The Spy With Cold Feet: “Ice Station Zebra” (1968)

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Patrick McGoohan’s cryptic “Mr. Jones” may be a bit of a know-it-all, but his razor sharp eccentricity is one of the few pleasures to be had from John Sturges’ disappointingly frigid “Ice Station Zebra”, a movie desperate for additional touches of originality, but one that instead offers phoney movie star posturing as a substitution for genuine heroism.

MESSAGE FROM SWAIN COMMAND CENTER TO CODE NAME “READER”: THE FOLLOWING REVIEW CONTAINS SPOILERS WHICH MAY IMPERIL SUCCESSFUL COMPLETION OF YOUR MISSION TO SUBSEQUENTLY VIEW THE FILM WITHOUT PREJUDICIAL FOREKNOWLEDGE STOP IN THE CASE OF  HYSTERICAL HESITANCY AS TO WHETHER SUCH REVELATIONS WILL DAMAGE YOUR ABILITY TO VIEW THE FILM YOU ARE HEREBY INSTRUCTED TO WAIT VIEW THE FILM FIRST SWALLOW YOUR REQUISITE CYANIDE CAPSULE AND ONLY THEN READ THE FOLLOWING ANALYSIS STOP

                              CMDR. C. SWAIN—-ADMIRALTY OF CRITICAL OPERATIONS/C.S.R.

    “Ice Station Zebra”   (1968)

      There’s an interesting passage which opens Alistair MacLean’s novel Ice Station Zebra in which the British agent Dr. Carpenter considers the physical appearance of the captain of the nuclear submarine Dolphin Commander James Swanson, who is described as both “short” and “plump”, though throughout the book, he is repeatedly lauded in the highest degree as an exemplary example of leadership, intelligence and character. It is characteristic of Hollywood versions of almost any property by which a certain cosmetic level of expected physical representation (by way of years of studio artifice) that the same character (whose name has been inexplicably changed to Ferraday, as if that is more masculine- unless the producers were afraid that the reason for the book captain’s heft had something to do with an excess consumption of Swanson pot pies) be cinematically represented by the tall and lean Rock Hudson, confirming that true character in American movies is measured by a masculine physical template under which the most imperative quality of leadership, honor and courage is measured in matinee idol tooth gleam.

      This same general attitude toward manufactured elements of thrills and suspense are creakily in evidence throughout John Sturges’ film of “Ice Station Zebra” which retains a bare minimum of the novel’s narrative elements (a voyage to save trapped arctic scientists, a rescued satellite camera) while entirely abandoning the substance of every character and rewriting the plot with the elimination of all but two central incidents and jettisoning the twisting signatory MacLean plot maze which , in this case, is actually a whodunnit enlivened with Cold War undercurrents and extremely menacing locations of a uniquely unsettling isolation: again, the Polar Cap and a submarine traveling underneath it. Instead of the circuitous narrative filled with double-cross duplicity, suspect alliances, personal motives intermingled with those of national security and a ratcheting up of suspense through several episodes of sabotage which become almost catastrophic, screenwriter Douglas Heyes and an uncredited W.R. Burnett (unaccountably assisted by a screen story by Harry Julian Fink; never a good sign when the film is promoted as being based on an already existing published work) substitutes unnecessarily obscure directives for plot and disciplined procedure for behavior. Endlessly are we privy to the simplest orders being repeated down the chain of command which may be accurate in the functioning of a nuclear submarine, but it only bogs down an already deadly pacing of a story in which the greatest highlight of the first third of the film is the repetition of the diving process, complete with exterior submersion shots and Michel Legrand’s eager-to-be-full-of-testosterone score crashing over the audience more heavily than North Atlantic waves, desperately attempting to disguise that, so far, very little- if anything -has occurred.

To read the complete review, click the following link to: https://chandlerswainreviews.wordpress.com/nights-at-the-uptown-theater-washington-d-c-/

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About chandlerswainreviews

I've been a puppet, a pirate, a pauper, a poet, a pawn and a king, not necessarily in that order. My first major movie memory was being at the drive-in at about 1 1/2 yrs. old seeing "Sayonara" so I suppose an interest in film was inevitable. (For those scoring at home- good for you- I wasn't driving that evening, so no need to alert authorities.)Writer, critic and confessed spoiler of women, as I have a tendency to forget to put them back in the refrigerator. My apologies.
This entry was posted in books, Cold War, espionage, Film Reviews, Jim Brown, movie reviews, Movies, Reviews, writing and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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