RogerBW's Blog

The Guns of Navarone, Alistair MacLean 29 March 2017

1957 thriller/war story. The island of Navarone, off the Turkish coast, contains a set of naval guns in a rock fortress that can't be effectively bombed, surrounded by a massive occupation force. Two sabotage missions have failed, one by boat, one by parachute. It's time for the third.

And the way to do it is to climb the "unclimbable" cliffs, so it's a good thing the Allies can lay their hands on Keith Mallory, who was a famous mountaineer before he became a covert operator. Four men go in with Mallory: the young and enthusiastic British climber who thinks he's a coward, the hard-bitten American adventurer, the SBS radio operator, and Andrea, the Greek resistance fighter and the only one Mallory has worked with before.

It's very noticeable how much this diverges from the more modern thriller style: even when the immediate enemy is the Nazis rather than the environment, the struggles are less about gun battles and more about getting into a position where one side's victory is sufficiently assured that the other side might as well surrender. The situation is set up so that it makes sense just to send this small team (warships would need to use searchlights to find the guns and would be cut to pieces before they could get on target; bombers have to approach down a narrow corridor full of flak, and there's a big rock overhang; the garrison guards all the approaches that a sensible attacker might use); many later authors wouldn't apply the same amount of care, but that's in part because the trope is so solidly established here that it came to seem like the natural way of doing things.

The mission is more clearly divided into sections than in many other stories: crossing the sea, climbing the cliffs, getting across the high country to the fortress, and finally getting inside to do the sabotage and then escaping. There's opposition at every turn, and not everyone will be coming home again.

With a smaller cast than HMS Ulysses required, there's more room for characterisation; these are stock types that MacLean would re-use, but they're done well. There's the hero who's always thought one more step ahead than the enemy has; the physically tough sidekick; the close ally who turns out to be a villain. Viewpoint and narration drift among the characters, and perhaps they're a bit too prone to give speeches while the bad guys are breaking down the door.

Not all the Nazis are bad guys; in particular there's an Alpenkorps Oberleutnant who would probably have been Mallory's friend had the war not happened. Obviously we spend less time with the opposition than with the team, but even the enemy and incidental characters manage to be slightly individual.

Major Rutledge of the Buffs, Eton and Sandhurst as to intonation, millimetrically tooth-brushed as to moustache, Savile Row as to the quite dazzling sartorial perfection of his khaki drill, was so magnificently out of place in the wild beauty of the rocky, tree-lined bluffs of that winding creek that his presence there seemed inevitable. Such was the Major's casual assurance, so dominating his majestic unconcern, that it was the creek, if anything, that seemed slightly out of place.

Followed, in a way and some time later, by Force 10 From Navarone.

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