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Welcome to Navarone, famous for its large and deadly cannons

I have taken advantage of a few days of vacation to visit the island of Navarone, famous for its large and lethal Nazi guns (the Navarone guns, indeed) destroyed in a daring commando action during World War II. Well, strictly speaking, you can't physically travel to Navarone for the same reason you can't go to Mompracem, Patusan, Zinderneuff, Treasure Island, or the troubled kingdom of Zenda: they are legendary places, fabulous places that have never existed. But you can explore them with your imagination, with books, movies and even a map. In fact, along the lines of cartographic mythomania that has allowed me to monopolize maps of King Solomon's mines or the location of the Beau Geste fort, I have very detailed plans of Navarone and the location of its cyclopean and deadly artillery.

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The maps of Navarone, two, appear in my old English edition (Collins, 1977) of the novel by the Scotsman Alistair MacLean originally published in 1957, the year I was born, and they will tell me if it is not a sign to be born in the year in which appeared The Guns of Navarone and that was also when The Bridge on the River Kwai premiered, so there could be had as godfather both the tough Greek fighter Andrea Stavros who played Anthony Quinn and the strict Japanese colonel Saito (“be happy in your work”). My copy of MacLean's great novel is somewhat worn (like me) and I see that it has the stamp of the Es Molí hotel in Deià, so I must have borrowed it from there the summer I spent spying on Robert Graves and reading The Count Belisario.

The first map shows the location of the island, in the Aegean, in the Sporades, near the coast of Turkey, above the Dodecanese, and south of the imaginary Leradas Islands and the southernmost, Maidos, which with Cape Turkish Demirci (also invented) create a strait that must be passed to reach the (non-existent) island of Kheros to the north. Aiming at that strait are the two monstrous German guns of Navarone in fortified caves on the heights of a roadstead, dominating the port of the town that gives the island its name and covering in their firing range the entire sea beyond. MacLean invented this geography to justify the urgent need for the allies in his narrative to silence the monstrous cannons in 1943 in order to rescue the 1,200 British soldiers of the Kheros garrison, threatened by an imminent enemy invasion, in a maritime operation.

The Guns of Navarone , before its destruction.

The intrigue of the novel (and the hugely famous 1961 film based on it) centers on that near-suicidal, timed mission to destroy the cannons before the rescue fleet comes within range. The commando that carries out the action, with its members dressed in the film as the most unlikely Greek fishermen ever seen (Peck's sailor tabard, Niven's leather jacket and beret, and Quinn's fleece vest , undoubtedly stolen from his sister, are icons of adventurous fashion) is landed from a caique in the south of the island occupied by the Germans and has to negotiate some cliffs that are famous for being impossible to climb. Then you must cross the entire island, from high mountains with snowy peaks (Mount Kostos) and the wild place called The Devil's Playground, until you reach Navarone and the promontory where the canyons are, under a castle. The second map shows the location and location of the two artillery pieces and all of their installations in such detail that you better not get caught by the Nazis with the plans on you. In fact, I have separated the sheet from the map in case I have to eat it.

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The novel, which I have reread with great pleasure, is a splendid war thriller, a genre in which MacLean (1922-1987), also the author of HMS Ulysses (1955) and The Challenge of the Eagles (1967) —and the continuation of The Guns of Navarone, Force 10 of Navarone—, was an axe. Not for nothing had he been chief of torpedoes on the HMS Royalist, a cruiser that protected the convoys to Mursmank and on which he had a very bad and cold time. What was not an obstacle so that in 1953 he married a German, Gisela Heinrichsen. When it was pointed out to him on one occasion (as told by his biographer Jack Webste in Alistair MacLean, A life, Chapmans, 1991) that perhaps his wife was not very satisfied that his novels killed so many of his compatriots, MacLean replied that to please her he tried to have at least as many allies die in his stories.

The Guns of Navarone, his second book and the one that allowed him to abandon teaching and become a professional writer (it was also his first work to reach the cinema), arose from the time he spent on board the Aegean area, where he met members of the British special forces who lived great adventures in the fight against the German and Italian occupation of Greek islands similar to the one he invented. The novel, despite the fact that the author was a bit sloppy, always subordinated the style and even the grammar to the action (he put a little sex so as not to slow it down) and repeated the formula, always with a traitor, was a success and moved to the big screen thanks to screenwriter Carl Foreman. The première was attended by the very queen of England and MacLean, a not very nice man (alcoholic, beat his first wife, and the second accused him of breaking her jaw) and who always doubted his own talent, caused a small protocol incident by demanding that the sovereign greet his mother. The film became one of the great and emblematic of the genre, along with The bridge over the Kawai River, The longest day, The great escape or The challenge of the eagles , which was a film script, written by MacLean himself, rather than a novel. The title, by the way, in English Where eagles dare, comes from a Shakespearean phrase by Richard III: “The world goes wrong when the wrens hunt where eagles dare not perch”.

