Sunday, January 12, 2014

THE GUNS OF NAVARONE by Alistair MacLean

Alistair MacLean is a legend of the adventure novel.  His work, especially his first several novels, is the standard all other adventure novels are measured.  And it is a large and uncomfortable fit for nearly every novel and writer in the genre.  Much of his best work is about the daring exploits of men at war, which is interesting because Mr MacLean held antiwar viewpoints.  In an essay he wrote for Companion Book Club, which is included as an introduction to recent editions of his novel The Guns of Navarone, he stated—

“I wanted to write a war story—with the accent on the story.  Only a fool would pretend that there is anything noble or splendid about modern warfare, but there is no denying that it provides a great abundance of material for a writer, provided no attempt is made to glorify it or exploit its worst aspects.”
I have also read Mr MacLean was disappointed in the Where Eagles Dare film, which he developed as a screenplay before writing the novel.  In Chris Willis’s biographical essay for its Alistair MacLean entry in British Mystery and Thriller Writers Since 1960, Ian Chapman, MacLean’s editor at Collins, quoted Mr MacLean’s reaction to Where Eagles Dare

“This is terrible!  I didn’t kill as many Germans as this.  I was writing an antiwar film.”
I can only imagine a wry smile, or a half chuckle when Mr MacLean said those words because as a fan of both the film and the novel I can’t possibly see the “anti” part of the war story, but it has been some years since I read the novel; maybe I missed something?

I bring all this up because I recently reread Alistair MacLean’s second novel The Guns of Navarone, and it, somehow, was better than I remembered.  Which is impressive because I remember it being pretty damn good.  Navarone is a Greek island in the Aegean Sea where the Germans built a nearly impervious artillery emplacement deep in its stone cliffs.  The Allies have made every attempt to destroy the guns because with them in place the Germans’ control the passage to the small British held island Kheros where some 1,200 soldiers are stranded.
In a last ditch effort British Intelligence creates a strike force composed of five men.  The men are tasked to infiltrate Navarone and destroy the guns before the Royal Navy attempts its rescue of the men on Kheros.  If they fail, the naval ships will be destroyed by the guns, and the soldiers on Kheros will be captured, or worse.

The Guns of Navarone is a larger than life war story painted on a small canvas; the action is limited to a single objective with extraordinarily fine plotting, and the perspective is limited to the eyes of the strike force.  The plot and action live up to the old writing adage, “Get your protagonist up a tree.  Throw rocks at him.  Then get him down.”  In this case, the tree is Navarone, and the rocks are more boulders than stones because anything that can go wrong does—from wild weather to an expectant well-trained German occupation force and a nearly impenetrable fortress of stone protecting the guns. 
The action is compressed into four wildly eventful days.  The men are dispatched to Navarone on a dilapidated Greek fishing boat, which miraculously not only gets to the destination, but makes it through a heavy storm and a German patrol boat.  Once on the island it takes everything, including some luck, for the team to reach its destination.  The team is comprised of five men who, save two, have never met or worked together before the mission.  The core of the team is comprised of three men—Keith Mallory, the leader and famous mountaineer before the war, Andrea, a former Colonel in the Greek army, and Dusty Miller, a smart-aleck American who spends a great deal of his time trying to escape duty. 

The characters are built for the story, but there are surprising moments of something more.  One of the men, a young mountaineer named Andy Stevens is driven by fear.  The turmoil he creates, and endures, is quite powerful.  His true fear is the men around him will know he is a coward, and he will do anything to keep his secret.  The characters, for the most part, are simple designs of superhuman composites; Andrea is a killing machine, Miller is the humorist, and Mallory is the responsible leader who thinks his way through trouble.  Interestingly, like much of Mr MacLean’s early novels, there is not a female to be found.
The Guns of Navarone was originally published in 1957 and it is as exciting and relevant today as it was when it was released.  It is a representation of the best of Alistair MacLean’s work.  The plot is tight and tricky—in a good way with both betrayal and surprise—and believable in that over the top manner MacLean was able to do so well.

2 comments:

Bill Crider said...

I haven't read this one in more than 40 years, but I thought it was terrific. But then that's what I think about most of MacLean's early work. I still have my copy, which is the movie edition pictured at the end of the post.

Ben Boulden said...

I originally read this one in middle school somewhere in the mid1980s. I read the Fawcett Crest paperback at the top of the post, which I still get a little excited at. For Christmas my wife gave me an omnibus published by Harper UK, which features all four of the Navarone novels including two written by Sam Llewellyn in the 1990s. I just finished FORCE 10, and started STORM FORCE last night. So far I really like Llewellyn's first.

Ben