Spy Time: Ice Station Zebra
Here I am, at Ice Station Debra, in the Sierra Nevada, ready to watch a film that I’d normally viewed during the heat of summer, not during the dead of winter.
Why during summertime?
Because the dry summer heat waves in the Central Valley of California can seemingly last forever. Even Newcastle, the Gem of the Foothills, that diamond-in-the-rough that just tip-toed into the Sierra Nevada foothills at 1,000 feet (with population 1,000) — attains triple digit-heat of 105-106 —while the Sacramento/San Joaquin Valley enjoys 110-115 degrees F.
During one of those the-furnace-has-been-turned-on events of the summer of 2006, I took a chance on viewing this vintage-classic film that stars a host of stars, all of them male: Ice Station Zebra.
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, MGM, was the studio underwriting this celluloid production in 1968. Directed by John Sturges, an action-and-suspense specialist; with a terse and flawlessly-paced screenplay by Douglas Hayes and Alan Julian Fink, Ice Station Zebra did not do well at the box-office in the America of the late 1960s. But it has aged extremely well, at least in terms of punchy dialogue and dramatic acting. And isn’t that what a spy thriller should be about?
The lush and vivid cinematography was created by veteran director of photography Daniel L. Fapp. The stunning images enormously compensate for some of the low-quality special visual effects; they have to. In 1968, those celluloid high-tech achievements were considered technically good. The under-the-water scenes were skillfully done. The sequences that portray “Ice Station Zebra,” though, were awfully awful. More on that cinematic disappointment later on. The power-packed drama of Zebra comes first.
For a long film, which clocks at 2 hours, 28 minutes, Zebra has but a few flagrant flaws, all of them brilliantly outweighed by action, suspense, sharp dialogue, aesthetically and precisely gorgeous landscapes, glorious mood music, and scene-stealing winter fashion!
According to Rock Hudson, his film role in Ice Station Zebra was his favorite. He plays Commander James Ferraday with consummate edge and ease. Hudson could take any line of dialogue and understate it with near-nuclear power. This fictional character is the steady hand at the helm of the control room of this atomic submarine. Hudson used his mildly sardonic, stoic handsomeness to marvelous advantage, providing a very strong counter-wall to the other actors, all of whom, even in minor roles, were astonishingly real in their make-believe parts. The entire casting was top-notch for this underwater super-power race to the North Pole.
Patrick McGoohan plays the seemingly unbreakable counter-counter-wall to the Hudson counter-wall. The armed rush to grab one roll of microfilm ferreted away somewhere at Ice Station Zebra is a clandestine chilly affair. “David Jones”, or, “Mr. Jones”, with his highly credible phoney name, is a force field of dry humor and exquisite clothing. He’s got the most distinctive, most expensive, enthralling, fur-bearing Arctic-wear on the Planet!
Mr. Jones exudes a capably concealed but barely contained fury. There’s more brawn than brain to Mr. Jones, and the Commander spies that truth right away.
The plot was based on actual events as depicted in the 1963 thriller spy novel of the same name by Scottish author Alistair MacLean. The Hollywood story line makes use of whatever it needs, for whenever it needs it, and tosses away the non-essentials. Those non-essentials were fundamental to the spy novel that consists of factoids and military events that took place at the real-life Drift Ice Station Alpha. That meteorological station was indeed constructed on an ice floe in the Arctic Sea. (I’ve not read the book, but my daughter has; the novel answers most of the unanswered questions regarding the Fateful Sabotage of the Torpedo Tube in the Sub.)
Not wanting to give the plot away, I will only state that the Cold War MacGuffin here involves a roll of microfilm, produced by a super-duper camera out-in-outer-space. That satellite “Box Brownie” somehow went out-of-orbit. The resulting pix taken are ones that the Soviets and the Americans and the Brits would kill to obtain, and some of them apparently do so. The mission of the nuclear submarine USS Tigerfish is thus top-secret and replete with danger, deadly deeds and derring-do. For me, the fascinating action of this film centers on the betrayal of a long-time comrade, and the trust that develops, albeit begrudgingly, between Commander Ferraday and Mr. Jones, a guy who is not at all likable, but his fashion sense is impeccable!
The anti-Russian Russian Boris Vaslov is richly performed by Ernest Borgnine. Ernie is one of my favorite actors; this role explains just about every reason why. He is cagey and cute, deceitful and honest, cuddly and cruel, all at the same time! His confrontations with Ferraday are cautiously calibrated. His confrontation with Captain Leslie Anders, portrayed with ruthless focus and steely energy by Jim Brown (multi-talented athlete and perhaps the greatest player in NFL history) is a scene that never gets boring or old.
The stand-off between Commander Ferraday and Soviet Colonel Ostrovsky is the climax, the turning point of a story that has already had several twists and tortured turns. Swedish actor Alf Kjellin portrays this Russian paratrooper commander with taut tension, but I find the characterization nearly stereotyped. The Americans stand with muscular tension on one side of the coveted thermos container, the Commies robotically poised on the other. Each commander had his role to play: Ferraday comes off as deviously but nonchalantly cool, calm, and collected, while Ostrovsky, who is supposed to be wearing the ultimate poker face, is cynically unaware that he does not hold all the cards.
The technical language is, at times, inaccurate, perhaps through intentional disregard for the accurate terminology. A submarine is a called a “boat”, not a ship, and yet that erroneous name is consistently employed. There must have been a decision made as to the implication of size. The submariners certainly did not need a bigger boat, but the sense of a “ship” is typically massive, commanding, authoritative, perhaps even unsinkable.
