Director Recalls ‘Navarone’ Had Off-Screen Dangers Too
“The Guns of Navarone” almost never was. Production was a heartbeat away from being scrapped when star David Niven became deathly ill near the conclusion of filming the popular 1961 action-adventure.
“We were doing the scene in the cave, and David Niven was in a pool of water fixing an explosive,” recalls director J. Lee Thompson. “Suddenly, he fell very ill. I don’t know whether he got a disease from the water, but his life was in danger, and we had to decide whether to abandon the film--because we still had some important scenes to do with him--and take the insurance.”
The British-born Thompson even toyed with the idea of using a double for Niven with the person’s back to the camera. Luckily, a phone call came before the final decision had been made. “The hospital said the crisis had passed and he would be all right in a week to do some shooting,” Thompson said. “We managed to have enough to film until he recovered.”
Nominated for seven Oscars--including best film and director, and a winner for special effects--"The Guns of Navarone” is a World War II thriller based on a novel by Alistair MacLean. Niven, Gregory Peck, Anthony Quinn, Irene Papas and James Darren star in this rip-roaring tale about an intrepid group of Allies who are chosen to destroy a pair of German guns strategically located in a high cave on the Mediterranean island of Navarone.
“Navarone” was produced and written by Carl Foreman and features one of composer Dimitri Tiomkin’s greatest musical scores.
Last week, Columbia TriStar released a DVD collector’s edition ($25) of “Guns,” complete with a new documentary featuring interviews with Thompson, Peck, Quinn and Darren; a wide-screen transfer of the newly restored print; production notes; theatrical trailer; and commentary from Thompson.
Though “Guns” is Thompson’s best-known film in a career spanning 60-plus years, he concedes he wasn’t Foreman’s original choice. Alexander Mackendrick, who directed “Sweet Smell of Success,” was hired but left the production shortly before filming began because of differences with Foreman.
“I had to take it over within 10 days [of start date],” Thompson said. “I was very happy to find the cast was made up of some very big international stars who absolutely supported me from the word ‘go.’ ”
Thompson and his cast plunged into filming in Greece. “I was up most of the nights planning the shooting,” he says. “The first two or three days were very stressful for me because generally I have three or four months to work out the shooting of a film.”
Foreman chose Thompson because he had admired his intimate 1959 drama, “Tiger Bay,” which introduced Hayley Mills, and another 1959 release of his, the action-adventure “Flame Over India.”
“He gave those films to Gregory Peck and David Niven to look at because in their contracts they had the right [to approve] the director. They both loved the films.”
“The Guns of Navarone” was shot in Greece and on sound stages in London. But the gigantic set of the cave had to be built outside. “There was a great storm in England [one day], and I was standing watching the storm, and suddenly this whole cave set simply crumbled and fell,” Thompson recalls. “It put us back a while.”
One of the film’s most suspenseful interludes is a lengthy storm sequence in which a fishing boat carrying the men is battered while trying to land on Navarone in a torrential downpour.
“That was all done in the studios with giant tanks,” Thompson says. “It was very dangerous and time-consuming. We only got two, or three at the most, shots a day.”
The boat was on rockers, so the actors found themselves being pitched to and fro. “There was a great liability of them being sucked under the boat and being trapped. It took anywhere between four or five weeks to do, and people did get hurt. But not seriously.”
Despite the hardships, the cast remained happy, thanks to Quinn’s idea to start a chess tournament. “Quinn is a great chess player,” he says. “The chess game absolutely caught on, and in between shooting scenes they all rushed to their chessboards. There were no tensions.”
But Thompson still had to deal with actress Gia Scala, who played one of the guerrilla fighters. “Gia Scala, who was a little crazy, decided I needed a haircut,” he says, laughing. “She was a little upset with me over some scene that we had done. I just sat there while she cut my hair and she ruined it. It made me look ridiculous! I had to wear a hat.
“In fact, I am not sure that it was a scene from ‘Guns’ she was upset about. Before ‘Guns,’ I had done a film with her called ‘I Aim at the Stars.’ She was absolutely crazy. Although I liked her very much, after the film was finished, I said, ‘Thank God. I hope I never have to work with her again.’ And then when I inherited ‘Guns of Navarone,’ who was in the cast? Gia Scala!”