The allied commandos, in a compromised moment of 'The Guns of Navarone'.
The differences between the novel The Guns of Navarone and the wonderful, unforgettable film directed by J. Lee Thompson (having a machine gun name should help) are many more than I remembered. The main trio formed by Captain Keith Mallory (Gregory Peck), the artificer Dusty Miller (David Niven) and Stavros (Quinn) is the same in both formats, although in the novel there is no conflict between Mallory and Stavros (in the film, the second has sworn to kill the first, whom he holds responsible for the Germans murdering his wife and three children, but postpones his revenge until the end of the war). Nor is there the character of the unfortunate head of the commando, Major Roy Franklin (Anthony Quayle), and, most notably, the two Greek guerrillas who support the commando on the ground (Stavros is syntagmatarchis, Hellenic regular army colonel), Louki and Panagis, become in the film, not because of parity, which he then brought to the heave, but because of fostering romance, in two women. They are Maria (Irene Papas), future Mrs. Stavros, and Anna (Gia Scala, outstanding student of Stela Adler), which makes the scene of the unmasking of the traitor (Anna) more morbid (the girl's back without marks of torture, execution). Another thing not in the novel is the suspense of going up and down from the ammunition supply elevators to the cannons under which Miller places the explosives to act as a detonator. The destruction of the cannons also happens offstage in the novel, while in the film it is the climactic moment where the special effects do the rest (I have some otherwise respectable friends, Javier and Carmen, who screech like children every time see the scene).

Alistair MacLean with Harrison Ford on the set of the sequel to 'The Guns of Navarone', 'Force 10 from Navarone'.

The novel contains many details that did not make it to the screen. Captain Mallory, at that time a member of the desert patrols, the Long Range Desert Group, the LRDG (other commandos are from the Special Boat Service, SBS, the unit of the brave Jellicoe), is an expert climber from New Zealand famous throughout Europe as “the human fly” before the war (as far as naming him Mallory, MacLean was not very subtle, true). In fact, even the Germans admit it. In one passage, the oberleutnant Turzig, who has captured the commandos, and who commands a unit of Gerbirsjäger, the elite German mountain troops, the saboteurs are not believed to have scaled the cliff south until he discovers that the legendary Mallory is at the helm. The thing about the mountain troops, by the way, relates The cannons of Navarone with The challenge of the eagles, in which the objective of the mission is the Schloss Adler, the Eagle Castle, headquarters of these troops (which MacLean erroneously calls in both novels “Alpenkorps”, a name that fell out of use after World War I).

We are told that Mallory and Stavros have met on Crete, where the former was acting as a British secret agent attached to the Resistance, reminiscent of war hero and writer Patrick Leigh Fermor's mission to the island. It is quite possible that MacLean wanted to honor Paddy and the Cretan guerrillas in his novel. The Scottish writer's fictional Navarone looks a lot like, in miniature, Crete, with its snowy mountains. The blood debt that Stavros demands of Mallory in the film is similar to the one Paddy had to face when he accidentally killed a Cretan guerrilla leader with his gun. In any case, I couldn't find any mention of Leigh Fermor in the book or the movie: they must have seemed too popular to her, although the swashbuckling adventure tone and the whole masquerade game of the commandos dressing up in German uniforms really suited her. . Whom Alistair MacLean did meet was another war hero, his namesake Sir Fitzroy MacLean, whose adventures in Yugoslavia inspired Partisans.

David Niven (Miller) and Gregory Peck (Mallory), in German uniform in 'The Guns of Navarone'.
One of the best scenes in the cannon novel, the creeping cowardice Stavros feigns when the Germans catch the commandos and are brought before the Nazi commander, the hauptmann Skoda —turned into the film in the most sinister hauptsturmführer of the SS Sessler (it will be by eses), played by George Mikell who repeated as an SS officer in The Great Escape—, it is also a landmark moment in the film and Quinn embroiders it. In contrast, the unforgettable episode of the film of the capture of the commando on the terrace of a tavern in the town of Mandrakos (which in the novel and the maps is called Margaritha) does not appear in the book. Members of the Greek royal family acted as extras in the filming of that scene. The film was shot on location in Rhodes (Lindos) and at London's Pinewood Studios, where the cannons were recreated and where, while doing a scene, Niven injured himself and developed sepsis that nearly took him out of the film. Another problem was that Peck, whose character had to speak perfect German, was unable to say a sentence in that language, so it had to be dubbed.

David Niven, who was an officer and had served precisely in commandos (in the Phantom special regiment, although he saw action very briefly), was not very happy with his role in The Guns of Navarone (see his biography by Sheridan Morley, The other side of the moon, Coronet, 1985) and tried to instill his particular sense of humor into it. More critical was, as the same book explains, Gregory Peck, who considered that the argument was too convoluted and was implausible in terms of the survival capacity of the commandos, to the point of bordering on parody. He jokingly gave his own take on the story: “David Niven loves Tony Quayle, Gregory Peck loves Anthony Quinn; Quayle breaks his leg and is sent to the hospital. Tony Quinn falls in love with Irene Papas, and then Niven and Peck get together and live happily ever after.”

MacLean did not like the adaptation of The Guns of Navarone. But even less the one of The challenge of the eagles, of which it bothered him that so many Germans were killed. In fact, Clint Eastwood, in a true Schmeisser apotheosis, killed more people in that movie than in all his spaghetti westerns. In the novel his character does not kill anyone. MacLean had a disagreement with Richard Burton, the film's protagonist, who broke his nose with a punch. The two, who drank like sponges, are paradoxically buried in the same small cemetery in Switzerland, the country where they both lived.

Alistair MacLean would be somewhat hands-off in his narrations, but his ability to insufflate his stories with realism says a lot that the US military and the Pentagon put a fly behind their ears when it premiered Estación polar Zebra, based on his novel of the same title: how could that Scottish writer know so much about secret nuclear submarines? The fact is that MacLean had not spied on anything: his knowledge came from having read some articles in Time magazine, from assembling a model to assemble a submersible, and from his fertile imagination.

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