Sunday, 27 January 2013

Full Metal Racket: When Maclean met manga

This piece ran recently in the South China Morning Post's 'Rewind' column, which looks back at a film, album and book unified by a common theme. I took on the big guns this time, taking aim at Alistair Maclean's classic WW2 epic The Guns of Navarone and its unexpected second life as the inspiration behind a cult Japanese video game.

Guns. Big shiny guns. Boys do love their lethal weapons, as anyone who ever buckled up a low-slung holster, fumbled a High Noon quick draw and shot down an imaginary Indian (or Cowboy) can attest.

Boys also love a good war story. War? What is it good for? It’s the measure of a man, the red badge of courage, the triumph of right over might. It’s the stuff of a thousand Commando comics. Gott im himmell. We can be heroes.

Therein lies the genius of The Guns of Navarone, Alistair McLean’s epic tale of infiltration, sabotage, and derring do where eagles dare. McLean conflates the ultimate test of mettle with two unfeasibly large bits of metal. It’s mental, man’s man manna from heaven, the stuff of a thousand stiff upper lips and endless war movie tropes. And it’s more or less true.

The titular guns are massive Nazi canons mounted on top of a vertiginous cliff on an Aegean island overlooking a crucial seaway, beyond which 1,200 Allied troops sit stranded. If they aren't rescued quickly, they die. Keith Mallory, a New Zealand mountain climber, must infiltrate the island, scale a 400 foot cliff, spike the guns and save the day, along with his team of mumbling, mostly moustachioed misfits, anti-heroes and freedom fighters.

The Guns of Navarone is the sine qua non of suicide missions and a page-turner non pareil; a vertical and vertigo-inducing antithesis to its only serious rival for Best-World-War-2-Book-Made-Into-Classic-Movie, Paul Brickhill’s horizontally claustrophobic The Great Escape.

The mission is implausible yet somehow believable. You suspend scepticism as McLean weaves his terse, tense prose, even as his heroes hang from the fraying threads of spinning subplots. (The excellent film starred Gregory Peck, Anthony Quinn and David Niven at the peak of their powers).

“First, you've got that bloody old fortress on top of that bloody cliff. Then you've got the bloody cliff overhang. You can't even see the bloody cave, let alone the bloody guns. And anyway, we haven't got a bloody bomb big enough to smash that bloody rock. And that's the bloody truth, sir,’’ says RAAF Squadron Leader Howard Barnsby, a quote that serves as synopsis.

These impossible odds and insurmountable obstacles were what inspired now-legendary videogame designer Hideo Kojima to create the enduring, quirky and cultish Metal Gear Solid franchise for Playstation, selling over 25 million copies worldwide.

In a review of the book (and later film), Kojima names it as the main influence on Metal Gear Solid. “The sense of satisfaction after completing the mission that is supposed to fail, after overcoming the harsh environment and destroying the invincible fortress … The coolness of making the impossible possible. What influenced me the most is this element of The Guns of Navarone. It is this catharsis you feel after infiltrating a place no-one else can, and completing a mission no-one else can. It is this courage and ecstasy of overcoming
limits and making the impossible possible that I wanted to
experience in a game!’’

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