The Guns of Navarone by Alistair MacLean (1957)

On the second or third chapter of The Guns of Navarone I had the simple insight that MacLean’s later thrillers (and by extension many other thrillers of the period) transfer the experience of war into civilian life: the sense of a virtuous hero, with a small group of skilled colleagues, battling an evil foe whose ranks include hardened psychopaths (and the occasional more human figure), a battle carried out against the odds, in the face of pitiless Nature and involving terrible injuries and suffering and sacrifice, but which will ultimately be triumphant, even if being forced to do this ‘dirty job’ often leaves a ‘bad taste in the mouth’ – this formula is more or less repeated in his subsequent 26 books, and in countless others of the same genre.

Style

This is MacLean’s second novel and coming to it after the ones written a decade or 15 years later, it feels tauter, better written, more exciting. The jokey tone and fashionable 60s dollybirds which rather mar Puppet on a Chain and Bear Island are not present. Whereas in those books the prose lumbers with heavy humour, random quotes, clumsy jokes and long arthritic sentences, here the prose is, for the most part, lean and focused.

Though not as dazzling as Chandler or as skilful as Le Carré, MacLean’s prose in these earliest works does the job: it is taut, factual, to the point.

All day long they lay hidden in the carob grove, a thick clump of stunted, gnarled trees that clung grimly to the treacherous, screestrewn slope abutting what Louki called the ‘Devil’s Playground’. (Chapter 11)

They came to the cave at dawn, just as the first grey stirrings of a bleak and cheerless day struggled palely through the lowering, snow-filled sky to the east. (Ch 6)

Plot

It’s the fourth year of the Second World War, in the eastern Mediterranean. The Brits had optimistically dropped men onto all the Greek islands partly as a message to neutral Turkey about who ruled the area, but now the Germans are counter-attacking and have killed or captured the forces on most of the islands. Over a thousand British troops are marooned on the last remaining island of Kheros unless they can be taken off by ship. The Navy refuses to do it because the sea to the North is mined and the only two approaches to the island, so close to the Turkish coast, are governed by the massive German gun emplacement at Navarone. The novel starts with an attempt to bomb them from the air which fails because they are protected by a massive rock overhang.

Therefore the hard-bitten British major falls back on plan B – sending a hand-picked selection of the best men available, a small elite team, to scale the 400-foot sheer cliffs on the south of the island, make their way over inaccessible mountains to the heavily defended fortress which contains the guns, and blow them up. And within three days, for that’s when the Hun is going to move in on Kheros.

Three days to save over a thousand men!

Characters

  • The novel is told in the third person, though the mission is seen through the eyes of the tough, lean survivor whose reluctant lot it is to lead it, the world-famous (of course) New Zealand mountain climber Keith Mallory.
  • Andy Stevens is the young climber who, unbeknown to his colleagues, has lived his whole life scared of failing to live up to his bullying father and successful brothers; he suffers appalling injuries but redeems himself with an act of mountain-top heroism.
  • Dusty Miller, the cynical Yank, brought along for his explosives expertise, is always ready with a quip or a cigarette.
  • Casey Brown is the dedicated Scots engineer whose job it is to navigate the broken-down old trawler they use to reach the island.
  • and Andrea is the Greek man-mountain with a deep grudge against the invading Germans, who has worked alongside Mallory in occupied Cyprus and is as solid as a rock.
  • There are two native Greeks they rendezvous with and, unlike the movie, no women, no love interest whatsoever.

Thrilling incident

A thriller amounts to a stream of thrilling encounters, with just enough plot to justify them and keep them coming, and to keep the reader biting their nails in high suspense at the outcome of each new situation of peril and jeopardy:

  • the Levantine spy at the door
  • intercepted by a German caique at sea which they blow up
  • take shelter in an island river mouth from a fierce storm to awaken and find it overlooked by a German guardpost, so they have to fool the Germans that they are drunk Greeks before killing them
  • discovered by German guard at top of the cliffs of Navarone, who they kill
  • captured by Germans in the mountains and taken to their local headquarters, from which they shoot their way out
  • encircled and hemmed in among the Devil’s playground of volcanic rock on the way into town, and then dive bombed by Stukas using incendiary bombs
  • playing cat and mouse with the Germans in the fortress town of Navarone

All of which builds up to the genuinely nailbiting climax as our heroes battle against the odds through the heavily guarded fortress and into the presence of the mighty guns themselves!

The technician

All the books enjoy (what was then unquestionably) the male preserve of technical expertise.

Quickly he taped the ends of two rubber-covered wires on the insulated strip, one at either side, taped these down also until nothing was visible but the bared steel cores at the tips, joined these to two fourinch strips of bared wire, taped these also, top and bottom, to the insulated shaft, vertically and less than half an inch apart. From the canvas bag he removed the TNT, the primer and the detonator – a bridge mercury detonator lugged and screwed to his own specification – fitted them together and connected one of the wires from the steel shaft to a lug on the detonator, screwing it firmly home. The other wire from the shaft he led to a positive terminal on the battery, and a third wire from the negative terminal to the detonator. It only required the ammunition hoist to sink down into the magazine – as it would d as soon as they began firing – and the spring-loaded wheel would short out the bare wires, completing the circuit and triggering off the detonator. (Ch 16)

Fell how confident and fluent the prose is. No equivocation or straining for the right word. Everything clearly understood and clearly explained. A history of thrillers is, among other things, a history of guns and gadgets. I wonder if one’s been written, showing how evolving technology has affected evolving plotlines and styles…

