

The first half of the film consists of Marvin molding his irreverent squad into a top notch fighting unit, not that difficult given their backgrounds. During a war games maneuver, they embarrass Robert Ryan, playing an up-tight colonel, and his regular army soldiers to the delight of Ernest Borgnine, an observer and General who’s given little to do.

Largely with humor and by focusing on the real enemy—Germans and military protocol—director Robert Aldrich neatly makes the Dozen almost lovable. You root for it to succeed and you care about what happens to the individuals. One funny scene has Sutherland impersonating a general. When he balks, Marvin tells him not to worry; “You’ve seen a general inspecting troops before haven’t you?’ he barks. “Just walk slow, act dumb and look stupid!”

The second half is the chateau mission. The action is non-stop and filled with fiery explosions and small arms fire. Marvin has drilled his men relentlessly, as success requires split-second timing. Like all films of the genre, you know going in that quite a few of the men won’t survive, and part of the fun is guessing which ones the Germans will pick off.
Reportedly the Marvin role was first offered to John Wayne. It’s interesting to consider how the film would have been different. Marvin is perfect but Wayne would have worked, and perhaps have altered his image for the better among his harshest critics. Instead, he chose to devote his energies to The Green Berets, a quite different film in tone, and overall, vastly inferior.

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