Cdr. James Ferraday, played by Rock Hudson (Giant), is ordered to take his nuclear submarine, USS Tigerfish, on a rescue mission to Ice Station Zebra, a weather station located in the North Pole. Ferraday is also ordered to take a few passengers with him: a British civilian (Patrick McGoohan, TV’s The Prisoner), a Russian deserter (Ernest Borgnine, Marty), and a military man (Jim Brown, The Dirty Dozen). Ferraday discovers soon enough that nothing is as it seems.
Reaction & Thoughts:
Lavishly produced espionage thriller based on Alistair MacLean’s book, adapted to the screen by Douglas Heyes and Harry Julian Fink, and swiftly directed by veteran director John Sturges (Bad Day at Black Rock and The Magnificent Seven).
Compared to today’s spy films, which tend to be dark and nasty, Ice Station Zebra seems tame; like a Disney film for adults. It’s colorful, vibrant, and smooth as heck. Daniel L. Flapp’s (West Side Story and The Great Escape) silky cinematography is a huge plus. The movie was filmed in Cinerama — a process that used three projectors and a slightly curved screen — and unfortunately the film won’t ever be seen again the way it was meant to be seen. Ice Station Zebra did, however, look pretty awesome on my HDTV.
Michel Legrand’s (The Umbrellas of Cherbourg and The Thomas Crown Affair) truly majestic music score gives this story the necessary oomph. The elaborate sets have the proper mixture of realism and artificial bravado. You know you are looking at a sound-stage yet you can’ t help but be in awe of the great attention to detail — it’s pure Hollywood candy.
The sound & visual effects are astonishingly good (for 1968). I did notice a few cables here and there, but overall, this is as good as it gets in the pre-CGI days. Any other year the team of magicians would have won an Oscar for their work, but bummer, this was the year of Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece 2001: A Space Odyssey.
The plot is interesting. Ice Station Zebra was made at the height of the Cold War between USSR and USA and the movie captures well enough the post-Bay of Pigs tensions between the two superpowers. The movie also has an element of whodunit that would have put a smile on Agatha Christie’s face.
Ice Station Zebra is rather long — with overture & intermission it clocks at almost three hours — but I never developed restless leg syndrome. I’ve gotten impatient with far shorter films. That speaks volumes about the quality of the script and director Sturges’s steady hand (Sturges was always good at keeping the suspense alive). At times, Ice Station Zebra feels — I mean this as a compliment — like a Star Trek movie with a submarine instead of a starship.
Although not an actor-oriented movie, Hudson, McGoohan, Borgnine, and Brown, are very good. The strong cast also includes actor-turned-producer-director Tony Bill (The Sting and My Body Guard) as Lt. Russell Walker and Lloyd Nolan (The House on 92nd Street) as Admiral Garvey.
Conclusions & Final Thoughts:
The movie was not the huge hit MGM was expecting — it is quite possible that counterculture types wanted something a bit darker and less polished. Ice Station Zebra is old-fashioned in a good way. I think it’s an extremely well-made and highly entertaining thriller. Not as good as The Guns of Navarone, possibly the best Alistair MacLean movie ever, but fun nevertheless. Trivia alert: This was billionaire Howard Hughes’s favorite movie. Color, 150 minutes, Rated G.