Much like Henry Ford’s innovation of the assembly line revolutionized mass production, the Hollywood studio system reliably churned out hits for the masses during its Golden Age. Desolate acres of California desert were transformed into a conglomeration of studio back lots. Until the late 1950s, studios produced escapism films favored by American audiences as a method of distraction from the looming realities of war. As the mood began to change on the home front, as did the creative process of filmmakers. The reliable Hollywood formula was reconfigured and now consisted of global productions with international casts, on location filming, and ambiguous plots.
World War II was the last formally declared war by the United States. After WWII, our involvement in international conflict became increasingly difficult to discern. At home, public protests drowned out pre-WWII unity and patriotism. In film, the classic John Wayne hero archetype was replaced with the “anti-hero” Steve McQueen archetype. Morals and motives of film characters became increasingly difficult to pinpoint for audiences.
The Hollywood system relied on the security of filming in the studio to rule out any disturbances and to allow for complete control of the elements. The use of studios also provided a more efficient filming schedule (you could film 24 hours a day, rain or shine). To achieve a more raw and gritty film, directors borrowed a page from Italian Neo-Realism using on location filming to create a believable atmosphere. Global productions of WWII films were often filmed in the exact locations where they were set. By shooting on location, these war films could incorporate sets with great authenticity (studio sets were based off stereotypes that were not always historically or politically accurate).
War films made during the Golden Age of Hollywood were limited in funding due to the Great Depression and subsequent war. When the war ended, budgets on films bloomed. For example, John Ford’s THE LONG VOYAGE HOME (1940) had a budget of roughly $683,000 compared to staggering $6 million dollar budget for the GUNS OF NAVARONE (1961). Larger budgets allowed for casting of multiple top earning stars, international sets, longer running times and large-scale special effects.
An additional departure from the formula was casting. Prior to WWII, movies featured a reliable American star that carried instant “box office appeal” and could ensure prime marketability and star power. With increased budgets, these global productions could feature at least a major American and British star as well as an ensemble international cast. The international cast increased the global appeal, adding to Hollywood’s reign in the international film market (Hollywood commanded at least 50% of all box office receipts worldwide).
THE BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI (1957), a Columbia Pictures production, kicked off the embodiment of the new WWII film genre. It featured the American anti-hero William Holden who had already established this archetype in STALAG 17 (1953) for which he won the Best Actor Oscar. Alec Guinness played his British counterpart. The film was loosely based on historic events, which became another signature of the new style. The film dazzled audiences not with a charming love story or slap stick routines, but with jarring visual spectacles of explosions. Special effects in this era predated computers, instead using vast expenses to create massive sets. The bridge slated to explode in BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI cost Columbia Pictures a reported $250,000 dollars to construct and was demolished in mere seconds. This film set the standard for the new global production with a budget of $3 million and running time of 158 minutes.
Carl Foreman, the un-credited screenwriter for THE BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI, decided to capitalize on the success of the new global production genre. He elected to produce a new feature, GUNS OF NAVARONE, for Columbia Pictures in 1961. Foreman sought to follow the same formula that brought THE BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI immense box office success. This is evident in the attempts to cast William Holden in the role of Mallory and Alec Guinness in the role of Miller. Due to contract and salary disputes, Foreman ended up with the American/British duo of Gregory Peck and David Niven. GUNS OF NAVARONE expanded on its international cast with Anthony Quinn (born in Mexico) who was known for his keen ability to play a variety of ethnic characters. The trailer ensures, “with a cast as exciting as the story it tells”, solidifying the cast as major draw of the film’s marketing approach. Following the new formula, GUNS OF NAVARONE achieved great success, earning the top spot as the highest grossing film of 1961.
The message of these films was intended to be unclear. Even though it was an American made film, GUNS OF NAVARONE was not necessarily pro-American. Gregory Peck was reportedly disappointed that audiences did not grasp the subtle cues of anti-war messages. The ambiguity of these films could be attributed to the minimal use of dialogue in favor of intense imagery (particularly with long-takes). Actors like Holden, McQueen and Peck moved audiences with mannerisms, body language and gestures rather than carefully crafted dialogue. Peck described effective acting as somewhat detached, which was certainly fitting for a war film.
If Harry Cohn’s Hollywood remained intact, the genre of the war film would not have allowed for the progression of unconventional approaches brought on by the likes of Kubrick, Tarantino and Bigelow. Harry Cohn as president of Columbia Pictures, restricted directors to a 120 minute running time and $2 million dollar budget to ensure financial security but crippled the creative prowess of the director. Edward Dmytryk, director of the WWII epic THE CAINE MUTINY (1954), lamented:
It’s a disappointment in my career, to tell the truth. I insist it could have been a classic…but Kramer, who (with Dore Schary) is the most publicity-conscious man in the industry, got high-handed with Harry Cohn, and in fact had to toe the line…Stanley Roberts’ original script was about 190 pages, even without the romantic subplot…It should have remained that – a three and one-half or four-hour picture – and it would have been more logically developed, the characters would have been further fleshed out. It would have been perfect.
THE GUNS OF NAVARONE screens on Tuesday, June 25th as part of our DCP Debut series.