The Guns of Navarone writer knew he had to have a Kiwi hero

by Charles Hamlin / 26 April, 2017
The team from the 1961 film The Guns of Navarone: from left, James Darren, Stanley Baker, David Niven, Gregory Peck, Anthony Quinn, Anthony Quayle. Photo/Alamy

The team from the 1961 film The Guns of Navarone: from left, James Darren, Stanley Baker, David Niven, Gregory Peck, Anthony Quinn, Anthony Quayle. Photo/Alamy

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When the writer sent his heroes up a sheer cliff, he knew he had to have a New Zealander in charge. 

Alistair Stuart MacLean, a hard-drinking Scot, was among the great adventure-thriller writers of the 20th century, selling 150 million books. The Guns of Navarone was his most famous and popular novel, one critic observed, adding that it was also the prototype for all of his most successful work. It introduced what he called the MacLean mix of “a hero, a band of men, a hostile climate, a ruthless enemy”. He owed a debt to the Kiwi Scorpions, and another New Zealand hero, too.

“I wanted to write a war story,” MacLean said of Navarone, “with the accent on story. Personal experience, I suppose, helped to play some part in the location.”

MacLean’s war was spent aboard the Royal Navy cruiser HMS Royalist. His first novel, HMS Ulysses, a descent into the freezing hell of the Arctic convoys, was based closely on his own experience. It was an instant bestseller. Asked for a follow-up, he reached for another part of his war, in the Mediterranean, where, he insisted, he had risked nothing more than “a severe case of sunburn”.

“But I did come across and hear about, both in the Aegean and in Egypt, men to whom danger and the ever-present possibility of capture and death were the very stuff of existence,” he said. “[They were] the men of the Long Range Desert Group.”

The LRDG, formed by New Zealand soldiers under British command in Egypt in 1940, was a small force of “bearded brigands” (as O’Carroll called them in the title of a 2003 book) who observed and struck at the enemy out of Libya’s Great Sand Sea. They inspired the Special Air Service and made its reputation. They also played a key role in the Allied victory in North Africa, literally finding the way to finish off the Afrika Korps, whose commander, General Erwin Rommel, reckoned they did him “more damage than any other unit of equal strength”.

With the desert won, the LRDG were sent into the Aegean in late 1943. Navarone was inspired by their assault on Levitha, a small, hard and lonely island 70km off the Turkish coast. During a storm on the night of October 23, 1943, 25 New Zealand commandos landed with orders to “liquidate any enemy force on the island”. The official LRDG history reports that they came ashore on a “very rugged coast, where the men rescued as much of their gear as they could from the rocks and dragged it up a cliff face”.

That single line unlocked the whole story in MacLean’s imagination. His mind leapt from the commandos struggling up that cliff to another New Zealander, Ed Hillary, climbing Everest in 1953. MacLean was writing Navarone in 1956, when Hillary was a young, freshly minted “British” hero, world-famous, ruggedly tough and highly skilled.

It perhaps helped that MacLean’s old ship Royalist was transferred to the Royal New Zealand Navy that same year. But he was intrigued by men battling extreme natural forces – it became a theme in his books – and he would have read Hillary’s High Adventure.

From Hillary’s story arose the two key inventions of MacLean’s novel. One was the fictional Navarone, an island that could be tackled only by scaling “one vast, impossible precipice”. The other was the hero, a New Zealand mountaineer in the LRDG and “the only man in southern Europe who could have made the climb”.

MacLean couldn’t resist giving him the name Mallory, after the famous English climber who lost his life on Everest in 1924. And so: Captain Keith Mallory. “Who hadn’t heard of Keith Mallory?” wrote MacLean in the opening chapter of Navarone. “The finest mountaineer, the greatest rock-climber New Zealand has ever produced – and by that, of course, New Zealanders mean the world.”

MacLean reassembled real history in a masterly fashion: a hurried mission to protect thousands of British soldiers from death or capture; the wreck of a rusting ship on a secret mission; the destruction of big coastal guns. All of this really happened, just not the way MacLean wrote it.

This article was first published in the April 22, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener. Follow the Listener on Twitter, Facebook and sign up to the weekly newsletter.

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