Sandwiched somewhere in between all the cold (very cold; subzero, in fact) war espionage in John Sturges Ice Station Zebra (1968) is a Rock Hudson movie desperately trying to break out. It never does, however, and that’s probably just as well. I’ve never been a particular fan of Hudson’s brand of bo-hunkness apart from his trio of efforts opposite Doris Day. To me, he’s always been just Rock Hudson; not any of the characters he attempts to portray – more of a personality, but less of a star: slightly laconic (like a roadshow Robert Mitchum) and an undeniably handsome bit of male eye candy (a la Cary Grant, but without Grant’s silky suaveness) that the ladies loved for obvious reasons nonetheless. Hudson’s career had significantly cooled by the time he was cast as submarine Commander James Ferraday; a stoic and marginally heroic man of character and action. In retrospect, the mileage Hudson gets out of Ferraday is par for the course – although Ice Station Zebra was largely responsible for resurrecting his lagging career in films.
Ice Station Zebra is based very loosely on Alistair MacLean’s best-selling novel (itself a vaguely veiled fiction of real life events). But the screenplay by Douglas Heyes, Harry Julian Fink and W.R. Burnett takes considerable liberties with MacLean’s densely packed text, eliminating virtually all of the novel’s intricate subplots to concentrate on a more straight forward narrative involving the secret salvage operation of a Soviet spy satellite that has crashed off the coast of Greenland in the Arctic Ocean’s ice pack. In effect, the film is its own creation, changing the names of most of MacLean’s fictional characters and introducing a slew of new characters not in the novel. We play up the Anglo-Soviet clash of wills, never at the crux of the novel, and create an entirely different ending to enhance the ‘us vs. them’ cold war scenario, then on everyone’s mind immediately following the real life Cuban Missile Crisis.
John Sturges, a director I generally admire for enduring classics, The Great Escape and The Magnificent Seven, seems just slightly out of his element on Ice Station Zebra. Or perhaps it is merely the budgetary restrictions come to bear on his artistic prowess. MGM’s film output throughout the 1960s was troubled to say the least, with titanic investments on such megaton super duds as Mutiny on the Bounty and Goodbye Mr. Chips all but bankrupting studio coffers. Indeed, by 1968 MGM had neither the resources nor the inclination to mount a large scale action/adventure epic like Ice Station Zebra. So, a tried and true adage was applied to the project: shoot it on the back lot.
Stark gray/blue skies were painted onto a towering outdoor canvas, and blocks of gypsum pulverized to mimic snowfall, set against a background of papier-mâché snowdrifts. That might have worked in the 1940s in B&W or even in ‘glorious Technicolor’ made at the start of the fifties. But set against the 70mm clarity of Super Panavision these shortcomings are not only present and accounted for, but glaringly obvious – fooling absolutely no one. Close ups shot during a supposed blizzard reveal chunks of gypsum ‘snow’ landing on the actors without ever melting. At least if these scenes had been photographed on a refrigerated soundstage we might have seen breath coming from the cast to convince us of subzero Arctic temps. But no – audiences are asked to imagine rather than anticipate their verisimilitude and this in an era when movies were increasingly expected to offer them the real thing in lieu of a reasonable facsimile.
Ice Station Zebra does opens with some impressive visual effects and stock footage of a satellite observatory documenting the re-entry of a wayward Russian satellite crashing into the ice. We shift to the aforementioned outdoor set, wind machines gently stirring the gypsum snowfall as the satellite and its valuable cargo (microfilm) are discovered by a mysterious figure while another, equally veiled, ominously lurks in the shadows. After the main titles we regress to a private room inside Hollywood’s version of a quaint pub in Holy Loch, Scotland where Commander Ferraday is assigned the highly classified duty of rescuing personnel from Ice Station Zebra by his superior, Admiral Garvey (Lloyd Nolan). It seems that the station has inexplicably gone off line. Ferraday is ordered to take his sub, the USS Tigerfish and recover survivors – at least, that is the objective of the mission as outlined by Garvey, who also informs Ferraday that he will be taking on a passenger: the ominously silent ‘Mr. Jones’ (Patrick McGoohan) – obviously British intelligence but very much playing his cards close to his vest.
