Estimated reading time: 7 minutes
Alistair MacLean is perhaps one of the more cinematic authors out there, with his novels always being evocative and, as has been proven on numerous occasions, great for movie adaptations. The Guns of Navarone is arguably one of his better-known works across both literature and cinema, and it tells the story of a small group of saboteurs tasked with the seemingly pointless and impossible mission of destroying an artillery installation preventing the evacuation of 1200 British soldiers.
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Alistair MacLean Modernizes a Timeless Concept
Ever since storytelling became an integral aspect of human existence, we’ve always relished in seeing our heroes conquer insurmountable obstacles, accomplishing inspiring feats of endurance, resilience and cunning. In the modern era, I would argue few have come close to Alistair MacLean‘s mastery in writing specifically this type of story, perfectly exemplified in his classic novel, The Guns of Navarone.
Before moving on to the story itself, it must be mentioned that the novel was made into a movie only four years after its release, one which became critically-acclaimed and remains a classic in its own right to this very day. With this being said, the movie can’t help but be weaker than the book in numerous aspects (not to mention some nonsensical and completely unnecessary alterations to the story), and I would highly recommend that you first delve into the latter.
In any case, the story opens by introducing us to Captain Keith Mallory, formerly one of the world’s greatest mountaineers, now a skilled saboteur behind enemy lines. He is tasked with leading a small team of skillful men on a rather perilous mission. Those include the indomitable Andrea, the American explosives expert Dusty Miller, the telegraphist Casey Brown, and Stevens, the young navigator.
This small and unlikely team of would-be heroes has been tasked with an operation on which the lives of over twelve hundred British soldiers hang in the balance. Stuck on the island of Kheros, they are under threat of an impending German invasion, and cannot be evacuated due to the titular coastal artillery guns located on the Island of Navarone, capable of obliterating any allied ships which might come in for the rescue.
The plan the group must follow is as daring as it is complicated, requiring them to navigate their boat along German-controlled waters, to scale an uncharted, vertical cliff in the dead of night, to infiltrate a heavily-guarded fortress and blow the guns sky-high. However, it seems as if Fate itself has aligned against, as literally everything which can go wrong, does go wrong. Nevertheless, they must persevere, for it is all they know in life.
Man Versus Nature in The Guns of Navarone
At the start of my review, I mentioned my opinion about the movie, how in many respects I find it to be a weaker experience than the one offered by the book. If there’s one thing which demonstrates my point better than anything else, it’s the way in which our main characters’ struggle against the elements is depicted in both cases.
In the movie, while we’re made somewhat aware of it, we see our heroes running and climbing about without a good sense of appreciation for what nature is throwing at them, how they’re feeling both physically and mentally as they traverse one ordeal after the next. In the book, it’s so different to the point where, to me at least, their struggle against nature became one of my favourite aspects of their journey.
Especially in the first half of the book, where the men have to sail their boat in a terrible storm, conduct a landing while the ship is sinking, only to scale a cliff so dangerous it is left unguarded by the Germans, we gain an immense appreciation for the extreme ordeal they’re facing. We’re made to feel every bit of cold, pain and strain imparted on them, and I must commend Alistair MacLean on his ability to describe a human body battered by the world; one has no option but to feel it oneself.
As we watch our heroes fight against their own limitations while pushing themselves to the very brink of what is humanly possible, we also gain valuable insight into them as human beings, into what they’re capable of enduring, and what drives them forward. Long before our crew meets the enemy, we come to slowly and surely see for ourselves why these specific people were selected for such a sensitive mission.
In my opinion, few, if any, can match the extent of the author’s ability to think of all the little details when it comes to the suffering of his own characters. While the focus tends to shift towards human dangers rather than natural ones as the story progresses, my favourite parts in The Guns of Navarone are always the ones where he describes in great and evocative detail moments of incredibly high tension where the significance of the smallest movements is amplified tenfold, as are their consequences. The author really has an incredible penchant for writing them in a cinematic manner.
The Impossible Mission Under Murphy’s Law
Today, the concept of a small, surgical group going on an impossible mission behind enemy lines might feel like a tired one to many of you. However, back when The Guns of Navarone was published, it was actually the first of its kind in the genre (or at least, the first major work of its kind), and there is a very good reason why it essentially kicked off an idea which turned into a classic: it leaves endless room for obstacles.
In a sense, the heroes of our book can be said to live under Murphy’s Law, because literally everything which can go wrong at every step of the plan, does go wrong. They lose their food to a sinking ship, one of them breaks their leg during the climb, they receive the information they have on less day to get the job done, they get found and captured… there seems to be no end to their misery.
I think this is where the core of the fun lies in these types of stories: to watch heroes wiggle their way out of one desperate situation after the next, to see them put on a show of clever resourcefulness as they are pushed to the outermost limits of their own capabilities. In the end, the entire story from start to finish feels like one giant insurmountable mountain, which nevertheless, got scaled bit by bit.
Our little group of characters was also quite perfectly chosen in terms of personalities, each one having a distinct inner world with his own particular views and philosophies on life. As much as they endure physically, they are forced to go through numerous psychological challenges as well, ones which often lead to remarkable feats of quick thinking. Though they all try to be stoic and focused completely on the mission (which, for the most part, they do manage), Alistair MacLean ensures we never lose sight of the simple humans beneath the veneer of necessary toughness.
Though the plot itself is fairly straightforward, it does have some significant plot twists inserted here and there, and in surprising enough fashion, I might add. There’s always something to keep us on our toes, and even though I’m sure you can predict how the story draws to a close, the good ending still feels out of reach, right up until the moment we grasp it in our hands.
|416||HarperCollins||Aug. 8 2019||978-0008337292|
The Final Verdict
The Guns of Navarone by Alistair MacLean is a phenomenal landmark of a novel which essentially spawned a whole genre, a military thriller that keeps the adrenaline pumping as our excellent crew of heroes faces all imaginable dangers from nature and Man alike.
If you’re looking for a good mission impossible-type book which takes place during the Second World War and is seeped in authenticity, then you can hardly do any better than this novel, and Alistair MacLean‘s work on a more general level.
Alister Stuart MacLean
(April 21, 1922 – February 2, 1987)
Alistair Stuart MacLean was a Scottish novelist who published many thrillers and adventure stories over the course of his lifetime, in addition to also being a screenwriter and producer. Among his many works are the classics Guns of Navarone and Where Eagles Dare, both of which were turned into widely-acclaimed movies in the 1960s.