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.


**** 


Comments

Popular posts from this blog

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

Rejoice! The broken are the more evolved. Rejoice.

Split (2016)
(SPOILERS) M Night Shyamalan went from the toast of twist-based filmmaking to a one-trick pony to the object of abject ridicule in the space of only a couple of pictures: quite a feat. Along the way, I’ve managed to miss several of his pictures, including his last, The Visit, regarded as something of a re-locating of his footing in the low budget horror arena. Split continues that genre readjustment, another Blumhouse production, one that also manages to bridge the gap with the fare that made him famous. But it’s a thematically uneasy film, marrying shlock and serious subject matter in ways that don’t always quite gel.

Shyamalan has seized on a horror staple – nubile teenage girls in peril, prey to a psychotic antagonist – and, no doubt with the best intentions, attempted to warp it. But, in so doing, he has dragged in themes and threads from other, more meritable fare, with the consequence that, in the end, the conflicting positions rather subvert his attempts at subversion…

My name is Dr. King Schultz, this is my valet, Django, and these are our horses, Fritz, and Tony.

Django Unchained (2012)
(MINOR SPOILERS) Since the painful misstep of Grindhouse/Death Proof, Quentin Tarantino has regained the higher ground like never before. Pulp Fiction, his previous commercial and critical peak, has been at very least equalled by the back-to-back hits of Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained. Having been underwhelmed by his post Pulp Fiction efforts (albeit, I admired his technical advances as a director in Kill Bill), I was pleasantly surprised by Inglourious Basterds. It was no work of genius (so not Pulp Fiction) by any means, but there was a gleeful irreverence in its treatment of history and even to the nominal heroic status of its titular protagonists. Tonally, it was a good fit for the director’s “cool” aesthetic. As a purveyor of postmodern pastiche, where the surface level is the subtext, in some ways he was operating at his zenith. Django Unchained is a retreat from that position, the director caught in the tug between his all-important aesthetic pr…

I don’t think you will see President Pierce again.

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018)
(SPOILERS) The Ballad of Buster Scruggs and other tall tales of the American frontier is the title of "the book" from which the Coen brothers' latest derives, and so announces itself as fiction up front as heavily as Fargo purported to be based on a true story. In the world of the portmanteau western – has there even been one before? – theme and content aren't really all that distinct from the more familiar horror collection, and as such, these six tales rely on sudden twists or reveals, most of them revolving around death. And inevitably with the anthology, some tall tales are stronger than other tall tales, the former dutifully taking up the slack.

Can you float through the air when you smell a delicious pie?

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018)
(SPOILERS) Ironically, given the source material, think I probably fell into the category of many who weren't overly disposed to give this big screen Spider-Man a go on the grounds that it was an animation. After all, if it wasn’t "good enough" for live-action, why should I give it my time? Not even Phil Lord and Christopher Miller's pedigree wholly persuaded me; they'd had their stumble of late, although admittedly in that live-action arena. As such, it was only the near-unanimous critics' approval that swayed me, suggesting I'd have been missing out. They – not always the most reliable arbiters of such populist fare, which made the vote of confidence all the more notable – were right. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is not only a first-rate Spider-Man movie, it's a fresh, playful and (perhaps) surprisingly heartfelt origins story.

You look like an angry lizard!

Bohemian Rhapsody (2018)
(SPOILERS) I can quite see a Queen fan begrudging this latest musical biopic for failing to adhere to the facts of their illustrious career – but then, what biopic does steer a straight and true course? – making it ironic that they're the main fuel for Bohemian Rhapsody's box office success. Most other criticisms – and they're legitimate, on the whole – fall away in the face of a hugely charismatic star turn from Rami Malek as the band's frontman. He's the difference between a standard-issue, episodic, join-the-dots narrative and one that occasionally touches greatness, and most importantly, carries emotional heft.

I'm a sort of travelling time expert.

Doctor Who Season 12 – Worst to Best
Season 12 isn’t the best season of Doctor Who by any means, but it’s rightly recognised as one of the most iconic, and it’s easily one of the most watchable. Not so much for its returning roster of monsters – arguably, only one of them is in finest of fettle – as its line-up of TARDIS crew members. Who may be fellow travellers, but they definitely aren’t “mates”. Thank goodness. Its popularity – and the small matters of it being the earliest season held in its entirety in original broadcast form, and being quite short – make it easy to see why it was picked for the first Blu-ray boxset.

Must the duck be here?

The Favourite (2018)
(SPOILERS) In my review of The Killing of a Sacred Deer, I suggested The Favourite might be a Yorgos Lanthimos movie for those who don’t like Yorgos Lanthimos movies. At least, that’s what I’d heard. And certainly, it’s more accessible than either of his previous pictures, the first two thirds resembling a kind of Carry On Up the Greenaway, but despite these broader, more slapstick elements and abundant caustic humour, there’s a prevailing detachment on the part of the director, a distancing oversight that rather suggests he doesn’t feel very much for his subjects, no matter how much they emote, suffer or connive. Or pratfall.

There's something wrong with the sky.

Hold the Dark (2018)
(SPOILERS) Hold the Dark, an adaptation of William Giraldi's 2014 novel, is big on atmosphere, as you'd expect from director Jeremy Saulnier (Blue Ruin, Green Room) and actor-now-director (I Don’t Want to Live in This World Anymore) pal Macon Blair (furnishing the screenplay and appearing in one scene), but contrastingly low on satisfying resolutions. Being wilfully oblique can be a winner if you’re entirely sure what you're trying to achieve, but the effect here is rather that it’s "for the sake of it" than purposeful.

I don’t know if what is happening is fair, but it’s the only thing I can think of that’s close to justice.

The Killing of a Sacred Deer (2017)
(SPOILERS) I think I knew I wasn’t going to like The Killing of a Sacred Deer in the first five minutes. And that was without the unedifying sight of open-heart surgery that takes up the first four. Yorgos Lanthimos is something of a Marmite director, and my responses to this and his previous The Lobster (which I merely thought was “okay” after exhausting its thin premise) haven’t induced me to check out his earlier work. Of course, he has now come out with a film that, reputedly, even his naysayers will like, awards-darling The Favourite