Two things matter about an otherwise ritual World War II adventure flick. First, it’s a precursor to today’s action buddy movie, these days mostly set among cops or divorced men; second, it was actually filmed on location, including the Greek island of Rhodes, as well as Gozo and Palamaria, each one in the precincts of the story line, an unthinkable feat decades later.
In 1943, soon after the fall of Crete, a group of British soldiers are captured on the Aegean island of Keros. The Brits can’t get them out because the big bad Nazis have ship-sinking guns that can knock out any incoming flotilla. Enter a six-man commando squad (the buddies), including Major Roy Franklin (Anthony Quayle), Captain Keith Mallory (Gregory Peck), Greek “scout” Andrea Stavrou (Anthony Quinn); explosives man Miller (David Niven); Greek-American Spyros (James Darren); and engineer knife-wielder “Butcher” Brown (Stanley Baker). Their mission: Take out the guns to help free the marooned Brits.
In they go, disguised as Greek fishermen. Aside from the usual obstacles, including the wonderful vertical scaling of a cliff at night, there’s an added twist: Andrea, a fiery former colonel in the Greek army, holds Mallory responsible for the death his family. Commandos landed and cliff climbed, the team splits up, allowing director J. Lee Thompson to focus on subplots that include Nazi capture, village life and improbable romance.
None of the occasional big-picture silliness detracts from the pleasure of seeing the underrated Quayle, Peck, Quinn, and Niven spar, the latter injecting his trademark wit. Unequipped with heavy weapons and bereft of digital sophistry, the men must actually interact, which they do with a cool male glee that’s since been lost to action cinema.
The story was modified from Alister McLean’s bestselling novel of the same name, which took its name from an Ottoman Era sea battle in Navarino Bay (there is no island of Navarone). The World War II Battle of Leros led to the capture of the British soldiers the book and film use as centerpieces. The movie’s rousing end had no such real-life conclusion.