Last Friday night during my thesis reading Q & A, someone asked me what scripts or screenwriters taught me a lot about screenwriting. I listed a few screenwriters I enjoy (Scott Frank is a genius, David Mamet is precision incarnate, and John August seems to be having genuine fun with the craft), plus what movies I’d been watching during my writing process. Given my thesis was a science fiction adventure comedy, yes I watched The Incredibles and Star Wars a few times, but there were three films in particular I watched for specific reasons:
Raiders of the Lost Ark, Cop Land, and The Guns of Navarone. Today I’d like to recommend the final film in that trio…
If you want to learn how to write about an ensemble of characters which balances both their relationships and their mission, this is a film to watch over and over. Captain Mallory (Gregory Peck) is hand-picked by Major Roy Franklin (Tony Quayle) to lead a six-man group to assault a German artillery battery of giant cannons holding a battalion of British soldiers hostage. They’re joined by Colonel Andrea Stavros (Anthony Quinn), a rogue filled with hate for Mallory and Corporal Miller (David Niven) who has no love of war or death. These four men plus two others sneak onto a Mediterranean island and attempt to knock out the guns.
As an ensemble, the six characters work well together. They each have a specific role to play in their team and relate to each other in specific ways based on both their personality and rank. This is what makes this 1961 film work (and what left it nominated for the Best Picture Academy Award, as far as I’m concerned). The characters’ personalities are at the very heart of how they go about the mission and how they help or hinder each other. One could say the two other men I didn’t mention by name are able to blend into the background more than the other four, but that could be as simple as star power. That said, I’m not sure their stories are as compelling as the others, but that is the nature of ensemble, isn’t it? Some characters rise to prominence while others round out the cast in their own necessary ways?
The pacing is from a different era, and for as much as I love old movies and this movie in particular, I find myself consistently bored with a twenty-five minute stretch of the film. A half-hour into the film, a scene involving a boat landing during stormy weather and subsequently climbing a mountain serve to develop three important relationships for Mallory: his mutual respect for Major Franklin, his mutual animosity for Corporal Miller, and rising tension between him and Stavros. We learn a little bit more about their plan, how Miller feels about the whole mess, and how Stavros plans to Kill Mallory someday, even seeing Stavros have an opportunity to do so. Finally, we see Franklin’s wounding and how it affects the group.
Pretty important plot points, yes? Absolutely, but the pacing kills the film here – they take fooooor-eeeeeh-vuuuuuhr! The film is 2.5 hours long and these scenes total twenty-five minute stretch only a half-hour into the film. In short, it takes a story based on getting a job done in a time crunch and slows it to a halt. The film has a patient pace altogether, so it doesn’t surprise me these scenes take such a big chunk of the film, but still, the pace leaves me fast-forwarding to the Nazi sharpshooter shoot-out that follows.
But let’s not dwell on the detractions. Peck is amazing. Quinn is even better. The story format sets the classic standard of gathering a ragtag crew for one final job. The pace is easy to follow and the stakes – both personal and outward – are high so the audience becomes invested. I’ve not read the novel (I hear it’s quite different) or its sequel and film adaptation, Force 10 From Navarone (a Harrison Ford box-office blunder), but I may have to give them a try.
This is one of those classic movies I watched as a young boy with my father on Saturday afternoons. My father was great at explaining plot twists and character relationships. This memory and a decent first DVD release kept the film spinning in my computer while writing my ensemble-cast sci-fi adventure screenplay thesis. Only through digging for photos for this post did I find out there’s a special edition 2-disc DVD set, so I may have to pick that up.
Any thoughts on this film, dear reader? Any ideas on what it can teach us about writing and story?