The adventure movie when done well is one of my favourite story formats. A rag-tag team is set an impossible challenge and they must find a way to reconcile their differences as they take on one thing after another. The enemy threatens to destroy them from without, and when that danger passes, their personal conflicts threaten to destroy them from the within.
It’s a slow burn that builds the tension from one scene to the next. Each skirmish the team faces is leading up to the big event, and even if you know that the day will be saved, the anxiety continues to mount. Of course, this is all assuming that the story is executed well.
Sot it is with this weeks movie – The Guns of Navarone
For those who haven't seen it let me set up the scene I’m going to talk about:
- During World War II, 2000 allied soldiers are trapped on a small Greek island
- They cant be rescued as the only access by sea is guarded by massive guns on the nearby island of Navarone
- The team must assault the guns before the ships sail through, and they only have a few days to do it
- Gregory Peck plays Capt. Mallory, the team leader. He’s determined to get the job done and takes full responsibility for their success, or failure.
- David Niven plays Cpl. Miller, the explosives expert. A glib college professor who shirks responsibility (he refuses to become an officer despite repeated attempts).
- Gia Scala plays Anna, a local resistance fighter. She no longer speaks after being captured and held by the Germans for a time. She forms a bond with Pecks character.
- Irene Papas plays Maria, the resistance contact and a friend and protector of Anna.
- As the team are preparing for their final assault they realise the explosives have been sabotaged
- Miller concludes that its Anna and he makes the case for her execution as a way to punish Mallory for dooming his friend in an earlier decision
- Mallory, after defending his desire to take responsibility (and after Miller once again refuses to do so) prepares to do the dirty business of killing the woman he’s developed feelings for
- Just as he's about to shoot, Maria shoots instead. After a sombre moment the team are ordered to move out.
- Miller stands motionless and speechless, as he realises that he can no longer set himself apart from the war raging around him, and the awful decisions that have to be made
With the dead body lying face down in the dirty ruined building, and the gunshot still ringing in the minds of the two men, a rage builds in Mallory as he finally confronts Miller about the necessity of responsibility. Miller is frozen and can only listen. Here's how it plays out:
- It’s not hard to kill someone, sometimes its harder not to
- You’re in it now, up to your neck!
- You got me in the mood to use this thing..
- By God, if you don't think of something, I’ll use it on you!
- I mean it!
- Go on.
What I love about this scene is the performance from Peck. There's a real sense of fury as he wrings his hands on the gun strap at his shoulder, pulling his uniform out of shape in the process. That, mixed with the controlled repose as he tells Nivens character that he’ll kill him if he doesn't shape up (and we believe that he would).
But perhaps even more than that is the way the almost overpowering weight of responsibility, the weight of leadership, is portrayed. The truth that a leader is just a person who resolves to take responsibility for achieving a goal, and then does everything possible, even at the cost of his own conscience, to see it through. I share the sentiments of Nivens character as he looks on, speechless, at the tremendous strength of character required to undertake such difficult decisions.
I hope this whets your appetite to see the film, either for the first time, or after a long time. I know that's what I’ll be doing as soon as I finish this post.