Skip to main content

Now we shall keep our mysterious rendezvous.

Ice Station Zebra
(1968)

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.


**** 


Popular posts from this blog

The Illumi-what-i?

Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness (2022) (SPOILERS) In which Sam Raimi proves that he can stand proudly with the best – or worst – of them as a good little foot soldier of the woke apocalypse. You’d expect the wilfully anarchic – and Republican – Raimi to choke on the woke, but instead, he’s sucked it up, grinned and bore it. Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness is so slavishly a production-line Marvel movie, both in plotting and character, and in nu-Feige progressive sensibilities, there was no chance of Sam staggering out from beneath its suffocating demands with anything more than a few scraps of stylistic flourish intact.

What’s so bad about being small? You’re not going to be small forever.

Innerspace (1987) There’s no doubt that Innerspace is a flawed movie. Joe Dante finds himself pulling in different directions, his instincts for comic subversion tempered by the need to play the romance plot straight. He tacitly acknowledges this on the DVD commentary for the film, where he notes Pauline Kael’s criticism that he was attempting to make a mainstream movie; and he was. But, as ever with Dante, it never quite turns out that way. Whereas his kids’ movies treat their protagonists earnestly, this doesn’t come so naturally with adults. I’m a bona fide devotee of Innerspace , but I can’t help but be conscious of its problems. For the most part Dante papers over the cracks; the movie hits certain keynotes of standard Hollywood prescription scripting. But his sensibility inevitably suffuses it. That, and human cartoon Martin Short (an ideal “leading man” for the director) ensure what is, at first glance just another “ Steven Spielberg Presents ” sci-fi/fantas

This risotto is shmackin’, dude.

Stranger Things Season 4: Part I (SPOILERS) I haven’t had cause, or the urge, to revisit earlier seasons of Stranger Things , but I’m fairly certain my (relatively) positive takes on the first two sequel seasons would adjust down somewhat if I did (a Soviet base under Hawkins? DUMB soft disclosure or not, it’s pretty dumb). In my Season Three review, I called the show “ Netflix’s best-packaged junk food. It knows not to outstay its welcome, doesn’t cause bloat and is disposable in mostly good ways ” I fairly certain the Duffer’s weren’t reading, but it’s as if they decided, as a rebuke, that bloat was the only way to go for Season Four. Hence episodes approaching (or exceeding) twice the standard length. So while the other points – that it wouldn’t stray from its cosy identity and seasons tend to merge in the memory – hold fast, you can feel the ambition of an expansive canvas faltering at the hurdle of Stranger Things ’ essential, curated, nostalgia-appeal inconsequentiality.

Is this supposed to be me? It’s grotesque.

The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent (2022) (SPOILERS) I didn’t hold out much hope for The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent being more than moderately tolerable. Not so much because its relatively untested director and his co-writer are mostly known in the TV sphere (and not so much for anything anyone is raving about). Although, it has to be admitted, the finished movie flourishes a degree of digital flatness typical of small-screen productions (it’s fine, but nothing more). Rather, due to the already over-tapped meta-strain of celebs showing they’re good sports about themselves. When Spike Jonze did it with John Malkovich, it was weird and different. By the time we had JCVD , not so much. And both of them are pre-dated by Arnie in Last Action Hero (“ You brought me nothing but pain ” he is told by Jack Slater). Plus, it isn’t as if Tom Gormican and Kevin Etten have much in the way of an angle on Nic; the movie’s basically there to glorify “him”, give or take a few foibles, do

Whacking. I'm hell at whacking.

Witness (1985) (SPOILERS) Witness saw the advent of a relatively brief period – just over half a decade –during which Harrison Ford was willing to use his star power in an attempt to branch out. The results were mixed, and abruptly concluded when his typically too late to go where Daniel Day Lewis, Dustin Hoffman and Robert De Niro had gone before (with at bare minimum Oscar-nominated results) – but not “ full retard ” – ended in derision with Regarding Henry . He retreated to the world of Tom Clancy, and it’s the point where his cachet began to crumble. There had always been a stolid quality beneath even his more colourful characters, but now it came to the fore. You can see something of that as John Book in Witness – despite his sole Oscar nom, it might be one of Ford’s least interesting performances of the 80s – but it scarcely matters, or that the screenplay (which won) is by turns nostalgic, reactionary, wistful and formulaic, as director Peter Weir, in his Hollywood debu

Are you telling me that I should take my daughter to a witch doctor?

