Once upon a time, Appellate Judge Dave Ryan wrote a 165-page thesis about the decline of England and France as world superpowers in the Cold War era. Now he writes about Ice Station Zebra. How the mighty have fallen.
"Ice Station Zebra"—Remember the name—Your life may depend on it!
(Possibly the worst movie tag line ever…)
John Sturges's Cold War suspense thriller gets the royal treatment from Warner Brothers in this new DVD release. Although the Earth-girdling conflict between America and Soviet Russia has passed into history, nothing will ever diminish the entertainment value of seeing Ernest Borgnine adopting a phony Russian accent…
Facts of the Case
The U.S. nuclear submarine Tigerfish, commanded by Capt. James Ferraday (Rock Hudson, Giant, Pillow Talk), receives new sailing orders: They are to proceed to the Arctic ice pack to rescue the survivors of a mysterious accident at a British research outpost, the titular Ice Station Zebra. Ferraday quickly realizes that there's more to this story than meets the eye, though—his orders have come straight from the head of the Navy. He's also got a passenger to bring along for the ride, the quirky and high-strung "David Jones" (Patrick McGoohan, The Prisoner), who is clearly some kind of intelligence officer. Jones refuses to disclose any details of the true mission, or what may be going on up at the Zebra station, so Ferraday plays the good captain and proceeds to carry out his orders.
While underway, the Tigerfish receives updated orders: They are to rendezvous with a helicopter carrying a pair of additional passengers. The passengers turn out to be a Russian expatriate-turned-spy-for-the-good-guys, Boris Vaslov (Ernest Borgnine, The Poseidon Adventure, McHale's Navy), and a new commander for the detachment of Marines aboard ship, Capt. Leslie Anders (Jim Brown, The Dirty Dozen).
An "accident" involving the torpedo tube leads to an unavoidable conclusion: someone on board is a saboteur, and probably a spy as well. Anders doesn't trust Vaslov, even though Jones vouches for him. Vaslov doesn't help his case by poking around the engine room and the reactor room, though. Jones doesn't trust Anders, because he's the only person who wasn't known by at least one other person on the mission prior to his arrival. (Hence, he could be an imposter planted by the Soviets.) Ferraday doesn't trust anyone—but he's got his orders.
The sub arrives in the Arctic, and eventually finds the remains of the station, which has suffered some sort of explosion. Jones reveals the true mission of the team—recovering a film capsule from a Soviet spy satellite. But apparently someone at the station had already found it. Which side was that person on? What became of the capsule? And who's going to explain this all to the Russian paratroopers who are on their way?
The late John Sturges isn't often mentioned in lists of "best directors of the '50s and '60s," but he turned out an impressive batch of films over his long career. Ice Station Zebra is a perfect example of a typical Sturges film: clean cinematography, big Cinerama vistas, occasionally creative camerawork, mid-level effects, a bit on the long side, chock full of slow-burn tension. It's not the greatest Cold War thriller ever made, but it's far from the worst. It's a bunch of solidly professional Hollywood people creating a solidly professional Hollywood film that's entertaining and dramatic.
Sturges was known mainly for his big-budget Westerns (e.g. The Magnificent Seven and Gunfight at the O.K. Corral), but did occasionally step out and direct a war picture or two (e.g. The Great Escape). Ice Station Zebra, and its follow-up Marooned, were Sturges's lone excursions into the contemporary Cold War world of the late 1960s. Both films treated the Cold War in a very Western way, stripping all semblance of nuance from the interplay between the superpowers—Sturges's heroes were very, very heroic, while the Red Menace was shady, out-of-focus, and omnipresently ominous. Ice Station Zebra is the superior work, thanks to its superior source material, the eponymous book by popular Scottish thriller novelist Alistair MacLean (The Guns of Navarone, Where Eagles Dare).
MacLean's story is essentially your basic who's-the-spy-in-our-midst tale, but Sturges's slow pacing keeps the tension and the heat at crock pot levels. Ice Station Zebra is the prototype for the later films based on Tom Clancy's novels, all of which use technical details to drive plot. (The Hunt for Red October bears more than a passing resemblance to this tale, as a matter of fact.) Sturges lingers on the operational aspects of commanding a submarine, especially a submarine cruising underneath Arctic pack ice, giving the film a more authentic (and Clancy-like) feel. The fact that the Navy let the production use an actual (albeit non-nuclear) submarine, the USS Ronquil (SS-396), a World War II-vintage Balao class boat, also added to the film's ambiance, as did some very creative above- and underwater camerawork on and around the sub.
