In theory, the film's story is quite simple: there's these giant guns on the island of Navaronne, see, and the Germans have 'em, and some of Our Guys gotta go up and take out those guns before a fleet of Allied destroyers sail on in and wreck the place on their way to free some prisoners of war. If they don't, then the guns are gonna wreck the fleet. In practice, the story zigs and zags and hits a storm and climbs and up a cliff wall and wanders through Grecian ruins and attends a wedding party and somebody breaks his leg early on and has to be shuttled around and there are some Greek women who show up and no, it's not supposed to be a mythological allegory, there's also some real speechifyin' going on in a few parts, and David Niven has the honor of delivering two of the greatest lines ever uttered in a war movie. The first is "The party's over. Somebody stepped on the cake!" and the second is "Climb down off your cross, close your eyes, think of England and pull the trigger!"
Meanwhile, Anthony Quinn gets to perform one of the best examples of overacting in the Scenery Chewer's Handbook, as he rolls on the ground moaning and shrieking and even trying to throw up in an attempt to convince some Nazis that he no soldier, he poor Greek fisherman. It is a classic and even if you don't see the entire film, you owe it to yourself to find that particular scene. I like Navaronne but I find that the film drags down during the speechifying parts. I realize the screenplay was an anti-war piece, but hell, The Dirty Dozen makes a powerful "Jumpin' Jesus on a pogo stick, but ain't nothin heroic bout killin people" message with fewer words. Navaronne is okay but I can take it or leave it. Niven's dialogue and Quinn's moment of overacting, though, win awards in my book.
The Great Escape, however, is great. There may be moments o' pathos, but they're sure handled differently than the speechifyin' in Navaronne. I can honestly say The Great Escape is one of my favorite films of all time, and I think I've mentioned it before, but I'll say it again: This is one of those films that if I come across it while flipping channels, no matter how far in we are, I have to watch it all the way through. All plans are put on hold until the movie is over. It's got one of those stories which I am more than happy to see or read or hear a million zillion times, and even though I always know what's going to happen, I still watch and I still feel like maybe this time, Steve McQueen's gonna jump that second fence and make it across the border.
The cast is absolutely fantastic. There's McQueen, Richard Attenborough, James Garner, Donald Pleasance, Charles Bronson, David McCallum, and not enough James Coburn. Garner's character is my favorite; he's the Scrounger and I like a good fixer. His laid-back folksy style, even as a POW, makes duping a German guard out of his papers (and once finished copying them, making it seem as if giving them back is a favor) look so easy. Plus he stands up for Pleasance's character at a crucial point in the plans and that's quite noble.
Lotsa iconic shots in this one, folks -- McQueen bouncing the baseball off the walls in the Cooler, the motorcycle chase, Charles Bronson on a little cart riding through the escape tunnel, the Fourth of July celebration, the escape itself, and the individual fates of each major participant, ironic, sad or cheerful. And then there's the image of Coburn serenely riding along through enemy territory on a bicycle while Elmer Bernstein's score plays a sweetly "Daisy, Daisy" arrangement of the title tune. You gotta pace a film well to throw in a quiet moment like that, and it works every time.
I am more than happy to revisit this story every now and then. It almost compelled me to pull out my copy of A Bridge Too Far, but I felt overwhelmed by the war sounds at that point and didn't want to devote another three hours to it all. It'll probably be next on my war movie list. I've seen Bridge on the River Kwai too recently to watch it again, but it's an excellent film all the same.
Sunday was not war but love, though we'll talk about that some other time.