Friday, July 31, 2009


"The Great Escape" director John Sturges serves up a platter of Cold War paranoia and tension with "Ice Station Zebra" (**** out of ****), his riveting 1968 submarine thriller. Uncle Sam and the British rush to the North Pole to recover the contents of a Soviet satellite that the Russians have lost which contains ultra-classified film of every missile silo both American and Communist on the globe. Brawny Rock Hudson stars as Captain James Ferraday, commander of the U.S.S. Tigerfish (SNN-509), a nuclear sub, who receives his hush hush orders as well as his hush hush passenger, a laconic British Intelligence agent known only as Jones (Patrick McGoohan of "The Prisoner") who wants to beat the Russkies to the prize.

This glossy Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer action-adventure blockbuster received Academy Award nominations for David L. Fapp's cinematography as well as its visual effects. Slow-moving in a peasant old-fashioned way, the Douglas Heyes screenplay introduces all the characters as they assemble at different times aboard the Tigerfish, generates some tension as a mysterious saboteur tries to sink the sub, and then breaks out into frigid North Pole frontier during its final hour with a showdown that reveals the identity of the saboteur and a showdown with Russian paratroopers. The Sturges film is based on the Alistair MacLean novel that isn't as epic in scope as the film and future "Dirty Harry" scenarist Harry Julian Fink adapted it with "Little Caesar" scribe W.R. Burnett contributing uncredited portions. Reportedly, Alstair MacLean's novel was partly based on an actual incident that occurred in 1959. If you like your Cold War thrillers with a snap, you'll love this taut 152-minute epic that never deploys a gratuitous minute. "Ice Station Zebra" was not only Rock Hudson's favorite movie, but also millionaire Howard Hughes' watched this movie repeatedly toward the end of his life. Interestingly, Hughes hired Sturges to helm his own subterrean adventure thriller "Underwater" back in

John Sturges was an old hand at making action films with predominantly all male casts by the time that producer Martin Ransohoff signed him on to helm "Ice Station Zebra." Some of the windy scenes after the heroes reach the eponymous site are reminiscent of Sturges' early work in "The Walking Hills" and the journey to site recalls his western "The Law and Jake Wade." Sturges orchestrates this big, international actioneer without a false turn but that means that it has to unfold at a slow but sturdy pace. Ferraday receives his orders out of uniform in a pub in Scotland from Admiral Garvey (Lloyd Nolan) and back at the naval base a clandestine secret agent, David Jones arrives who casually admits that Jones isn't his real name. Not long after Jones' arrival the Tigerfish receives a platoon of U.S. Marines, all of whom are young, and equally young lieutenant, Lt. Russell Walker (Tony Bill)leads them. The passengers keep piling up with the additional of a Soviet defector, Boris Vaslov (Ernest Borgnine of "The Dirty Dozen"), who Jones smuggled out of the Berlin Wall in 1961. Not surprisingly, Jones trusts Vaslov implicitly. The final passenger who is picked up in route is U.S. Marine Captain Anders (Jim Brown of "100 Rifles") who comes aboard ready to kick ass. The first scene in Ferraday's cabin with Anders and later Lt. Walker is terrific! Anders makes it clear to Walker who the boss is in no time at all.

Once Sturges and Heyes have everybody aboard the Tigerfish and the orders are clear, the tension and suspense sets in the action. Vaslov loves to roam the ship without escort, while Jones worries about their most recent arrival, Captain Anders, who was picked up in transit. About 45 minutes to an hour later, the Tigerfish reaches the polar ice cap and tries to surface, but the ice above is far too thick. Ferraday decides it is time to fire a torpedo through the ice and then surface. Out of nowhere a disaster occurs. Somebody have tampered with the torpedo tube and let water into the tube so that when our guys go to load the fish, water erupts in a flood and fills the torpedo room. Down does the Tigerfish to alarming depths with its hull sure to implode at any moment as the depth gauge dial clicks over numbers rapidly. Miraculously (well they could die this earlier, of course) the Navy sub escapes but Jones is now certain in his suspicions that Anders is the guilty party and a mustache, taciturn Jim Brown convinces us that if he isn't the villain then he is a very sinister dude.

From this point onward, Sturges and Heyes add the man versus nature theme to the action. Once they have broken through the ice—it's intermission time—they encounter an Artic storm that has them bent down and using canes to cross the ice cap. There is one particularly thrilling moment—especially if you're watching this flick during the winter—when three guys plunge into a crevasse and require rescue. It's rather like the "Star Wars" scene where our heroes are trapped in the trash compactor and the walls are gradually closing in on them. The ice gradually closes in on the navy guys. After they reach Ice Station Zebra, they realize that a fire broke out and now it's time for Jones and Ferraday to huddle and cover all the plot's expository points. An entire scene is allocated to the description of the goods that they are scavenging the area for and how its wound up in Soviet hands with no small amount of espionage involved. Again, the weather has kept the Russians from moving, but we learn that once the storm clears, here comes the Russkies!

McGoohan is essentially replicating his "Secret Agent" man persona and Hudson is tall, dark, and monosyllabic as the rock-solid submarine skipper. Borgnine has never been better as a slippery Russian defector and Jim Brown gives his best performance ever. The photography is top-notch and it's cool that Sturges often stages scenes in the submarine from an angle, not entirely shot at normal, eye-level range with everything horizontal. The scenes under the thick ice are simply incredible! Clint Eastwood's "Firefox" and the last Sean Connery James Bond thriller "Never Say Never Again" borrowed some of this spectacular submarine footage. Ferris Webster's editing deserves a nod, especially in the fight between Vaslov and Anders. Although it didn't match the earnings of another MacLean thriller "Where Eagles Dare," "Ice Station Zebra" is still worth catching.

An excellent book to peruse if you are interested in John Sturges, his life, and his films is Glen Lovell's top-notch biography on Sturges entitled "Escape Artist: The Life and Films of John Sturges." Mr. Lovell spent 10 years writing and researching this seminal text about Sturges.