Given Sturges's past successes with him, this film practically screamed for Steve McQueen, either in the Ferraday role or the Jones role (which could have been rewritten into an American character for him). I don't know whether he was ever considered for the film—probably not, given that he was already making Bullitt and The Thomas Crown Affair at that point—but all things being equal, getting Rock Hudson isn't that bad either. Rock lacks that extra dash of panache that McQueen brought to the table, but he's certainly enough of a solid (Rock solid?) square-jawed American hero to pull off this role. Not that he had to do very much. All of the characters here are paper cut-outs who stand around and glower at each other for most of the film. But that's part of the charm, and all part of the black-and-white world of a Sturges film. Depth would imply nuance, and we shan't be having any nuance here. The fate of the world is at stake!
Sturges films are, admittedly, somewhat of an acquired taste. It's easy to dismiss them as "simple" or "basic" exercises in filming a plot, but I prefer to think of them as a clean and efficient entertainment delivery system. Kind of like Hawaii Five-O. You know who's who in a Sturges film, and there's rarely any messy good side to the bad guys.
No matter what you think of the film itself, you cannot fault Warner Brothers for its technical execution on Ice Station Zebra. The picture is gorgeous. Ice Station Zebra was a "Cinerama" feature—which means it was actually shot in Super Panavision (as was MGM's other "Cinerama" feature in 1968—2001: A Space Odyssey), since the true three-strip Cinerama technique had been abandoned by 1968. This DVD transfer is absolutely pristine, and preserves the original 2.20:1 widescreen aspect ratio. Colors are fantastic, even in the high-contrast snow scenes. I didn't spot a single artifact or other flaw in the film's entire two and a half hour runtime. Just a fantastic transfer—kudos to you, Brothers Warner. Kudos.
Audio is provided in a newly-remastered 5.1 surround track. The overall quality is good, but the rear channels don't get a great deal of use. I'm not sure whether that's a flaw in the mix, or just a consequence of the lack of any real sound design in the film.
Extras are skimpy. There's a brief but informative "making-of" featurette entitled "The Man Who Makes the Difference," which is actually more of a story about photographer John Stephens, who designed the camera housing used for the underwater submarine shots. (In fact, the best footage in the featurette isn't from Ice Station Zebra at all—it's the in-car footage Stephens shot for John Frankenheimer's Grand Prix.) There's also a trailer gallery. But the trailer gallery is actually topical—there's a reason each of the trailers is here. Bad Day at Black Rock earned Sturges an Oscar nomination in 1956 for Best Director (and co-starred Ernest Borgnine as well). Giant was, of course, one of Rock Hudson's breakthrough roles. And Where Eagles Dare is a film adaptation of another Alistair MacLean novel. (Rounding out the quartet is the trailer for Ice Station Zebra itself, which serves mainly to highlight the quality of the DVD transfer.) It's not much, but it's refreshing to see a selection of trailers that actually has some thought behind it, instead of just a hodgepodge of recent Warner releases.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
This isn't a film for fans of deep, intricate, nuanced acting. Everyone in the film has one, and only one, note to play. Patrick McGoohan's note is "hair-trigger." He succumbs to a bit of overacting at times; I doubt a real spy would be as jumpy as a chihuahua. Borgnine kinda sorta looks Russian, a little bit—but that's where the similarity ends. He's more convincing as Mermaid Man on SpongeBob Squarepants. Jim Brown has so little to do that I'm not entirely sure I didn't imagine him. Only Hudson escapes relatively unscathed.
This isn't a film for fans of rock-'em, sock-'em action, either. The pace is…um…shall we say, measured? (But not as mind-numbingly slow as Marooned.) As if the film needed more padding, this offering includes musical interludes as well—an overture, intermission music, an entr'acte, and exit music. I assume this is to give the gnomes that live inside my Magic Moving Picture Machine an opportunity to change the reels in the Mystical Fairy Projection Device inside said machine, or have a toot of the nose candy, or whatever the hell they do in there. In any event, today's ADD Generation might not have the attention span for a film like this, whose dramatic payoff doesn't involve someone blowing up.
Ice Station Zebra isn't a complex film, but that isn't necessarily a bad thing. It has the same sort of slow-yet-incessant pace as the Cold War that inspired it. If you don't mind the fact that the characters are one-dimensional, and you don't care that there's no car chase involved, then this is a pretty good Cold War thriller. And you can't beat the transfer.
The cast and crew of Ice Station Zebra are invited in out of the cold for a nice, hot cup of cocoa. After that, they are free to go.
Give us your feedback!
What's "fair"? Whether positive or negative, our reviews should be unbiased, informative, and critique the material on its own merits.
Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• Featurette: "The Man Who Makes the Difference"
Review content copyright © 2005 David Ryan; Site design and review layout copyright © 2015 Verdict Partners LLC. All rights reserved.