Sony // 1961 // 158 Minutes // Rated PG
Reviewed by Judge Steve Evans (Retired) // December 21st, 2004
An impenetrable fortress, an invincible army...and the unstoppable commando team.
Look, sir. First, you've got that bloody old fortress on top of that bloody cliff. Then you've got the bloody fortress inside the cliff. You can't even see the bloody cave, let alone the bloody guns. And even if we could, sir, we haven't got a bloody bomb big enough to smash that bloody rock. And that's the bloody truth.
A classic thriller of World War II action and espionage explodes off the screen in this Superbit Edition. Nominated for seven Academy Awards in 1961, including Best Picture, The Guns of Navarone won for Best Special Effects, which still hold up well 43 years later. Budgeted at $6 million, at the time it was among the most expensive movies ever made, and that money is all on screen.
So, the primary issue before us is not whether to add this film to a DVD collection. It is a genuine action classic, with excellent production values, a sterling international cast, a literate script (from the bestselling novel by Alistair MacLean), hair-raising escapes, and suspense galore. Rather, the dilemma is whether the Sony Superbit format, which packs more digital information onto the disc, is superior in picture and audio quality to the fine special edition released in February this year.
Gregory Peck and David Niven lead an international cast on a covert operation through Greece in the waning days of the Second World War. Their mission? Destroy German cannons in a fortified position high on the rocky cliffs of Navarone, an island on the Aegean Sea. The Germans use the deadly artillery installation to sink British ships attempting to rescue some 2,000 Allied troops stranded on a nearby island. The commando team has six days to infiltrate and destroy Navarone before the Germans massacre the troops. Mountain climber Peck and demolition man Niven resolve to destroy the guns and clear the sea passage. They assemble a strike force of war-movie archetypes, including the deadly Greek soldier Stavros (Anthony Quinn), a sniper, a war-weary commando, and a Greek freedom fighter (Irene Papas). Following a few truncated scenes of character development, the group sets off on their mission, armed with automatic weapons and enough explosives to bring down a mountain.
Long before they reach Navarone, the team must face enemy fire, outflank German patrols, work their way through several nail-biting escapes, commandeer a leaky vessel, deal with personality clashes among themselves, and unmask the traitor in their midst. Peck brings grim resolve to his role, nicely counterbalanced by the more sensitive Niven, who pessimistically observes that they are on a suicide mission. Quinn defines macho and Papas adds another layer of realism to the story as a hardened fighter who is unafraid to kill -- or to reveal her sensitive side.
The climactic attack on Navarone still packs an explosive wallop, as our saboteur heroes infiltrate the fortress and attempt to blow it to the bottom of the sea. Navarone can also be seen as the granddaddy of commando movies. Its success paved the way for such action vehicles as The Dirty Dozen and Kelly's Heroes.
This Superbit Edition offers a vibrant print with crystal-clear sound in a choice of Dolby 5.1 or DTS, representing a slight audio improvement over the earlier special edition of the film mentioned above. The higher bitrate digital transfer process utilized by Sony's Superbit system affords about the best video and audio that the DVD format can offer at this time (though it still hasn't reached the resolution of high-def video). The tradeoff is, the Superbit format gobbles so much disc space that there is no room for extra features. Regardless, this seriously good-looking transfer fills the widescreen image with breathtaking color. One of the highlights of Navarone is the gorgeous cinematography, which truly shines through in this Superbit edition (much of the picture was filmed on location in Greece, with the plentiful special-effects work shot in England at Shepperton Studios in Surrey).
The disc includes a choice of subtitles in eight languages, two audio formats, and an easy-to-navigate scene selection menu, but that's it. Anyone looking for additional information about the production, historical perspectives, or any other details about the making of this great adventure will not find them on this disc.
To upgrade or not? Careful comparison of the disc before us and the earlier special edition gives a slight edge in audio quality to this new Superbit disc. This reviewer watched two chapters on both versions three times each, alternating discs after each chapter. Lacking sophisticated electronic testing equipment, I relied on an arguably better method: my own ears and home theater setup, including a progressive scan DVD player and high-def monitor, chained to a 5.1 Surround amp. Let me be clear: this is an entirely subjective and aesthetic judgment. I used the discovery of the traitor, which is dialogue intensive, for my first test. The Superbit edition won by a whisker, as the dialogue remained crisp and free of hiss throughout a range of volume levels. For my test of picture quality and audio, I cued up the fiery climax. Here, both discs sounded equal in the sonic boom department, with good use of the rear channels and a satisfying rumble from the subwoofer. Video quality, quite frankly, was indistinguishable between the two discs. As a fail-safe, my random scanning of different chapter stops produced the same results: no significant difference in image quality, although the Superbit disc scored repeatedly with slightly superior audio.
For a 43-year-old film, cleaner audio in a nicely mixed 5.1 and DTS soundtrack is a definite plus. But that improvement comes at the greater expense of a package devoid of any extras. The Superbit version retails for about $25, while the earlier special edition can be had for $10-$15 -- and the latter is packed with extras, including a commentary by director J. Lee Thompson that was recorded shortly before his death in 2002.
Ultimately, a purchasing decision should come down to personal preferences. As a devout film historian, I thrive on extra features. As it turns out, I could not discern sufficient improvement in the Superbit picture to sacrifice interesting supplements available on the earlier DVD edition of this classic film.
As for the award-winning special effects, contemporary audiences will note instantly that the climactic battle relies heavily on model work. Good editing helps obscure this to some degree. Still, these are certainly elaborate models, photographed with the best optical printing systems available in 1961, and it is in that context that modern viewers are encouraged to enjoy the film.
Additionally, Thompson allows the action to bog down in several sections as though he has confused careful pacing with inducing boredom, but these scenes pass and the momentum builds inexorably toward a raucous finale.
An intelligent, action-packed thriller, The Guns of Navarone is a must-have for any serious collector of adventure films. Fans who demand the absolute best audio and video transfer that money can buy will do well to pony up for the Superbit edition. Those desiring supplemental information will find the special edition more suitable to their needs.
Cast and crew acquit themselves with honor. The famous guns are sentenced to a fiery demise.
Review content copyright © 2004 Steve Evans; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 2.35:1 Anamorphic
* DTS 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
Running Time: 158 Minutes
Release Year: 1961
MPAA Rating: Rated PG