Ice Station Zebra
The fourth big screen adaptation of an Alistair MacLean novel, Ice Station Zebra was released in the same year as the more successful Where Eagles Dare. 1968 represents probably the high water mark for interpretations of the author’s work, although The Guns of Navarone remains the biggest hit. As with most movie versions of MacLean novels (or, let’s face it, movie versions of anybody’s novels) fans of the book find much to gripe about; the latter half diverges greatly from the page. Those who complain about the languid pace are onto something too. To be sure, there’s an array of valid criticisms that can be levelled at Ice Station Zebra. But it also has a factor going for it that elevates John Sturges’ movie, and keeps me coming back to it; the über-cool presence of Patrick McGoohan.
The man who played The Prisoner (he filmed Zebra during a break from the TV show, which helps to explain the only truly hopeless episode in the run; Do Not Forsake Me Oh My Darling, in which Nigel Stock essays a portly and passive Number Six) isn’t even the lead, but he has the best part and proceeds to tower his every scene. McGoohan is “David Jones” (“I once killed a man named Jones. Though not for that reason, of course”), a British spy on a mission to the titular Arctic ice station. The official explanation is that the personnel at the British weather station are in trouble and require rescuing, but we know better; we’ve already seen a satellite ejecting a capsule in the vicinity. Jones is passenger on a US nuclear submarine commanded by a reluctant and somewhat in the dark Commander Ferraday (Rock Hudson). Also on board is a company of Marines, ready for all eventualities as long as they’re above the waves. Ernest Borgnine’s Soviet defector Vaslov and Jim Brown’s curt Captain Anders soon join the complement.
Jones: Oh, I know how to wreck them. And I know how to lie, steal, kidnap, counterfeit, suborn and kill. That’s my job and I do it with great pride.
The Hudson and McGoohan roles were initially earmarked for Navarone stars Gregory Peck and David Niven. Hudson does solid work (he cited this as his favourite movie role), but he can’t hold a candle to McGoohan; witness the table-pounding scene where Jones unleashes his fury in a short, sharp, burst. Hudson attempts to respond equally forcefully, but his is a pale whimper in comparison. If some find the protracted submarine scenes a bit of a chore, they’re a highlight for me because McGoohan is so fascinating to watch. He brings to bear the mock sincerity we’ve seen in his TV roles, responding to Ferraday, who has informed him that he will be checked for radiation from time to time, with “That’s very kind of you”. His mischievous superiority is delight, correcting his American colleagues’ inexactitudes. “A bullet goes just as fast up here as it does down there”, Anders pronounces of his matter-of-fact role. On the contrary, Jones responds, it goes more slowly; “It’s the denser air, you know”.
It’s questionable whether we are supposed to side with the crafty, mysterious Jones over the square-jawed heroism of Ferraday (the nominal lead). But we do. When it eventually comes time to find out what’s going on, McGoohan delivers a master class in making dry exposition interesting, but this also signals the point where Ferraday takes command of the proceedings; Jones must retreat to the sidelines from now on, if necessary at gunpoint.
Borgnine is enthusiastically broad as Vaslov (who did not feature in the novel; nor did Anders, nor the marines) although perhaps a little too good at playing the comic relief, since suspicions have been aroused about the sub-bound saboteur and the options are limited (it has to be a speaking role, and there are very few candidates). Jim Brown is suitably stern, as the anti-Ferraday; he has no interest in being loved by his men, and sees appreciation by the troops as a measure of an officer’s weakness.
It’s curious (or boring) to see the time spent getting the measure of the sub; this was an era when nuclear power was still an exciting development (well, exciting or extremely dangerous depending on one’s general outlook). The technological triumph of this new-fangled vessel is a point of pride, one to be shown off. There is much talk of radiation, and insecurity over its effects in this sub-aquatic environment. Vaslov is keen to be given a guided tour; there’s a cute shot where he is privy to the reactor but we see only the glow reflected on his face; perhaps Sturges had Kiss Me Deadly in mind. Any new tech will be used first and foremost for purposes of national defence, of course. Jones reveals that the advanced camera at the heart of the plot can “photograph a pack of cigarettes 300 miles up in space”. Small beer now.
In general Sturges, who was hot off The Great Escape and had just dipped his toe in another MacLean with The Satan Bug, seems to have little time for visual realism. We’re never in any doubt that Zebra has been mostly filmed on sound stages, in stark contrast to the ultra-exposed shoot of another MacLean novel, Bear Island, nearly a decade later. I may be in the minority, but I don’t find this off-putting. No, there’s no chance of ever seeing the actors’ breath, but I rather like the heightened artifice of the Arctic landscape. It has something of the Bond world to it, especially the sight of the sub broken through a wasteland of ice.
Still, Sturges manages to pull a couple of rabbits out of his hat. Putting the camera at an angle to suggest an off kilter sub interior isn’t really convincing anyone (the interior world is much too bright and spacey; there’s none of the cramped, dripping claustrophobia of your classic movie submarine), but he ratchets up the tension during a sabotage attempt (in which a flooded torpedo tube triggers further flooding within the vessel) and the subsequent sinking of the ship. And the model work, it should be noted, is outstanding.
The ice-bound action climax and the confrontation with a platoon of Russian paratroopers led by Colonel Ostrovosky (Alf Kjellin, recently a regular face on The Man from U.N.C.L.E.) are additions to the Maclean novel. MacLean may have been partly inspired by events from a more entrenched Cold War period (the novel came out in 1963). These concern the recovery of an American spy satellite by the Soviets near Spitsbergen in 1959 and a CIA mission to an abandoned Soviet ice station in 1962. In contrast, an interesting tone is struck here; there is an absence of expected East-West strong-arm tactics, and a vague air of Détente is struck.
Very definitely, it is the agents (Vaslov and Jones) who persist in kind of behaviour that ingrains lines of national distrust. Indeed, the only significant shooting incident in the whole movie comes when Jones guns down Anders under the mistaken conclusion that he is the saboteur and spy. Jones, who has been one step ahead all along, turns out to have been tricked by old “comrade” Vaslov. While both want to secure the images of Soviet and American missile silos, the simple soldiers are have no interest in aggression for the sake of it. Ostrovosky has his orders, but once there is no way for him to secure his objective (Ferraday blows up the capsule holding the camera and footage) he is quite content to call it a day. Pointedly, the official cover story is one of cynical lies to mask what really went on. A Teletype machine announces Russian paratroops came to the aid of an American nuclear submarine in rescuing the ice station occupants, representing a “further example of international co-operation”. It’s notable that the conclusion essentially undermines the traditional heroics of MacLean’s novels in favour of something a little less morally certain and more nuanced.
Apparently Ice Station Zebra was one of Howard Hughes’ favourite movies. I couldn’t speculate why, but there is definitely an air of cosiness to its depiction of Cold War intrigue.. There’s also something undeniably seductive about polar intrigue, even when it doesn’t feature alien creatures that can perfectly copy humans. It’s the unwelcoming, inhospitable environment, the battle against the elements and absence of civilisation. Even when its clearly filmed in a studio. Coming as late as it does in the ‘60s cycle, Zebra’s impulse is perhaps surprisingly more attuned to a Bond type escapade than the jaded cynicism of Harry Palmer. There’s plenty of opportunity during time the running time to question the logic of its construction (was the sabotage just a stroke of luck? Vaslov had no guarantee the torpedoes would be required during the mission), but I’ll admit to being wholly indulgent of its deficiencies. Much of that is to do with the mighty McGoohan, who brings his intellect and shrewdness to a picture that would be far inferior in his absence.