DirectorJ. Lee Thompson
Release Date(s)1961 (November 2, 2021)
Studio(s)Columbia Pictures/Highroad Productions (Sony Pictures Home Entertainment)
- Film/Program Grade: A
- Video Grade: B
- Audio Grade: A
- Extras Grade: B-
The Guns of Navarone has always been one of my favorite war movies, since way back when I first saw it on late-night TV as a kid. It’s that rare film that eclipses its genre—it’s not just a war movie, but also a surprisingly timeless adventure, and one that works completely apart from its World War II setting.
Directed by J. Lee Thompson, The Guns of Navarone is a classic “impossible mission” story—in fact, one of the first ever made. A large number of Allied soldiers are stranded on an island in the South Aegean Sea, and are doomed to be captured by the Nazis unless a convoy of British destroyers can rescue them. But there’s a problem—the only approach to the region is protected by a pair of massive German gun emplacements, tucked inside a virtually impregnable mountain fortress on the island of Navarone. The destroyers are on their way, and if the guns can’t be silenced, the ships will be sunk and the soldiers lost. So the Brits task a pair of experienced operatives, Captain Mallory (played by Gregory Peck) and Colonel Stavros (Anthony Quinn), to lead a small team of special operators onto the island in an effort to sabotage the guns. It’s considered a suicide mission, as the team will have to approach Navarone by sea and scale a massive cliff face at night—the only unprotected way onto the island. The island itself is crawling with Germans, who seem able to anticipate the team’s every move. And even if the team manages to reach the fortress, how will they get inside?
Making matters worse, this motley band of cut-throats can barely stand one another. Stavros has threatened to kill Mallory when the war is over, blaming him (at least in part legitimately) for the death of his wife and children at the hands of the Nazis. The British commander of the mission, Major Franklin (Anthony Quayle), is an inexperienced but well-intentioned leader, a little too eager to prove himself in combat. The squad’s demolitions expert (David Niven) isn’t exactly quick to follow orders. And the other members of the team are common, if well trained, thugs—it’s uncertain that they’ll be reliable for anything other than killing Germans. Somehow, this unlikely band of heroes will have to learn to trust one another if they’re to have even a prayer of getting the job done.
Everything just works here. Thompson’s direction is deft, keeping this story moving in lean and agile fashion. Oswald Morris’ stylish photography and a rousing score by Dimitri Tiomkin lend the film a nicely epic quality. And the acting is superb all the way around. Peck is simply outstanding as Mallory, a mercenary who’s seen just enough war to be ruthless when he must be, but reluctantly so. Niven is equally good as Corporal Miller, who butts heads with Mallory over his decisions about what’s necessary to accomplish the mission. But better than both is Quinn—he quite simply shines here. His portrayal of Stavros is of a quiet but dangerous man, even more ruthless than Mallory but with the same air of reluctance about him. These characters are as well rounded as any you’ll ever see in a film like this; you know everything you need to know about them to take this dangerous journey with them.
This film also boasts one of the most dramatically surprising and powerful moments I’ve seen in any film. I don’t want to spoil it for you by saying more, but it definitely hits home and speaks of the nature of morality in war. The screenplay, adapted by writer/producer Carl Foreman (The Bridge on the River Kwai, High Noon) from a much lighter Alistair MacLean novel, adds a terrific measure of weight and drama to the typical war movie action (note that Foreman also wrote High Noon and The Bridge on the River Kwai). And the ending is as rousing as they come.
The Guns of Navarone was shot on 35 mm Eastman Color film by cinematographer Oswald Morris (Moby Dick, Lolita, Oliver!) using anamorphic lenses, and was finished with a CinemaScope 2.35:1 composition for theaters. Per an essay by Sony’s Grover Crisp (included on a paper slip in the case), the film first received a photochemical restoration in 1992 (the results of which eventually appeared on DVD in 2000 and 2007). For the film’s 50th anniversary in 2011, a complete 4K restoration was done by Sony Colorworks (working with Cineric in NY and Prasad Corp in India)—one of the first of its kind—using the original 35 mm picture negative (which included dupe negative in many places), along with elements produced in the 1992 restoration (among them new YCM separation master positives). These were wet-gate scanned in 4K and the result was digitally restored for the 2011 Blu-ray release. Now, for the film’s 60th anniversary in 2021, those original 2011 source files have received additional digital remastering and were graded for HDR by Roundabout in Santa Monica. (HDR10 only is included on this disc.) It should be noted that The Guns of Navarone has always been a somewhat rough-looking film. The negative was badly handled over the years, and the result was a great deal of physical damage and missing elements—not unlike Sony’s The Bridge on the River Kwai. Nevertheless, the result of the restoration work over the years is rather remarkable, and to see it in 4K is to finally appreciate the film at its best. There’s certainly a gain in detail over the previous Blu-ray image, though perhaps not as much as other recent restorations of this vintage. Grain is moderate to strong throughout the film, but it’s organic at least and the encoding handles it well. Some shots fare better than others, obviously—the film’s prologue and optically-produced transitions look somewhat worse for wear, not to mention the occasional shot for which original neg no longer exists. But on the whole, the improvements are notable and welcome. The HDR grade allows for slightly more shadow detail than was previously apparent, with deeper blacks and more naturally-bright highlights. There’s a bit of contrast haloing apparent on footage that’s further away from original neg, but it only affects a few shots here and there. Colors are improved a bit too, with added fidelity, nuance, and naturalism visible in skin-tones, foliage, and landscapes. This is far from a reference quality presentation, but it’s safe to say that the film hasn’t looked this good in quite some time. (Note that when you select “play” on the 4K disc, you’re offered the chance to watch the film with or without the original roadshow intermission card.)
