Ice Station Zebra (1968)



John Sturges directs Ernest Borgnine and Patrick McGoohan in this loose but enjoyable Alistair MacLean adaptation. WB UK R2 DVD.

The Film

"The pressure gauge fell farther and still farther.
I knew now that nothing could save the Dolphin..."

Alistair MacLean - Ice Station Zebra

On the floating Arctic ice, a British weather station named Zebra has been sending out distress signals. The US Navy sends their best submarine crew, lead by James Ferraday (Rock Hudson) from Scotland up to the Arctic circle but there appears to be more to hand than just saving lives as a whole crew of US Marines are loaded aboard, along with an enigmatic British agent (Patrick McGoohan) who seems to have his own agenda. Mid-Ocean they are called to a rendezvous point with a helicopter which offloads an enthusiastic Russian defector (Ernest Borgnine) and a Captain for the Marines (Jim Brown). As they attempt to breach the dangerous ice and reach the station, sabotage is discovered on board...

Adapted by television writer Douglas Heyes, Ice Station Zebra takes only a light reference from MacLean's classic novel. Although the opening is similar, by the time we reach the eponymous station the story has taken leave of its source for good. Fortunately Heyes does retain that familiar MacLean mystery atmosphere and towards the climax provides a twist of which the Scottish author would have been rightly envious. As a film in its own right, Ice Station Zebra is a very effective thriller building its tension from the start, when it becomes clear that we are not going to find out what is really going on or who is really who. The emphasis throughout on the select group of lead characters helps to build them up and in turn, their mystery. A few more light-hearted moments keep the film from becoming overly grim but for the most part it is very serious and ratchets up the tension powerfully - the scenes of the submarine in the ice and the dramatic climax are genuinely tense. It all builds up to the inevitable showdown and ends well, handling the exposition nicely and avoiding leaving plot holes or becoming too wordy.

Director John Sturges had already handled the chores on the earlier MacLean adaptation The Satan Bug (1965) and does a similarly good job here too, although that film's wonderfully minimalist atmosphere is impossible to retain in this much larger production. The submarine scenes are very well realised and there is some highly effective use of models and specially filmed sequences (no grainy stock footage here) for the exteriors. Unfortunately the Arctic is obviously set-bound and while the sets are certainly well designed they can never capture the authenticity of a production like John Carpenter's The Thing (1982), there is also some very poorly matched stock footage in a later scenes as flying planes blatantly change in type and number between close-up models and long-shot stock shots. A real pity that such a mistake would slip through after all the effort of the earlier scenes. Fortunately the always reliable composer Michel Legrand gives the film a strong score, particularly in the underwater scenes.

Rock Hudson is top billed as the submariner and really suits the role, his clean-cut all-American persona being ideal for the part (although he is quite the contrast to the short, plump figure MacLean describes). Danger Man star Patrick McGoohan makes a strong appearance as the British agent with a wonderfully condescending attitude towards Hudson and playing up his British accent for all its worth. Ernest Borgnine would not seem the obvious choice to play a Russian defector but gives the role all he can and is quite convincing. Football star Jim Brown gets one of his most in-depth performances here and is simply superb as the enigmatic Marine Captain, his impenetrable fašade giving nothing away.

Ice Station Zebra is certainly one of MacLean's very best and although it provides little more than loose inspiration for Douglas Heyes' script the film does a very good job on its own as a dramatic Cold War thriller with a superbly tense and unpredictable climax. John Sturges does a good job but is a little let down by the set-bound Arctic scenes and lazy stock footage shots later on. The cast are all superb in their roles. Highly recommended to thriller fans, MacLean fans might be put off by the changes but will probably find a lot to enjoy here.

In Brief
Anyone famous in it? Rock Hudson - A popular American star of the 1950/60s, star of Western classic Bend of the River (1952)
Ernest Borgnine - A hard working Hollywood actor, best known as star of Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch (1969)
Patrick McGoohan - The British star who made his name in the Danger Man and The Prisoner TV series
Jim Brown - a former NFL player, considered one of the very best, he had a rather forgotten cinema career.
Directed by anyone interesting? John Sturges - a legendary American director behind a number of classic films including Bad Day at Black Rock (1955) and The Eagle Has Landed (1976) as well as the earlier MacLean film The Satan Bug (1965).
Any gore or violence ? A few fight scenes but nothing vivid.
Any sex or nudity? None
Who is it for? Highly recommended to MacLean collectors and generally recommended to all thriller fans.


The DVD
Visuals Original Aspect Ratio - 2.20:1 anamorphic widescreen. Colour.
The print is stunning with barely a hint of damage and only the mildest grain.
Audio English 5.1 surround - sounds very good throughout.
Italian and French dub tracks.
Subtitles English, English HOH, Italian, Italian HOH, Arabic, Dutch and French
Extras The disc includes:
  • The Man Who Makes a Difference - a contemporary featurette about the film's second unit photographer John Stevens, responsible for the submarine shots and the earlier film Grand Prix (1966). Very interesting and includes behind the scenes footage. English, anamorphic widescreen. (7 minutes)
  • Original theatrical trailer
  • Bonus trailers for Bad Day at Black Rock (1955) and Giant (1956)
Region Region 2 (ALL) - PAL
Other regions? Available on Blu-ray from WB in the US. An identical DVD available across Europe and Australia.
Cuts? Fully uncut, original Cinerama print with the Overture, Entr┤acte and Exit music and screens. English language print.

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All text in this review written by Timothy Young - 12th May 2008.
Text from this review not to be used without authorization.

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