Saturday, September 13, 2014

BOOK/MOVIE: Ice Station Zebra (1968)

                “Ice Station Zebra” is a movie based on the novel by Alistair MacLean.  It was released in 1968 and was a box office hit.  The film was nominated for two Academy Awards: special effects and cinematography.  It was directed by John Sturges (“The Great Escape”).  The U.S. Navy cooperated by providing the nuclear sub USS Ronquil for interior shots and some underwater footage.  Too bad the Navy did not mention that submarines are called boats, not ships.

                The movie opens with a capsule landing in the Arctic.  Both the Americans and the Soviets want it.  The nuclear sub Tigerfish commanded by Capt. Ferraday (Rock Hudson) is sent to Ice Station Zebra to rescue the personnel at the weather station.  The sub will carry some passengers including the shady Mr. Jones (Patrick McGoohan) and an “anti-Russian Russian” named Vaslov (Ernest Borgnine).  The boat also carries a unit of Marines led by the hard-ass Capt. Anders (Jim Brown).  Ferraday wonders what these guests have to do with the rescue of some nerds.

a black guy on a sub who is not the cook!
                Once under the ice cap (a hot topic for 1960s audiences), the Tigerfish encounters an act of sabotage that tests the crush depth of the hull (sub cliché alert).  Someone on board is a saboteur.  A saboteur who apparently does not mind dying a horrible death.  After surviving this trope, the sub breaks through the ice to get to the station.  After battling a blizzard, a rescue party reaches the station with only the loss of some expendables.  The station has suffered a fire that was not accidental.  Jones and Vaslov are looking for the capsule.  The soundstage is about to get a lot more crowded as Soviet paratroopers arrive to join the party.  We could be looking at the start of WWIII.

                “Ice Station Zebra” was meant to be the next “Guns of Navarone”.  It did do well in ticket sales, but it is not on the same level as “Guns” and is much inferior to another MacLean movie that came out in the same year – “Where Eagles Dare”.  The main problem is the movie’s plot has enough holes in it to sink a battleship, much less a sub.  The plot twists are ridiculous and several key plot elements make little sense.  You know a movie has flaws when it has four screenwriters (including MacLean).  The acting is average with Hudson ruggedly handsome, but a bit wooden.  McGoohan is fine as the enigmatic Jones, but Borgnine chews the scenery.  Although it seems the script reserved a spot for Jim Brown, he is underused.  The movie is technically blah.  The underwater cinematography got good reviews, but seems quaint by today’s standards.  The opening special effect of the capsule landing could not possibly have been what the film was nominated for an Academy Award for!  The Arctic scenes were obviously filmed on a soundstage.  At no time do you think they are at the North Pole.  The score is repetitive and thus boring.  The editing is sloppy as evidenced by footage of F-4s thrown in with the MIGs.

                The story was supposedly based on two actual incidents.  In 1959, an American surveillance satellite came down in the Arctic and was acquired by Soviet agents.  In 1962, the CIA in Operation Coldfeet searched an abandoned Soviet weather station at the North Pole.  The plot that evolved from these two boring incidents makes the film a Cold War curio.  It does not hold up well and recent talk of a remake is a head-scratcher.  Is Hollywood that bereft of originality?  Never mind. 

filmed on location at the North Pole (or on a sound stage)
                The movie is very different than the novel.  First, all of the names (including the sub) have been changed, for God knows what reason.  Second, several characters have been added.  The book does not have Vaslov and Angers.  Only Carpenter (as Jones is called in the book) comes aboard.  More importantly, the novel is a standard mystery set in the Cold War, whereas the movie is a Cold War espionage film. For this reason, the movie concentrates on events and characters on the sub and only uses the station as a site for the final military confrontation.  A major part of the book deals with the survivors of the fire at the station.  There are no survivors in the movie.  Speaking of pyrotechnics, the book has two disaster scenes on the sub.  The movie deftly recreates the plunge to crush depth, but omits the later fire that almost deprives the crew of its last vestiges of oxygen.  The biggest difference is the movie branches off into a trite Cold War confrontation for its climax.  There are no Soviet paratroopers in the novel.  MacLean concentrates on the who-dunit aspect of the story.  We even get the cliched gather-all-the-suspects-around-a-table scenario.

                It is hard to choose between the book and the movie.  The novel is not MacLean at his best and the movie is not one of the better MacLean adaptations.  I definitely enjoyed the book more.  As a fairly well done mystery, it does keep you wondering who the villain is.  And the revelation is plausible, although MacLean has to back-fill sheepishly to explain how two disasters (either of which would have sunk a real sub) weren’t meant to be serious.  There is also a lot more cat and mouse in the book.  The characterizations are more developed and several crew members are memorable.  The movie only cares about the main actors.  In its attempts to be an action/adventure tale, the movie has several laughable plot developments and builds to a ridiculous conclusion.   The movie may have been Howard Hughes’ favorite, but he was nuts.




  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. I don't recall ever hearing a submarine referred to as a ship except in this movie.

  3. The book did seem to me almost like an Agatha Christie murder mystery, the kind where Miss Marple gathers everyone in the drawing room and reveals that the butler did it. The movie needed a more spectacular climax, so I don't blame the film makers for making the changes that they did.

    The problem is, it just wasn't done very well. The Arctic studio sets are not convincing, and the scenes of the fighter jets are even more obviously fake. To make it worse, the scenes of the approaching MIGs seem to go on forever.

    Patrick McGoohan was familiar to American and British audiences for two TV series, "Danger Man" (US: "Secret Agent"), and "The Prisoner." In the book, the British spy was the protagonist who solved the case, while the American submarine captain was almost a clueless bystander. In the movie, it ends up closer to the other way around.

    1. Well said. Thank you. It will be interesting to see if the remake is closer to the book.

  4. I don't think this is for me. It sounded like an OK premise at first.

  5. Maybe the new one will be good, but either one is probably not your cup of tea.


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