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Ice Station Zebra

Ice Station Zebra
Warner DVD
1968 / Color / 2:35 anamorphic 16:9 / 148 min. / Street Date January 11, 2005 / 19.97
Starring Rock Hudson, Ernest Borgnine, Patrick McGoohan, Jim Brown, Tony Bill, Lloyd Nolan, Alf Kjellin
Cinematography Daniel L. Fapp
Art Direction George W. Davis, Addison Hehr
Film Editor Ferris Webster
Original Music Michel Legrand
Written by W.R. Burnett, Harry Julian Fink, Douglas Heyes from the novel by Alistair MacLean
Produced by Martin Ransohoff, John Calley
Directed by John Sturges

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

The late 1960s saw the Road Show extravaganzas winding down, especially after certain disastrous musicals. Along the way we were treated to more than a few movies that just seemed inappropriate to the format. Ice Station Zebra is one of these; it's big enough but plays like a sharp little espionage story that can't quite fill a 70mm screen for two and a half hours.

Alistair MacLean's name in action thrillers hit big in The Guns of Navarone but never really paid off again. Although the participation of ace director John Sturges promised better things, Ice Station Zebra comes off as weak in story, casting and even in production values. It tends to be one of those films Savant is ready to see again every few years, but by the halfway mark, I remember why it fizzles out. Many viewers won't be as critical.


Sub Commander James Ferraday's Tigerfish is sent on a secret mission to the arctic, with the tight-lipped secret agent David Jones (Patrick McGoohan) not saying why. On the way they pick up another supposedly friendly agent, Boris Vaslov (Ernest Borgnine) and a platoon of Marines led by Captain Leslie Anders (Jim Brown) and Lt. Russell Walker (Tony Bill). Only then does Ferraday find out that they're racing to a remote weather outpost, to beat the Soviets to a crucial spy satellite.

1968 was the year of 2001: A Space Odyssey but MGM had other big-screen attractions to bring people into the cities for Road Show engagements. Ice Station Zebra was a highly-anticipated action thriller. It had a stellar cast that included top-draw names plus cool TV favorite Patrick McGoohan as a spy on a super-secret mission. We saw the ads, looked at the fancy Original Soundtrack album in the record bins, and were primed for something big.

Unlike the previous year's You Only Live Twice, Zebra opens with some outer space special effects so good, Stanley Kubrick's team might have done them on a weekend's break to help out. A satellite comes down off course in the arctic, and 'the free world's' spy apparatus dispatches Rock Hudson's submarine on a secret mission. So far so good - combining an espionage story with all that naval hardware is a refreshing switch, and the first half of the film is an engaging voyage adventure decorated with dazzling 70mm shots of the nuclear sub Tigerfish coursing northward through rough seas. The action on board is realistic and the details engaging. The addition of Jim Brown's soldiers raises our anticipation for an exciting battle. It's a little bit like a modern version of King Kong - an exciting journey into the unknown, with plenty of adventuresome personnel to make it interesting.

Rock Hudson plays his part low-keyed and patient, a quality needed when Patrick McGoohan, the show's best asset, comes aboard. McGoohan's spy is the plum role, the only wild card in the deck. He makes the most of it by acting cagey and avoiding any direct talk about his mission. While most of the other characters are playing their military roles by the numbers, McGoohan is more likely to be mumbling to himself hunkered over a cup of coffee laced with booze, or reflexively drawing a gun when surprised in his cabin.

The voyage is the best part of the movie. The footage of real naval vessels on the high seas looks great, and the special effects of the Tigerfish creeping under the northern ice pack are expertly done. The much-later Hunt for Red October had to back-date itself to clarify its cold-war scenario, but Zebra was made right in the middle of the Vietnam conflict when tensions between the super powers were at their highest. In January of 1968, North Korea seized the American spy ship Pueblo in an incident that some thought might set off a war. It all seemed a bizarre replay of comic-book ideas from Sam Fuller's Hell and High Water from 1954.

Ice Station Zebra seems to be headed into exactly the same waters, and the excitement comes to its highest point in a scene where the Tigerfish has trouble breaking up through the ice. After a sabotage attempt that almost sinks the ship, McGoohan's spy sits shivering and frustrated. He ends a pointed rebuke to Hudson by unexpectedly pounding his fist on a table, a theatrical gesture that really puts a jolt into the audience. It ends up being the most violent action in the movie, though.

