Wednesday, August 24, 2005

It Came from the Library DVD Shelf! Ice Station Zebra

A big, robust epic, Ice Station Zebra handily employs two extremely cinematic elements, submarines and the Arctic snowcaps. I suppose some modern viewers might not be able to get past the antiquated Cold War plotline, but save that, this is an extremely good espionage/action thriller.

Nuclear sub commander Rock Hudson receives covert orders to conduct a rescue mission at the titular British research station, which has suffered some undetermined sort of disaster. However, the actual objective is to recover a MacGuffin—like it matters what it is—that the Russians are also after. Thus a spook named “Jones” (Patrick McGoohan—Yay!) is along for the ride, as well as a squad of marines led by a spit and polish captain played by ex-footballer Jim Brown. Earnest Borgnine is also onboard as a cartoonishly avuncular Russian now working for our side. Or is he? Needless to say, there’s a double agent lurking around somewhere, and part of the suspense is trying to figure out who it is.

The stuff on the submarine is fabulous. There’s a great long sequence where the boat navigates perilously under the ice cap—those scenes must have looked dynamite up on a big screen—and some ill attempts at smashing up through the ice. An act of sabotage also ends up threatening the boat. The action isn’t ludicrously jacked up the way it would be today (and it doesn’t have to be), which serves to make it all the more effective.

Once the Ice Station is reached, the search for the MacGuffin comes to a head as the traitor plays his hand. The arrival of a large number of Soviet paratroopers then threatens to really escalate the situation. In the end, we get one of those cynical status quo resolutions so popular in Western spy movies. One wonders if Soviet cinema was quite so oriented towards such even-steven endings.

Hudson, not exactly an actor with a great deal of range, is perfectly cast here as the steady and implacable sub captain. And, as I’ve noted before, I could watch Patrick McGoohan all day long. His appearance here follows his classic spy shows Danger Man and The Prisoner, and his character is decidedly less upright than his protagonists in those series (or, as in generally assumed by buffs, protagonist singular). Moreover, the guy is a none-too closet alcoholic. He’s obviously a pro, but the strain of his work in the shadow is starting to get to him, and one wonders how many more missions he’d have in him after this one. In any case, watching McGoohan and Hudson circle each other with the natural antipathy of the military man and the spy is engrossing.

Compared to recent, pumped up sub flicks like Crimson Tide, the long sequences on the sub here seem entirely naturalistic. We actually can believe we’re watching a crew go about its paces—thankfully, nobody feels the need to explain to the audience what all the various bits of technical jargon mean—and not watching a movie about a submarine featuring a host of winsomely colorful characters. Indeed, there’s but one truly, horribly obvious cliché employed here, but the film was otherwise so straightforward that I didn’t even see it coming, and only was annoyed in retrospect. (I imagine most people won’t fail to detect it, however; it’s really in your face.) Other than that, though, the sub stuff is entirely and delightfully credible.

At 148 minutes, the film was considered long enough at the time of release (1968), to be afforded an intermission. Today films routinely run that long, but here the running time adds to a sense of scale rather than just butt fatigue.


At 11:58 AM, Blogger Marty McKee said...

I used to watch this on TV a lot when I was a kid, simply because McGoohan was in it, and I loved THE PRISONER. It's pretty stodgy stuff with too much chatter, and the soundstage "Arctic" never looks real to me. I ought to watch it on DVD, since I've never seen it widescreen.

At 12:27 PM, Blogger Ken Begg said...

I agree that the landbased Arctic scenes look pretty dodgey. However, the stuff with the sub under the ice pack, at least to my eye, was pretty slick.

The widescreen aspect definately helped.

And yes, McGoohan. Along with Andre Braugher and Robbie Coltrane, one of the screen's most fascinating thinkers.

Man, I really wish Disney had released his Dr. Syn stuff, as they were scheduled to do like five years ago.

At 2:09 PM, Blogger baby copernicus said...

This must've been after MERLIN'S MAGICAL SHOP OF WONDERS when Borgnine was slumming.

Rock Hudson! Pshaw!

At 2:29 PM, Blogger Ken Begg said...

Yeah, to think that the Airwolf guy would end up in something like Ice Station Zebra...

I like Borgnine, but he's the schtickiest Russian this side of Brian Keith in Meteor.

At 7:40 PM, Anonymous tam1MI said...

I could watch Patrick McGoohan all day long

It has always amazed me that McGoohan did not get more acting work than he did over the years. He was equally as memorable as a hero, anti-hero, or villian, he held the screen easily as a leading man and always lent an extra punch as a character actor. Yet, mention his name to someone who isn't a die-hard movie buff, and you'll probably get a response along the lines of, "Oh, is he the guy who played young Obi-Wan Kenobi?"

It is to make one weep.


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