Tuesday, January 09, 2007

The Bums of Navarone

If you can’t go home again, you can watch it on cable.

I had such an experience recently when I saw “The Guns of Navarone” over the weekend. For those unfamiliar, “Guns” is a 1961 movie about an Allied mission to knock out two massive cannons that are blasting the British fleet out of the Aegean. It has an all-star cast: Gregory Peck, David Niven, and Anthony “I Was Zorba the Greek” Quinn.

I remember viewing it several times on the ABC Movie of the Week and the CBS Movie! and such, between the ages of 8 and 12. But I hadn’t seen it for about 30 years.

The verdict on watching “Guns”? It’s bad. Reaaaaaaaaaly bad. It’s not just the cheap-looking special effects, which might have represented the apotheosis of cinematic achievement 46 years ago, replete with bathtub renditions of sinking ships and model-ready fake artillery falling down a Styrofoam mountain into a fake sea. It’s not just the performances, straight outta the 19th Century School of Crappy Stage Acting. It’s not just the stupid love scenes (yes) or the dialog, which features gems like, “If we don’t get the explosives, then the Germans will find them first. That will mean that the mission has failed.”

No, these things I could abide. What put me over the edge was the blood.

As a bullet pierced flesh, it looked like someone had dropped a pot of red ink on the victim's wound. Splotch, splotch.

Of course, the blood is indicative of something larger. When one of the heroes throws a grenade, every German soldier within a five-mile radius collapses. When somebody is shot — even with a single bullet — they fall to the floor dead, silent. No groaning, moaning, no screaming in agony, much less severed limbs and heads being blown apart. You know, the things that happen in combat.

Give this man a cuppa joe

“The Guns of Navarone” also reminded me of “Sands of Iwo Jima,” staring John Wayne. When one man is blodlessly shot in combat, he has the presence of mind to say a shema before dying. (Glad to know that someone in Hollywood thought of the Jews.)

Forrest Tucker, the dude from “F-Troop,” also starred in “Sands,” accounting for the most risible scene ever in the history of war movies. He leaves his foxhole to get ammo for two other soldiers, who are pinned by Japanese snipers. But instead of running back with ammunition, Tucker stops and gets coffee. Yes, he drops by the Iwo Jima Starbucks and gets a grande skim latte while his fellow G.I.s are getting their asses shot off.

“Man, that’s great coffee!” he says, getting a refill (he gets a seconds!). “Here, put some joe in the canteen so I can bring ‘em back to my buddies!” The buddies are dead, of course, because Forrest didn’t get the ammo back to them in time, because he was drinking coffee.

Dereliction of duty never tasted so good.

This is not to dismiss childhood pleasures, or that I should have expected “Guns” to be as gripping as I had envisioned. Things are never as good or bad as one remembers, of course, and I imagine reviewing all of my childhood television and movie consumption would be to simply open a treasure trove of embarrassment.

No, what ate at me the most is that nothing about the movie rang true. Nothing. The Germans are so incompetent, you wonder how they overran Greece in the first place. The blood is so fake that you thought you were watching a commercial for Ragu. The dialog, acting, plot, effects — not a single thing was honest. One can’t expect “Saving Private Ryan” in 1961, much less “Platoon” or “Bride of Chucky,” but I would hope that there’d been something mildly accurate in any movie of any generation.

Mr. Cooler King

Writers must hew to the truth to be worth a damn. I can’t really say that anything in “The Very Hungry Caterpillar” is true, but at least George Bush’s favorite book has some truth in it: the transformation of caterpillar to butterfly. In fact, there’s more truth in “Caterpillar” than George Bush has ever spoken.

If someone turned “The Guns of Navarone” into a novel, it would be…well, “The Guns of Navarone,” a 1957 novel by Alistair MacLean. Fiction writers don’t want to write what happened, but they want the truth. That’s the only thing that matters, be it a truth about human character, the narrator’s pet Shar-pei, or the price of gasoline.

I had something profound to say to end this, but I forgot what it was. Oh, yeah. If you really want to see a great war movie, try "The Great Escape." Charles Bronson. James Gartner. James Coburn. Dudes digging tunnels. Evil Nazis. Best off all, Steve McQueen, the Cooler King, trying to jump a barbed-wire fence on a motorcyle. What more could you want? And here's the kicker: "The Great Escape" actually happened.