Mr. Jones has a uniquely explosive reaction when awakened from his “bunk” which, in the U.S. Navy is a “rack”. Somehow, the accurate nautical term does not conjure up the same auditory impact on-screen. “Bunk” sounds manly; “rack” denotes a womanly structural appeal.
The soundtrack was written and performed by Michel Legrand et son orchestre, and it is GRAND! If ever a melody fit the emotional tenor of bizarrely beautiful scenes, and these settings are the Arctic and the Ocean, it is magically produced by the softly stirring and sensual sounds of Monsieur Legrand in Ice Station Zebra.
The only huge demerits of Zebra are the technical visual effects that loom, all too obviously, from the use of the MGM sound stages during the final portion of the movie. The Arctic wasteland at the ice station, after the momentous Ice Storm had abated, was very visibly performed on a sound stage. Suddenly, the ferocious wind comes to an end — and we have DEAD AIR, people!
Unfortunately, this greatly-reduced sound of the sound-stage footage dove-tails with the zoom-zoom-zoom of the Soviet fighter jets en route to the Ice Station. Those minutes-ticking-away-maybe-toward-boomsky feel like forever.
The timing is all off. There are scads of continuity problems. The formations of those jets keep changing, not in form but in number! This too-contrived plot device of stalling for time in-the-air so that dramatic time on-the-ground can be effectively used — it’s tediously annoying. The technique gratingly mars the tension that moves the Movie and the Viewer toward the climactic scene. For me, this glide-path to the Climax is the most glaring defect in Ice Station Station.
Much earlier in the film, I am unable to watch the hokey scene where the crew members from the USS Tigerfish, chosen to form the reconn/search party, march into the headwind toward Ice Station Zebra. They suddenly encounter a very-fabricated crevasse-of-ice abyss. Some of the men fall in . . .Everyone survives, or so I am told!
Despite its flaws and faults, Ice Station Zebra is much more than the sum of its parts. As an adventure film with a strong spy undercurrent, it soars above any cataloguing of goofs and glitches. The acting is consistently superb. The direction is strong and steady, resolutely avoiding gimmicks and cheap shots. It’s a gift of a film-making from Hollywood, for a movie of this caliber to have been so masterfully achieved in 1968, a time when so much of the movie industry was in a complete free-fall in America. The plot is plausible enough that it, ahem, still holds water today, and stays afloat, decades after the end of the Cold War, and even more decades after the heat of the Cold War. The plot is probably more plausible now than it might have been in 1968.
My favorite pieces of purely delectable dialogue come from the scenes between Commander Ferraday and Mr. Jones. Those two thespians artfully and innately acted off of one another with compressed diction and drama that are spellbinding.
The battle for mental dominance, as to “who’s in charge”, is never fully decided by either man, although the victory, in the end, tilts heavily toward Commander Ferraday, the American who was a whole lot more informed than Mr. Jones had been led to believe. The natural friction between the military and the espionage racket would never be resolved, no matter what the war, or the nation. Those counter-irritants need each other for the point of compass to keep its bearings in any land in pursuit of protecting liberty.
McGoohan, born in Queens, New York, exhibited a persona so convincingly British, and of a superior class, that the Irish in him must have been fighting ferociously against every word that Patrick e-nun-ci-a-ted with utter style and grace. Hudson was a far grander actor than many of us knew, than he ever knew. His unabashed patriotism for America genuinely marked this performance as one of his best.
Ice Station Zebra is a film to be watched any time of the year. I happened to have first, and then repeatedly, enjoyed it during summertime. The outerwear was some of the most practical and innovative designed for a Hollywood film. But I am partial to parkas. Alpha Industries, a U.S. DoD contractor in Knoxville, Tennessee sells civilian-versions of those timeless American military jackets.
I own the midnight blue N-3B which is the first jacket that Alpha Industries produced for the U.S. military, just two months after the founding of this company in 1959. Midnight blue is the original vintage color (worn by Hudson), a standard option that was later changed to sage green and re-designed when the parka was adopted for use by all military services in the United States Department of Defense.
The McGoohan parka was not U.S. DoD, nor even standard-issue CIA. There do exist sublime versions of that coat, created in the post-post-Cold-War world of Russia —Mother Russia.
That custom-handmade-necessity can be purchased online from one particularly proud and politically-incorrect Family Business, located in Moscow. Their fur coats and accessories are all ethically-sourced through The Federal Agency for Forestry (Rosleskhoz).
According to Sergei Anopriyenko, Deputy Minister of Natural Resources and Environment of the Russian Federation, Head of the Federal Agency for Forestry, this federal executive body, (which I am sure runs as efficiently-as-clockwork), oversees:
“forestry issues—with the exception of the specially-protected nature reserves — along with providing government services and managing government property in this sphere.”
The Russian State Swamp works hard, overtime, no doubt, to fulfill the arduous and time-honored duty of population control of predatory critters. The coyote, though, is a species of predatory canine native only to North America. The McGoohan coyote jacket is thus created in Russia from ethically-sourced hides — from ethical sources in North America. The coyote pelts arrive in Moscow from Canada and the United States.
To Russia With Love!
В Россию с любовью !
I feel fairly confident that the Moscovites will send my coyote coat long before I spy the next pack of coyotes this winter on the edge my wooded property. They are piecing together the pelts as I type. Dear Husband is keeping a close watch on his retail emails from Moscow.
Trust but verify!