The Exorcist (1973) (SPOILERS) Vast swathes have been written on The Exorcist , duly reflective of its cultural impact. In a significant respect, it’s the first blockbuster – forget Jaws – and also the first of a new kind of special-effects movie. It provoked controversy across all levels of the socio-political spectrum, for explicit content and religious content, both hailed and denounced for the same. William Friedkin, director of William Peter Blatty’s screenplay based on Blatty’s 1971 novel, would have us believe The Exorcist is “ a film about the mystery of faith ”, but it’s evidently much more – and less – than that. There’s a strong argument to be made that movies having the kind of seismic shock on the landscape this one did aren’t simply designed to provoke rumination (or exultation); they’re there to profoundly influence society, even if largely by osmosis, and when one looks at this picture’s architects, such an assessment only gains in credibility.

That, my lad, was a dragon.

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (2013) (SPOILERS) It’s alarming how quickly Peter Jackson sabotaged all the goodwill he amassed in the wake of The Lord of the Rings trilogy. A guy who started out directing deliciously deranged homemade horror movies ended up taking home the Oscar for a fantasy movie, of all genres. And then he blew it. He went from a filmmaker whose naysayers were the exception to one whose remaining cheerleaders are considered slightly maladjusted. The Desolation of Smaug recovers some of the territory Jackson has lost over the last decade, but he may be too far-gone to ever regain his crown. Perhaps in years to come The Lord of the Rings trilogy will be seen as an aberration in his filmography. There’s a cartoonishness to the gleeful, twisted anarchy on display in his earlierr work that may be more attuned to the less verimilitudinous aspects of King Kong and The Hobbit s. The exceptions are his female-centric character dramas, Heavenly Creat

Gizmo caca!

Gremlins (1984) I didn’t get to see Gremlins at the cinema. I wanted to, as I had worked myself into a state of great anticipation. There was a six-month gap between its (unseasonal) US release and arrival in the UK, so I had plenty of time to devour clips of cute Gizmo on Film ’84 (the only reason ever to catch Barry Norman was a tantalising glimpse of a much awaited movie, rather than his drab, colourless, reviews) and Gremlins trading cards that came with bubble gum attached (or was it the other way round?). But Gremlins ’ immediate fate for many an eager youngster in Britain was sealed when, after much deliberation, the BBFC granted it a 15 certificate. I had just turned 12, and at that time an attempt to sneak in to see it wouldn’t even have crossed my mind. I’d just have to wait for the video. I didn’t realise it then (because I didn’t know who he was as a filmmaker), but Joe Dante’s irrepressible anarchic wit would have a far stronger effect on me than the un

Twenty dwarves took turns doing handstands on the carpet.

Bugsy (1991) (SPOILERS) Bugsy is very much a Warren Beatty vanity project (aren’t they all, even the ones that don’t seem that way on the surface?), to the extent of his playing a title character a decade and a half younger than him. As such, it makes sense that producer Warren’s choice of director wouldn’t be inclined to overshadow star Warren, but the effect is to end up with a movie that, for all its considerable merits (including a script from James Toback chock full of incident), never really feels quite focussed, that it’s destined to lead anywhere, even if we know where it’s going.

Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls… dyin’ time’s here!

Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (1985) Time was kind to Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome . As in, it was such a long time since I’d seen the “final chapter” of the trilogy, it had dwindled in my memory to the status of an “alright but not great” sequel. I’d half-expected to have positive things to say along the lines of it being misunderstood, or being able to see what it was trying for but perhaps failing to quite achieve. Instead, I re-discovered a massive turkey that is really a Mad Max movie in name only (appropriately, since Max was an afterthought). This is the kind of picture fans of beloved series tend to loathe; when a favourite character returns but without the qualities or tone that made them adored in the first place (see Indiana Jones in Kingdom of the Crystal Skull , or John McClane in the last two Die Hard s). Thunderdome stinks even more than the methane fuelling Bartertown. I hadn’t been aware of the origins of Thunderdome until recently, mainly because I was