A quiet animosity builds between Ferraday and Jones; heightened by the mid-Atlantic helicopter drop of U.S. combat commander Capt. Leslie Anders (Jim Brown); a ‘by the book’ potentate who also brings Russian defector, Boris Vaslov (Ernest Borgnine) aboard. Anders intimidates Lt. Russell Walker (Tony Bill), taking command of the marine platoon aboard the Tigerfish. But Vaslov and Jones are colleagues, or so it seems – a friendship that causes Ferraday to keep a watchful eye on Vaslov who has begun to skulk around the Tigerfish under the premise of ‘just stretching his legs’. Ferraday is no fool, however. After catching Vaslov sneaking about the bowels of the sub he takes him directly to its nuclear fission reactor that powers the Tigerfish, in effect showing Vaslov exactly what he wants to see – but under his guard and supervision.
The Tigerfish uses radar to make its way beneath the ice field. After several failed attempts to break through to the surface on its own, Ferraday orders use of a torpedo to shatter the dense layer of ice overhead. Too late Lt. George Mills (Murray Rose) and his men realize that someone has sabotaged the tube, leaving both ends wide open. Seawater floods into the hold, killing Mills and trapping Jones, Vaslov and several others inside. As Ferraday struggles to regain control of the Tigerfish’s plummet to the bottom of the ocean Jones grapples with the tube’s jammed security valve, eventually sealing off the rush of sea water. Quietly determining that a saboteur is aboard, Ferraday suspects Vaslov while Jones becomes increasingly skeptical of Anders, who is the least known of the newly arrived crew.
Ferraday and his rescue party, including Jones, Anders and Vaslov make their way during a blizzard to Ice Station Zebra – a ‘weather outpost’ that has been decimated by some sort of man-made sabotage. In these subzero conditions, and without proper shelter or food to sustain them, the scientific crew from the outpost have frozen to death. Ferraday challenges Jones to learn more about the real purpose for their mission and Jones – unable to find what he’s searching for on his own – confides in Ferraday that his government has sent him to the station to recover an advanced experimental camera, developed by the British, but stolen by the Soviets.
The Soviets sent their own satellite into orbit with the camera to photograph American missile silos. However, the camera malfunctioned, documenting Soviet sites as well. After the satellite crashed near Zebra a battalion of undercover agents from the U.S.S.R. and Britain raced to recover it; the civilian scientists of Zebra regrettably caught in their crossfire. Armed with this new information, Ferraday and Jones begin to diligently search for the microfilm, obviously still hidden somewhere within Zebra’s decimated complex. Jones discovers a tracking device concealed inside the gas tank of a land rover in one of the garages, but is surprised and knocked unconscious by Vaslov. Anders, who realizes Vaslov is working for the Soviets, confronts him with an ax. The men struggle. Regaining consciousness, Jones, already prejudice against Anders, assumes that he is the saboteur who attacked him and shoots Anders dead, drawing Ferraday and his men to the scene.
As the storm clears radar picks up Soviet aircraft relentlessly speeding toward Zebra. Although Ferraday remains suspicious of Vaslov he allows him to use the tracker recovered by Jones to locate the capsule that has been buried in the ice. However, when Russian paratroopers arrive on the scene their commander, Colonel Ostrovsky (Alf Kjellin) orders the return of the microfilm at gunpoint. Outnumbered, Ferraday secretly empties the container of its prized contents, before handing it over to Ostrovksy. Vaslov, who has witnessed this deception, makes a break with the stolen film. But Jones intervenes, mortally wounding Vaslov and retrieving the film.
Ferraday order Jones to give the film to Ostrovsky, who wastes no time attaching it to a weather balloon that is set adrift to be recovered in mid-air by one of the Soviet pilots flying overhead. Believing that their mission has failed and that the future safety of the United States is in peril, Lt. Walker makes a valiant attempt to intercede and is shot by one of Ostrovsky’s men. Ferraday now reveals that he has attached a detonator to the balloon and destroys it in midair. Begrudgingly, Ostrovsky concedes that this forced détente has made the purpose of their operation moot. He and his men withdraw from Zebra, allowing Ferraday to tend to Walker’s wounds and return to their submarine.
