J. LEE THOMPSON FOR THE GUNS OF NAVARONE (1961)
The competition (Cliff: 5 for 5!)
Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins for West Side Story
Federico Fellini for 8½
Stanley Kramer for Judgment at Nuremberg
Robert Rossen for The Hustler
NOTE: dark blue text denotes individuals who won Oscars for the film being discussed, while light blue indicates those who were nominated.
If Wake Island was the hasty call to action for the World War II combat film, The Guns of Navarone displayed the genre at its bombastic peak. J. Lee Thompson’s adventure appeared amidst a cycle of blockbuster behind-enemy-lines productions that stretched from The Bridge on the River Kwai to The Dirty Dozen. Thompson directs the tale with a muscular action film sensibility, but I was struck by the frequent flares of contention within the ranks of the usual team of highly trained specialists. Screenwriter Carl Foreman, recently freed from the Hollywood Blacklist (which had deprived him and Michael Wilson of their Oscars for Kwai) intended the movie as antiwar tale of the toll taken on the characters’ humanity even in the process of saving countless lives. The film that results is a fascinating mix of blend of taut caper and critical meditation on the tough decisions that must be made in the fog of war. Like The Bridge on the River Kwai, the film presents the grim business of war before capping everything off with a triumphant explosion and calling the wreckage a victory.
Carl Foreman’s adaptation of Alistair MacLean’s adventure novel differs from most of the teamwork films of the time period by emphasizing the genuine difficulty of teamwork among the band of Allies. The perfect mission, immediately fractured by the commander’s immediate injury, never recaptures its initial good luck and sense of clarity under the provisional leadership of Gregory Peck’s Captain Mallory. Though the men in the cast were almost comically old for their roles (even Peck was youthful by comparison with Cary Grant and Gary Cooper), the surprising standout is David Niven as the irascible demolitions expert. Niven is unafraid to play a truly insufferable gadfly, one who is keenly aware of the ramifications of Mallory’s ruthless leadership and unafraid to raise hackles every juncture. Nonetheless, he is a compliant partner at the very end, hen the job is on the line, demonstrating the grudging partnership rather than the valiant teamwork of war.
Thompson’s directing comes into play with the unique physical dimensions of the fictitious mission, up the treacherous sea cliff, across the labyrinthine rocky terrain, and into the austere German artillery nest. Thompson is among the few to effectively combine dynamic action with the widescreen format, exploiting the vast horizontal space to increase the suspense of Gregory Peck’s struggle to grab the rope again, or Niven creeping along the monumental length of the guns themselves. The pacing remains surprisingly steady for such a dreadnaught of a production, thanks in large part to Alan Osbiston’s sharp editing and the sparing application of Dimitri Tiomkin’s heavily percussive scoring, leaving most of the soundscape to the John Cox’s attentive mixing). The swift tension culminates in a nail-biting final sequence, cutting impatiently between the German war machine, the approaching British forces, and the excruciating lynchpin of the mission’s success. The ensuing fireworks, courtesy of Bill Warrington’s fireworks and the sound effects by Chris Greenham (a rather Seussian name, I must say), provide a finale that lives up to the two-and-a-half-hour build. Together, Foreman and Thompson craft an adventure that captures the fraught business of fighting a war, and the stirring triumph that downs out the strife.
1961 marked the total ascendancy of scope in the Best Director race. Stanley Kramer’s 1.75:1 aspect ratio on his gripping courtroom saga Judgment to Nuremberg was the squarest of the bunch. Everyone else was finding a way to express a directorial style on a vast canvas: Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins (the famously dysfunctional directing duo) for their spectacular musical with aspirations to immortality, Robert Rossen for the crisp poolroom drama The Hustler, and Thompson himself for the epic adventure yarn. However, perhaps the true historical development at the 1961 Academy Awards was the triumph of foreign language (and specifically Italian) cinema. In the same year that Carlo Ponti beat the odds and campaigned Sophia Loren to an Oscar win, Federico Fellini’s force of nature La dolce vita finally cracked the Best Director circle, paving the way for thirty more foreign language nominees. The Italian auteur’s melancholy journey through the Eternal City’s jubilant high life is a brilliant monument of art cinema, surpassed only by his audacious follow-up, 8½. I’m please that the Directors Branch caved in time to list this achievement on their honor roll.