Stormy weather

MacLean likes storms at sea. HMS Ulysses is one long terrible storm; Fear Is the Key starts off in a Miami court-room but fear not, within a few chapters the hero is taking a boat out to sea in an incipient hurricane; most of Bear Island describes the fearful voyage of the converted trawler into an Arctic storm; When Eight Bells Toll is set in the stormy waters around the western isles of Scotland; and though Puppet on a Chain is set in various locations around Amsterdam, there is a humming scene where the hero hitches a ride on the drug smugglers’ boat before slipping overboard and then swimming for the mainland where he emerges into the pouring rain. In this The Guns of Navarone is no exception and completely unlike the movie which shows the Greek island setting in tourist-brochure sunshine. No, the novel revels in a terrible storm at sea which leads them to take shelter in a remote creek; more rain-lashed storm as their boat is smashed to pieces against the fearsome rocks; freezing snowstorms up in the mountains; and climaxes in a magnificent downpour over the famous cliffs and guns.

Forty minutes later, in the semi-darkness of the overcast evening and in torrential rain, lance-straight and strangely chill, the anchor of the caique rattled down between the green walls of the forest, a dank and dripping forest, hostile in its silent indifference. (Ch 3)

Just at the doorway he paused, began to search impatiently through his pockets as if he’d lost something: it was a windless night, and it was raining, he saw, raining heavily, the lances of rain bouncing inches  off the cobbled street – and the street itself deserted as far as he could see in either direction. (Ch 15)

Related links

There was, of course, a film of the novel, one of the better ones, starring David Niven, Gregory Peck and Anthony Quinn (1961). It’s still schoolboy hokum, one of the suite of war films which came out in the 1960s and are part of the cultural background of my generation of men – Where Eagles Dare, Lawrence of Arabia, 633 Squadron, the Battle of Britain, along with the Connery Bond films. I guess these are just books – and films – for boys of all ages, but they have a sort of dignity to them, and the men appearing in them actually seem to be grown men which most modern films, acted by overgrown teenagers, completely lack.

The first 22 Alistair MacLean novels

Third person narrator

1955 HMS Ulysses – war story about a doomed Arctic convoy.
1957 The Guns of Navarone – war story about commandos who blow up superguns on a Greek island.
1957 South by Java Head – a motley crew of soldiers, sailors, nurses and civilians endure a series of terrible ordeals in their bid to escape the pursuing Japanese forces.
1959 The Last Frontier – secret agent Michael Reynolds rescues a British scientist from communists in Hungary.

First person narrator – the classic novels

1959 Night Without End – Arctic scientist Mason saves plane crash survivors from baddies who have stolen a secret missile guidance system.
1961 Fear is the Key – government agent John Talbot defeats a gang seeking treasure in a crashed plane off Florida.
1961 The Dark Crusader – counter-espionage agent John Bentall defeats a gang who plan to hold the world to ransom with a new intercontinental missile.
1962 The Golden Rendezvous – first officer John Carter defeats a gang who hijack his ship with a nuclear weapon.
1962 The Satan Bug – agent Pierre Cavell defeats an attempt to blackmail the government using a new supervirus.
1963 Ice Station Zebra – MI6 agent Dr John Carpenter defeats spies who have secured Russian satellite photos of US missile bases, destroyed the Arctic research base of the title and nearly sink the nuclear sub sent to rescue them.

Third phase

1966 When Eight Bells Toll – British Treasury secret agent Philip Calvert defeats a gang who have been hijacking ships carrying bullion off the Scottish coast.
1967 Where Eagles Dare
1968 Force 10 From Navarone The three heroes from Guns of Navarone parachute into Yugoslavia to blow up a dam and destroy two German armoured divisions.
1969 Puppet on a Chain – Interpol agent Paul Sherman battles a grotesquely sadistic heroin-smuggling gang in Amsterdam.
1970 Caravan to Vaccarès – British agent Neil Bowman foils a gang of gypsies who are smuggling Russian nuclear scientists via the south of France to China.
1971 Bear Island – Doctor Marlowe deals with a spate of murders aboard a ship full of movie stars and crew heading into the Arctic Circle.

Bad

1973 The Way to Dusty Death – World number one racing driver Johnny Harlow acts drunk and disgraced in order to foil a gang of heroin smugglers and kidnappers.
1974 Breakheart Pass – The Wild West, 1873. Government agent John Deakin poses as a wanted criminal in order to foil a gang smuggling guns to Injuns in the Rockies and planning to steal government gold in return.
1975 Circus – The CIA ask trapeze genius Bruno Wildermann to travel to an unnamed East European country, along with his circus, and use his skills to break into a secret weapons laboratory.
1976 The Golden Gate – FBI agent Paul Revson is with the President’s convoy when it is hijacked on the Golden Gate bridge by a sophisticated gang of crooks who demand an outrageous ransom. Only he – and the doughty doctor he recruits and the pretty woman journalist -can save the President!
1977 – Seawitch – Oil executives hire an unhinged oil engineer, Cronkite, to wreak havoc on the oil rig of their rival, Lord Worth, who is saved by his beautiful daughter’s boyfriend, an ex-cop and superhero.
1977 – Goodbye California – Deranged muslim fanatic, Morro, kidnaps nuclear physicists and technicians in order to build atomic bombs which he detonates a) in the desert b) off coastal California, in order to demand a huge ransom. Luckily, he has also irritated maverick California cop, Ryder – by kidnapping his wife – so Ryder tracks him down, disarms his gang and kills him.

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