Ice Station Zebra is one of the last ‘big shows’ of the 1960s – a decade buffeted by shifting corporate alliances, dwindling audiences, and staggering costs that were all but crippling the big studios in Hollywood. In some ways the film reveals these backstage hindrances, particularly in MGM’s decision to remain almost entirely on the back lot. Shot in Super Panavision 70 (but projected in Cinerama for its premiere engagement), part of Ice Station Zebra’s appeal then was its larger than life presentation.
Though single lens Panavision lacked the ‘you are there’ characteristic of true 3 camera Cinerama, the sheer size of the image was arguably enough to get audiences interested in the film. But at 148 minutes Ice Station Zebra is hardly the grand epic that, say How The West Was Won or Lawrence of Arabia were and remain. Needlessly inserting an intermission into the film only seems to enhance the fact that Ice Station Zebra is less of an excursion and more of a monumental mouse than its competition. The film isn’t nearly as big as its marketing hype and poster art suggest. It’s simply an over-inflated melodrama plumped out with Panavision projection.
In hindsight, the most exhilarating moment in the film is the near sinking of the Tigerfish that caps off the first half. But once the crew arrives at the artificial outdoor Arctic ‘set’ for act two the story comes to a grinding halt, intermittently livened up by the Vaslov/Anders confrontation and showdown between Ferraday and Ostrovsky. Again, because this is Panavision 70 one expects a lavishness to the production value, or at the very least some resplendent location photography to stimulate the eye. As none of this is forthcoming we are left to focus on the espionage. But the ‘cloak and dagger’ only comes to life in fits and sparks (more fits, than sparks), leaving the viewer wanting for more action and less talk.
In the final analysis, Ice Station Zebra doesn’t really attain greatness and that’s a genuine shame. There’s no camaraderie between the men aboard the Tigerfish, not even antagonistic chemistry between Ferraday and Jones, or Ferraday and Vaslov, or Anders and anyone to fuel the various ‘struggle of wills’ scenarios that might have made the intrigues...well…intriguing. Rock Hudson’s performance can best be described as understated happenstance. He says his lines with modest conviction and his usual laid back deep voice. But somehow there’s no weight to his words. It’s just dialogue, manufactured and pre-processed and dull, dull, DULL!
Patrick McGoohan plays Mr. Jones as slightly paranoid, bordering on marginally psychotic. His spy is super drunk on maintaining his mission’s secrecy to the point where he isn’t fooling anyone. Jim Brown spends most of his time uppity and glowering, incurring wrath rather than respect from his men. Hence, when Vaslov confronts and kills him it’s almost a relief rather than a shock. Ernest Borgnine’s Russian accent could use some polish. Borgnine – a superb actor most of the time - is the wrong ‘type’ for this role – physically; portly and bumbling until the last act when Vaslov gets his moxy on. In the end, none of these archetypes of male machismo seem to work well together and that makes the interaction between them slightly archaic and grossly strained at best.
Even if I didn’t particularly care for the movie, I was all set to extoll the praises of Warner Home Video’s Blu-ray – especially after the breathtaking visuals that begin the show in startling 1080p clarity. And indeed, the first act of Ice Station Zebra, right up until the ‘Intermission’ exhibits exemplary video quality with bold, richly saturated colors, solid contrast and a considerable amount of fine detail, particularly in close ups. The ‘wow’ factor is definitely there.
But then Act II begins and the video mastering becomes highly suspect. For starters, there is a downgrade in the overall image quality. The razor sharpness of Super Panavision is replaced by a suddenly soft visual characteristic. Colors get muddy. Flesh in particular adopts a pasty ‘piggy pink’ hue. There’s also some video based noise akin to viewing an old analog broadcast with an antenna while a plane is flying over one’s house to obstruct the signal. I am unable to quantify exactly how or why this anomaly exists but it does and is quite distracting for about seventeen minutes. Very odd!
The 5.1 DTS audio isn’t quite as enriching an experience as I anticipated either. The Michel Lengrad score is well represented but dialogue sounds very frontal, with howling wind effects filling up the side and rear channels. Extras are limited to a badly worn theatrical trailer.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)