Saturday, June 13, 2015

Ice Station Zebra: The (Seasonal) Comfort Movie

Most film buffs have one or more "comfort movies" that they enjoy revisiting on a frequent basis. For Howard Hughes, that movie was apparently Ice Station Zebra, the 1968 adaptation of Alistair MacLean's 1963 adventure novel. Back in the days prior to VCRs, Hughes would call up a TV station that he owned in Las Vegas and request that Ice Station Zebra be broadcast. The film's frequent airings must have baffled local Vegas TV watchers!

Rock Hudson as Capt. Ferraday.
Rock Hudson stars as stoic hero Captain James Ferraday, who commands the atomic-powered submarine USS Tigerfish. High-ranking officials send Ferraday and crew to the Arctic Circle in response to a distress signal sent out by the inhabitants of a meteorologic research station. Ferraday knows there is more to his mission--he's just not privy to the details. His civilian passenger, who calls himself Jones (Patrick McGoohan), refuses to satistfy the submarine commander's curiosity: "You'll know all you need to know as the need arises." Later, Jones does reveal the nature of his occupation: "I know how to lie, steal, kidnap, counterfeit, suborn, and kill. That's my job. I do it with great pride."

Brown and Borgnine.
By the time the Tigerfish reaches Ice Station Zebra, it has picked up two more passengers: a Russian defector (Ernest Borgnine) and a Marine captain (Jim Brown) with experience in special operations. The Tigerfish has also dealt with attempted sabotage that killed one crew member and injured others. Who is the saboteur? What is Jones trying to recover at Ice Station Zebra? And why are Russian paratroopers making their way to the research station?

Ice Station Zebra lacks the exciting exploits of the best Alastair MacLean adapatations, specifically The Guns of Navarone (1961) and Where Eagles Dare (which was also released in 1968). It's really more of a suspense film despite the sabotage sequence and a shoot-out between the Americans and Russians. I suspect the intent was to keep viewers guessing about the identity of the saboteur, with Jones, his Russian friend, and the Marine captain being the suspects. However, it's rather obvious who's to blame--you can probably guess it from this review alone.

Patrick McGoohan.
The movie works best when it focuses on the natural conflict between Ferraday and Jones, two "type A personalities" that clash from the beginning. For the film's first half, they trade barbs and eye each other suspiciously, which makes them a rather engaging odd couple for viewers. Hudson and McGoohan are well cast, though Rock does seem a bit grim at times and Patrick gets the script's best dialogue ("The Russians put our camera made by our German scientists and your film made by your German scientists into their satellite made by their German scientists").

Ice Station Zebra received Oscar nominations for Best Cinematography and Best Special Effects. Those accomplishments are all the more impressive when one considers that the film was shot inside a studio. (Note that you can't see the characters' breath. Not to go off on a tangent, but I always liked that Orson Welles shot a snowy sequence for The Magnificent Ambersons inside an icehouse so it would look more realistic.)

While it's not one of my comfort movies, I enjoy Ice Station Zebra and often pop it into the VCR (yes, I still have one) on snowy days--when I'm nice and cozy inside. Heck, maybe it is one of my comfort movies if one factors in seasonal preferences.


Unknown said...

One of my favorite films, saw it at the time, now have the BD. Good in summer too.

Rick29 said...

I'm surprised no one has remade this or adapted some of the other A.M. novels.

Grand Old Movies said...

what a fascinating bit of trivia about this film, that it was one of Howard Hughes's favorites -wonder if he like the scenes set in ice (obviously germ-free...). And then to call up a tv station and order it to be broadcast - now THAT's power.

Ron said...

I wouldn't call a (cold) war movie comforting, but then mine is "The Thing From Another World" (1951). I guess we take comfort from where we can. :)

Unknown said...

True. There was talk a couple of years ago about Christopher McQuarrie writing/directing a remake. He wrote The Usual Suspects and Jack Reacher. I liked many of his 50s and 60s novels, less so the 70s.