“The Guns of Navarone” Should Have Been An Oscar Favorite

1961. It was the most important year in history: John F. Kennedy became the President of the United States! The Beatles played their first gig! The failed Bay of Pigs Invasion of Cuba began! Ernie Davis became the first African-American to win the Heisman Trophy!  Your humble blogger was born!  (OK maybe that last one wasn’t as Earth-shattering as the rest to you, but it’s important to me).

The Oscars that year were dominated by West Side Story. I have to admit I’ve never been a fan of musicals. The idea that in the middle of a dramatic scene everyone would break out in exposition with a song a dance just never clicked with me.  Nobody does that in real life!  This is the basic reason why most musicals don’t make my list of favorite movies.  The ones that I do like are the ones that have the music as a sidebar of sorts, like Cabaret, which to my recollection only has songs performed at the Cabaret and not in the middle of a dramatic scene.

That said there are several reasons why I think The Guns of Navarone should have won more of its fair share of Oscars at the 1962 ceremony, besides my general dislike of its competitors.  I will make an argument for each one.  Maybe I’ll be convincing, maybe I’ll fail, but at least I’ll try. 

The Guns of Navarone (1961)

This movie is viewed as a war movie, although, surprisingly, the majority of the cast and crew thought they were making an anti-war movie…and sometimes it seems as if that might be the case.  Look at David Niven‘s character.  He played an explosives expert who would seem to be at home with just chucking the whole war and go back to his country estate.

A very brief synopsis is in order so that you have some point of reference.  The movie stars Gregory Peck as the leader of a crack troop of agents and saboteurs tasked with blowing up two huge German guns located on a fortress island.  There are many plot twists along the way, but the troop has some success.  There.  If that intrigues you go watch it.

This blog entry is, however, to discuss arguments in favor of winning more of the Oscars for which it was nominated.

Let’s start with an easy one: Dimitri Tiomkin for Best Dramatic or Comedy Score.  Tiomkin’s competition included Miklos Rozsa for El Cid and the eventual winner, Henry Mancini for Breakfast at Tiffany’s.  The scoring of an action movie, in my opinion, requires a certain finesse.  You can either overdo or underwhelm the movie if you don’t do it just right.  With the right scoring, it enhances the action, not replaces it.  I think of Basil Poledouris, with his scoring of True Lies.  That movie could have stood to have a little less of the music in your face.  Not so with The Guns of Navarone.  There is one scene in particular, in which the only background music is a rhythmic drum beat.  This made the scene all that more intense, where a full scale orchestra might have reduced it to ashes.  The rest of the movie has such rousing and almost patriotic feel to it.  The basic argument I have for Guns  over Tiffany’s  is that Dimitri Tiomkin could do what Henry Mancini did, but I seriously doubt Mancini could have done what Tiomkin did.

Alan Obsiston was nominated for Best Film Editing.  While, admittedly, the blending of several of the dance scenes in West Side Story were phenomenal, particularly the gang fight scenes, I thought the pacing of the final destruction of the titular guns in The Guns of Navarone  was much better.  Instead of just a couple of scene shifts, the whole suspense of the final scene rides on whether or not the circuits of the planted bombs will make contact, and the scenes relentlessly change between several viewpoints to heighten the suspense. War movies in general require a deft hand to get the action, and film editing can make or break it.  Obiston’s work was definitely Oscar material.

Best Sound Recording went to West Side Story and I’ll concede that one.  ot sure how I could make a decent argument to make guns firing and bombs exploding a better choice than what are some admittedly pretty damn decent songs.

J. Lee Thompson was up for Best Director.  Thompson’s work included quite a few action-adventure  movies.  In fact, the DVD copy I have of Guns  mentions theecrew had an entirely different director lined up, but it became evident early on he (or she, they didn’t actual name the failed director) didn’t have the sensibilities of an action film.  Thompson (who would later direct the last two Planet of the Apes movies, reviewed in an earlier blog post) proved to be the solution needed.  The movie comes off as rousing and suspenseful and holds your interest until the end, despite the fact that you must know how it’s going to end.

I have yet to see the original TV version of Judgement at Nuremberg, the movie version of which won Best Adapted Screenplay.  I did, however, as a teenager, read Alistair MacLean’s original novel of The Guns of Navarone.  You can get into some serious arguments with people who “loved the book; hated the movie” and vice versa.  Yes there was a lot of minor details changed.  For one, the Gregory Peck character was a New Zealander, a country which acknowledges the British Queen as monarch.  There is a line which David Niven, an Englishman, delivers to Peck towards the end of the movie, implying that he is a fellow countryman,  that struck me because I had assumed, as most people watching the movie would, that Mallory was an American.  But still, it does follow the book in spirit most of the time, and is an excellent script.  I reserve full judgement until I can see the TV play of the winner, but my initial vote is still for Guns.

The last item on the list is Best Picture. West Side Story won that one too.  And although I still disagree with the findings of the board, I would probably have voted for The Hustler.  I could easily make an argument that The Guns of Navarone  was a better choice than West Side Story, but I would fall flat on my face trying to make an argument that it was better than the Newman/Gleason flick.

Jim Brymer, AKA Quiggy, runs the movie blog The Midnite Drive-In, check it out for more insights on other classic films.

This article originally ran last year and is being reprinted as part of our Academy Award celebrations, or, in this film’s case, lack thereof.