At the intermission break, I remember rushing out to get popcorn all prepped for an exciting second act. Instead, Ice Station Zebra becomes a small-scale thriller with a few surprise twists that aren't that surprising. The final confrontation with the Russkies is a huge disappointment in that it turns into a mostly static standoff between a lot of men in parkas. Nothing much happens. It's perfectly understandable that the film should work out this way. The audience would have liked to see Sturges do one of his giant gun battles a la The Magnificent Seven, but that probably wasn't a good idea, considering the state of world affairs.

Just the same, we're left with a standoff that plays like something from a lowbudget TV show, a pacifist alternative that someone like Jessamyn West might have dreamed up. The cartoonishly sinister Soviet commander is fooled by a silly switcheroo game with the disputed satellite gizmo, a ploy repeated at a much more insulting level in the later Thatcher-era James Bond movie For Your Eyes Only.  1

The disappointing second half of Ice Station Zebra wouldn't be so bad if the physical production were better. As soon as the armed soldiers leave the Tigerfish they step into truly phony stage-bound sets. The ice floe is a uniformly white and blue expanse dotted with conveniently uniform little outcroppings of ice. Fake blown snow and superimposed optical snow add to the artificiality. Visibility remains excellent, nobody has frost on their breath and everything is lit as if this were a Doris Day movie. Likewise, the arrival of Russian jets is covered by some supremely fake angles of static models locked in front of dizzying views of arctic scenery speeding by. In other words, the visual end of the movie falls on its face.

The only real excitement after the troops hit the ice are some nifty sub maneuverings and a good bit borrowed from mountain-climbing movies. The soldiers tumble into a crevasse between drifting blocks of ice that threaten to close up and crush them.  2

McGoohan is interesting and Rock Hudson makes for a congenial captain, but the rest of the casting doesn't pay off very well. Ernest Borgnine never impresses as the friendly Russian spy, simply because he's too familiar. Jim Brown gives it his best, but he's just not actor enough to make his tough Marine character work. Tony Bill's young officer has too predictable a fate; in fact, all three of them are trapped in cornball plot twists that aren't particularly enjoyable.

As if acknowledging that it has turned out to be a dud, Ice Station Zebra ends with an abrupt cut back to the Tigerfish galumping through the waves to the majestic Michel Legrand score, as if the filmmakers were eager to get it all over with as soon as possible. It's too bad, as the film has everything needed for a satisfying adventure. It's still not a bad movie, exactleeee ... but I remember the 1968 audience I was with feeling more than a little let down.

Warners' DVD of Ice Station Zebra looks terrific, as sharp and crisp as it did on screens in Super Panavision 70mm in 1968. We expect new movies to be pristine on disc but it's a fine thing when the majors take the time to spiff up their older titles as well. Action films like Zebra seem to get the nod first; in the case of Warners I hope the practice soon reaches down (or up) to the likes of dramas such as Far From the Madding Crowd and Ryan's Daughter.

The audio has good separation and fans of Michel Legrand's expansive score will appreciate the inclusion of a full overture and inter'acte. The extras are a couple of trailers and a short subject called The Man Who Makes a Difference. It's about the cameraman who takes a 70mm camera on board a real Navy submarine to get the film's impressive surfacing and submerging shots.

Savant was provided only with a check disc and so cannot comment on the packaging. As of 1/8/05 there was no entry for the title at, an interesting oversight that I would imagine has to be cutting into preorders for the disc.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Ice Station Zebra rates:
Movie: Good
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: trailers, short subject The Man Who Makes a Difference
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: January 6, 2004


1. In the Bond movie, the Russian leader and 007 are ready to shoot each other over a Lektor-like decoding device developed by the British. Bond tosses it off a cliff, and the Russian illogically announces that since neither side has it, the balance of detente has been maintained. The standoff ends peacefully. The whole scene is utter nonsense because the Brits have plenty of these decoders already and have won just by keeping this particular one from falling into enemy hands. The Thatcher-Reagan idea of fairness always means we win, with all the marbles.

2. Unfortunately, the crevasse scene also doesn't make a lot of sense. The crack goes down twenty or thirty feet, after it has been established that the ice in the vicinity is much thinner - the Tigerfish breaks through in two places by punching up through pieces only three or four feet thick.

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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