There were more twists and turns in the making of the film of The Guns Of Navarone (1961) than the fertile mind of best-selling author Alistair Maclean could ever have dreamed up. The movie narrowly avoided filming in the middle of a civil war, caused a court martial, the director had to be replaced and star David Niven nearly died. Worse, Gregory Peck, whose name was meant to guarantee success, became a box office liability and, strangest of all, American producer Carl Foreman was hell bent on giving opera superstar Maria Callas her movie debut.
Maclean, a Scottish schoolteacher, had shot to international fame with HMS Ulysses (1955), sold 250,000 copies in hardback. His follow-up, The Guns Of Navarone (1957), equally successful, was snapped up by Columbia Pictures, which had just enjoyed its biggest ever success with The Bridge On The River Kwai (1957).
The studio assigned the movie to American Carl Foreman, a fugitive from the McCarthy communist witch hunt of the early 1950s. Foreman had written Kirk Douglas’s breakthrough picture Champion (1949) and High Noon (1952) starring Gary Cooper. Under fierce political pressure, Foreman fled to Britain. Foreman’s ambitions to become a producer were blocked by the US government’s decision to revoke his passport, but Columbia offered him a deal as long as he remained out of America. The Guns Of Navarone would be the studio’s biggest-ever film.
Foreman pursued the current superstars – Cary Grant wanted first refusal, William Holden was keen – and aimed for a stunning casting coup. Despite no women in the book, Foreman changed the genders of the two Greek partisans into females. The most famous woman in the world, Callas was as well known for her scandalous love life as her voice and Foreman tracked her down to the yacht of her lover, Greek shipping magnate Aristotle Onassis. Previous opera stars achieving Hollywood fame included Grace Moore, Lawrence Tibbetts, Nelson Eddy and Jeanette Macdonald in the 1930s, and Mario Lanza in the 1950s. Foreman won his leading lady, promising ‘mucho love scenes’ with Gregory Peck.
Peck was under fire on the domestic front for being the equivalent of a ‘tax dodger’. Using tax loopholes, he had made Moby Dick (1956) and The Man In The Grey Flannel Suit (1956) abroad and, separately, incurred the wrath of screenwriters and musicians.
Richard Burton, Peter Finch and John Mill were all mooted, but the final cast comprised Oscar-winner David Niven, Anthony Quinn, a double Oscar-winner for best supporting actor, and rising Welsh actor Stanley Baker (later more famous for Zulu, 1964). The other female role went to Annette Stroyberg, wife of French director Roger Vadim who had turned Brigitte Bardot into a star. The director was Alexander Mackendrick (The Ladykillers, 1955.)
But Foreman almost ended up in a war zone. Cyprus, the original location, was a powder keg, with relationships between Turks and Cypriots on a knife edge. The country’s leaders assured Foreman the troubles were a thing of the past. But the American was not convinced and after a second look at the island of Rhodes, and the offer of a very sweet deal from the Greeks including free use of army and navy resources, and tax incentives, changed his mind. Months later, civil war broke out on Cyprus.
Now Foreman face battle on other fronts. Callas pulled out as did Stroyberg, replaced by Irene Papas and Gia Scala. An actors strike threatened the production. The director fell ill and, much to the studio’s astonishment, Foreman suggested he take over. But Columbia turned him down. J Lee Thompson, director of British war classic, Ice Cold In Alex, was available after A Dream Of Troy was cancelled. Thompson coped admirably, although his directing style sent the film over budget and his inexperience in special effects sank a Greek ship, resulting in its captain facing court martial, and the navy withdrawing all support in protest.
Special effects sent the production into uncharted waters. Mountaineering scenes were impossible to film with doubles and it was here the device of constructing a cliff on the floor was invented; with actors crawling across it, intercut with mattes and blue screens and limited use of doubles, realism was achieved. The storm sequence was shot in a water tank, with water blasted at the actors from wind machines and aeroplane motors. Peck suffered a deep gash on his head, Quinn injured his back and Darren nearly drowned.
Worse was to come. The set for the guns, the biggest ever built in Britain, collapsed and had to be rebuilt. Inadvertently, Foreman nearly caused the death of Niven. To heighten the tension Foreman had, in his screenplay, flooded the well in which Niven stood (this was not flooded in the book) in the climactic scene. Niven contracted septicaemia and was rushed to hospital where he lay at death’s door for several weeks leaving Foreman considering cancelling the entire film.
With filming complete, there was another problem. Beloved Infidel (1959) starring Peck as writer F. Scott Fitzgerald (The Great Gatsby, 1925) had tanked, giving the actor the worst box office of his career, which meant that only two out of the last six Peck films had been hits, a disturbingly low proportion given the actor was meant to be a guarantee of success. In addition, the film had a distinctly anti-war undertone, an approach that could deter the masses.
But when it opened in 1961, the film smashed box office records in London and New York and was the number one film of the year and the movie, and its director, were nominated for Oscars.
The Making Of The Guns Of Navarone by Brian Hannan, published by Baroliant Press, is available on Amazon Kindle and printed copies direct from the publishers at www.baroliant.com.
The author has also published The Making Of Lawrence Of Arabia and two books on Hitchcock. The Making Of The Magnificent Seven is due out in October.
The Guns of Navarone 4K screens as a special Father’s Day matinee this Sunday September 1st at 1.30pm.