Primary audio on the 4K disc is available in a new English Dolby Atmos mix. Also available is the previous Blu-ray’s English 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio mix, along with an English 4.0 DTS-HD Master Audio mix that recreates the original theatrical 4-track stereo experience. The source for the audio restoration was the original 35 mm magnetic 4-track LCRS master. The 2011 Blu-ray mixes were produced by Chance Audio, and their successor, Deluxe Audio Services, worked on 2021 audio restoration, using new techniques to reduce wow and flutter. The new Atmos mix was produced at Sony by mixer Paul Ottosson and supervisor Brian Vessa... and frankly, it’s fantastic. The mix is wonderfully immersive, creating a wide and natural soundstage, with layers of sound filtering in from all directions—wind, waves, the creaking of ropes during the boat crossing, etc. There’s a shot (during the skirmish with the German patrol boat) in which Mallory tosses a grenade. When it lands in the middle of the stage, the blast wraps around the listener and reverberates in the rear channels. Bass is ample, lending gunfire and explosions a bit of added heft, and the overhead channels engage often to give vertical scale to aircraft fly-bys, the storm and shipwreck, the effort to scale the cliff, machine sounds in the cavernous interior of the German fortress, flying gun shells, and the closing destroyer sirens. There’s surprisingly lovely depth—a genuine sense of distance—in the soundstage too. Yet the mix never sacrifices the film’s original sonic character. It still sounds vintage, just more natural than ever. Additional audio options include French, German, and Italian 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio, Portuguese and Castilian Spanish 5.1 Dolby Digital, and Czech, Hindi, and Latin Spanish 2.0 Mono Dolby Digital. Optional subtitles are available in English, English SDH, Arabic, Bulgarian, Simplified Chinese, Traditional Chinese, Czech, Danish, Dutch, Finnish, French, German, Greek, Hebrew, Hindi, Hungarian, Icelandic, Italian, Korean, Norwegian, Polish, Brazilian Portuguese, Portuguese, Castilian Spanish, Latin Spanish, Swedish, Thai, and Turkish.
Sony’s 4K disc includes only two special features:
- Main Title Progression Reel (HD – 2:43)
- Theatrical Trailer (HD – 3:42)
The progression reel is new for this 4K release, comparing the original sketches of the Greek ruins in the film’s opening title sequence to the final product. There’s also the old school trailer for the film—this was in SD on the original DVD release but wasn’t included on the Blu-ray (now it’s here in full HD). Both are included in good quality. The package also includes the previous 2011 Blu-ray release, with the film in 1080p HD and the following legacy special features:
- Audio Commentary by J. Lee Thompson
- Audio Commentary by Stephen J. Rubin
- The Resistance Dossier of Navarone: Interactive Feature (HD – includes 6 additional video clips – approx. 30 minutes in all)
- Forging The Guns of Navarone: Notes from the Set (SD – 13:59)
- An Ironic Epic of Heroism (SD – 24:38)
- Memories of Navarone (SD – 29:34)
- Epic Restoration (SD – 9:37)
- A Heroic Score (SD – 9:19)
- Great Guns (HD – 4:34)
- No Visitors (HD – 4:36)
- Honeymoon on Rhodes (SD – 4:36)
- Two Girls on the Town (SD – 4:35)
- Narration-Free Prologue (SD – 5:45)
- Message from Carl Foreman (HD – 2:00)
The Resistance Dossier was a BD-Java interactive feature created for the 2011 Blu-ray (complete with photos, text, and HD clips), while three of the vintage featurettes were upgraded to HD for the Blu-ray. All of the other extras are carried over from the original 2000 DVD and the 2007 Special Edition DVD. There’s a decent commentary track with the director, who’s obviously recalling information as he watches the film—some good stories manage to slip in there. There’s also a second commentary with film historian Stephen J. Rubin, who offers a host of detail, trivia, and background on the film and its making. Next up are featurettes on the 1992 restoration, the score, and the production, as well as the original Memories of Navarone, which a terrific half-hour retrospective produced by Sharpline Arts that’s packed with behind-the-scenes photo and interviews with Thompson, Peck, Quinn, and former pop star James Darren. There are more great stores told here, from Thompson’s disastrous haircut (at the hands of actress Gia Scalia) to the on-the-set chess matches instigated by Quinn. Finally, there’s a set of vintage “newsreel” promotional featurettes for the film and a filmed message from producer Carl Forman, all of which were originally shown in theaters. The packaging also a Digital copy code on a paper insert and the aforementioned restoration essay by Crisp (which is terrific—I wish this kind of thing was included with every classic film released in 4K). What’s more, some early copies of the 4K release include a cardboard “o-ring” slipcover with original poster artwork. All in all, it’s a fine special edition worthy of this film classic.
I don’t think Hollywood could make a movie like this today. If they tried, the film would surely star Brad Pitt and a slew of other highly-paid pretty boys, and the budget would top $300 million. As it is, The Guns of Navarone received no less than 7 Academy Award nominations in its day, including Best Picture. And although it won only for Best Special Effects, it remains one of the richest, leanest, and meanest war/adventure stories every filmed. I’ll tell you this much—I’m damn glad for the chance to add it to my 4K Ultra HD library. Recommended.
- Bill Hunt