Viewer Guide: The Guns of Navarone and The Carer

February 28, 2020 | Richard Peña


The Guns of Navarone (1961)

This week’s classic is The Guns of Navarone, the 1961 World War 2 action adventure drama directed by J. Lee Thompson.

Although a work of fiction, The Guns of Navarone was inspired by the actual wartime conflict in the Aegean Sea, and opens with a documentary-like introduction establishing the story’s premise during the darkest days of Nazi aggression. Based on the 1957 novel by Alistair MacLean, the story begins as some 2,000 British troops are trapped on the uninhabited Greek island of Keros. When plans are discovered for a pending Nazi attack threatening annihilation of the defenseless soldiers, a fleet of Royal Navy destroyers is dispatched to rescue them—except the channel to Keros is guarded by two enormous radar-controlled canons nestled deep inside the cliffs of Navarone Island, invulnerable to attack by air. With only a week before the rescue ships arrive, Allied Intelligence organizes one last desperate attempt to avert disaster, assembling a secret guerilla team to destroy the fearsome guns of Navarone right from under the noses of the Nazi army.

Gregory Peck stars as Captain Keith Mallory, an elite spy and skilled mountain climber who is the first to be pressed into service for the near-impossible covert operation under the leadership of Major Roy Franklin, played by Anthony Quayle. Teamed with Mallory is former Greek army colonel Andrea Stavrou, played by an Anthony Quinn seemingly auditioning for his later turn as Zorba the Greek. And rounding out the unlikely band of confederates is Corporal John Miller, an explosives specialist played by David Niven; “Butcher” Brown, a mechanical and engineering expert played by Stanley Baker; and Spyros Pappadimos, a Greek native educated in the US—and “born killer”—played by James Darren. Along the way, the men are joined in their mission by Irene Papas and Gia Scala as two women with unexpected connections to reveal…as well as secrets to hide.

The Guns of Navarone was written and produced by Carl Foreman, the blacklisted screenwriter of High Noon, who had been forced to leave Hollywood for England in the early 50s. After writing several uncredited screenplays—including the Oscar-winning hit The Bridge on the River Kwai—Foreman gradually returned to working under his own name, optioning the film rights to Alistair MacLean’s best-selling novel in 1958. With locations filmed on the Greek island of Rhodes, Navarone’s $6 million budget was astronomical for its day, but Foreman shrewdly structured his script in the style of the “band of experts” plot format already popularized by The Magnificent Seven in 1960, as well as adding the female characters played by Irene Papas and Gia Scala.

The film’s original director Alexander MacKendrick clashed with Foreman and was abruptly fired shortly before production began, with replacement director J. Lee Thompson arriving on set just three days before the start of shooting. In his autobiography, Anthony Quinn described Thompson’s fearless yet unconventional approach to directing, as well as his aversion to reading scripts until just before he had to shoot a scene. Gregory Peck made no secret of his opinion that the plot was ludicrous, continually giving Foreman rewrite suggestions to strengthen his character. Peck and David Niven became fast friends, but Niven nearly drowned during the storm sequence, as well as seriously cutting his lip and developing a life-threatening infection that put him in the hospital for a month. Returning to shoot the final scene before he was fully recovered, Niven wound up back in the hospital for another seven weeks.

Nominated for seven Academy Awards including Best Picture and winning for special effects, Navarone handsomely recouped its substantial budget as a top money maker for the year. Impressed with J. Lee Thompson’s seat of the pants nerve, Gregory Peck offered Thompson directing duties on his next film, a thriller originally titled The Executioners that would become the neo-noir classic, Cape Fear.


The Carer (2016)

This week’s indie is The Carer, A 2016 comedy-drama directed by János Edelényi.

As the legendary American actor John Barrymore once remarked, “a man is not old until regrets take the place of dreams.” And in The Carer, such a decline seems to be the case with Sir Michael Gifford, an illustrious British star of stage and screen who once dazzled audiences with his Shakespearean prowess. But as played by the similarly acclaimed Scottish-born actor Brian Cox, Sir Michael has faded from view into old age as a curmudgeonly recluse, now spending most of his energy “not going gentle into that good night,” in the words of Dylan Thomas. Despite a palatial country estate and the support of a loyal staff who somehow are still able to tolerate his petty and sometimes racist tirades, Sir Michael must endure all the same indignities of aging faced by everyone else, regardless of fame and fortune. Suffering from Parkinson’s and prone to falls and bathroom accidents, Michael clearly needs fulltime assistance, a task that falls to his semi-estranged daughter Sophia, who struggles to find—and keep—a live-in caregiver for him. But with the arrival of Dorottya, an aspiring Hungarian actress played Coco König, the power dynamic of the household begins to shift: where Sir Michael is critical and alienating, Dorottya is tolerant and steadfast. And unlike Sir Michael’s previous caregivers, instead of living in terror of his next tantrum, Dorottya’s pragmatic good nature—and ability to quote Shakespeare—gradually begins to rehabilitate some of Sir Michael’s regrets back into dreams.

What is it about actors and aging? There seems to be a world-wide genre of films dealing with the vicissitudes of actors passing on to their not so golden years—works ranging from France’s La Fin du Jour to China’s Just for Fun, passing through such treats as the Swiss documentary Tosca’s Kiss, about a retirement home for opera singers. And who can forget Sunset Boulvard? Perhaps the combination of those who have spent their lives preparing to perform and a reality for which there can be no real preparation is simply too attractive to let pass by. Director János Edelényi hails from Hungary, and brought with him for this British production cinematographer Tibor Mathé, who creates a luminous warmth for all the spaces of Sir Michael’s somewhat overwhelming manor. And like Sir Michael, Brian Cox has also been extensively honored for his work in the theater, winning two Olivier Awards for his performances in Rat in the Skull in 1984 and Titus Andronicus in 1988. For eight months, Cox starred in the London West End production of Tom Stoppard’s Rock ‘N Roll, later reprising his performance on Broadway in 2007. In 2000, he was honored with a Primetime Emmy Award for his performance as Hermann Goering in the miniseries Nuremberg, and received an Emmy nomination for his guest appearance on the hit comedy series Frasier in 2001. Currently, Cox is starring in the HBO series Succession.

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