The Cinema Behind Star Wars: The Guns of Navarone

Han Solo at the shield bunker in Return of the Jedi, a scene similar to The Guns of Navarone

The Guns of Navarone came out in 1961 and, to my mind, is one of the greatest World War II films to ever come out of the 1960s and it seems to me that it must have been influencing Star Wars since the beginning. It tells the story of Keith Mallory (played by Gregory Peck) and a group of allied soldiers (including David Niven, Anthony Quinn, Anthony Quayle, and James Darren) as they work to destroy a pair of the biggest and well-fortified ship-destroying guns the allies have ever seen. If the guns aren’t destroyed within a few days, all of the allied soldiers being ferried through that channel for a rescue mission will be killed.

The story is entirely invented, there’s no island of Navarone, there were no British soldiers stranded on the isle of Keros, and the actors were all too old for the roles they were playing, but that doesn’t negate the charm and suspense of this effects laden picture.

Both A New Hope and Return of the Jedi have echoes of the plot. In the original Star Wars picture, the Rebel fleet must destroy the Death Star before it makes it within range of Yavin IV and it works out well. It inverts the tension with the bad guys attacking instead of passively hiding on an island. But Return of the Jedi is where the influence is felt the most.

Han Solo takes the part of the Gregory Peck character, assigned to destroy the shield of the Death Star on Endor before the Rebel fleet arrives for the single largest offensive they’ve ever launched. The clock races toward the ending and you’re never quite sure who or what might be sacrificed.

The Guns of Navarone never flinches at creating a story that’s challenging on the ethics of warfare and the compromising situations soldiers put themselves into in order to win the day. It’s clear that the crew of The Clone Wars, led by film nerd Dave Filoni, relied on The Guns of Navarone. The setup from the film has appeared all over the place on the show.

The two biggest examples — though there are many others — come from the Ryloth episodes in season one and the Citadel episodes in season three.

“Innocence of Ryloth” is sort of a retelling of Navarone for Clone Wars fans. Obi-Wan is cast in the Gregory Peck part, though slightly less surly, and his team is comprised of clone troopers. Anakin is waiting off-planet to break the blockade and rescue the Twi’leks from their captors, but the Separatists have installed massive proton guns capable of destroying any approaching ships. Obi-Wan’s mission is complicated further by the fact that the Separatists are using captive Twi’leks as shields. The conundrum is further heightened by the appearance of an orphaned Twi’lek found by a pair of clones.

Henry Gilroy, the co-writer of that episode, commented at the time, “We saw it as an opportunity to reflect those great World War II stories of the American GIs moving through Europe and encountering the people of those areas, particularly orphans.”

The other episode was “The Citadel.” The mission is very much the same: the Jedi led team is forced to go incognito behind enemy lines to fulfill a mission, though in this case it’s one of rescue, not destruction. One of the centerpiece sequences of The Guns of Navarone is one where the allied commandos must climb an unscalable wall of rock to get behind enemy lines. Because the climb is so impossible, the Nazis don’t monitor that side of the island. It’s so treacherous a member of their team falls, breaking his leg and jeopardizing the mission. The Citadel recreates that sequence flawlessly. In fact, the second I saw the rock wall come up in the episode, I was counting the seconds until a member of the team fell and was rewarded quickly for my love of Navarone.

More than anything, there’s a playfulness to the tension in The Guns of Navarone. When you’re watching it, the adventure is so great that you can’t help but smile. That’s something Star Wars has borrowed time and time again, through all of its iterations.

Having come out in 1961, there’s not much in the way of sexual situations or swearing in The Guns of Navarone, but it is intense at times and relies heavily on the sort of moral quandaries that The Clone Wars gave us in some of its best moments. My son and I have watched this film a few times over the years and we’ve always had a great time with it. It’s one of our absolute favorites and I’d give it my highest recommendation to all of you.

Bryan Young is an author, a filmmaker, journalist, and the editor in chief of Big Shiny Robot! He’s also the co-host of the Star Wars podcast, Full of Sith.

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