Ice Station Zebra
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Ice Station Zebra

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Growing up in the late fifties it was a time of extreme tension. The growing animosities between the Untied States and the Soviet Union coined a new term, the cold war. Afraid of Russian bombs we built shelters; we kids practiced ducking under our flimsy ply wood desks in hopes of surviving the H-Bomb. One thing that did come out of this time of the cold war was it was the perfect, fertile ground for screen writers of the time. The movies where filled with cold war thrillers. While not all where great classics they genre is now mostly lost on the modern audiences. One of my personal favorites has always been Ice Station Zebra. Sure, it’s not the best film in the genre but I have enjoyed this flick for decades. Now, after all these years I can retire my well worn video tape and replace it with the DVD release. A Russian spy satellite crashes into the artic waste land and the film it contains is so important that the Russians and Americans race to recover the canister. The film itself is a bit of a McGuffin, we don’t really have to concern ourselves with the actual contents, and we just trust that it is of vital importance. Cmdr. James Ferraday (Rock Hudson) is dispatched in a nuclear submarine to get there first and recover the film at any cost. Along for the ride is a somewhat diverse crew assigned to his boat. There is Mr. Jones (Patrick McGoohan), the enigmatic British intelligence agent, Boris Vaslov (Ernest Borgnine) the Russian advisor and Captain Leslie Anders (Jim Brown) the commander of a Marine contingent there to provide a little extra muscle. Naturally, the tensions are not limited to those between the super powers, things in the tight quarters of the Tigerfish become explosive as the very determined personalities clash. In one of my favorite scenes Farraday notes that his men where trained for jungle combat but a bullet travels just as fast in the artic. Mr. Jones calmly notes that the bullet would travel slower there, ‘denser air you know’. Farraday is ready to attack the cocky Brit but seems to realize that Mr. Jones is far more deadly than he lets on. Its little memorable moments like this that makes this film a guilty pleasure for many of my age group.

The production values here are not the best when compared to other films in the genre and time period. Sure, the Russian paratroopers look like toy soldiers drifting down on a child’s table. The use of miniature models is primitive to say the least but there is a camp value to be had here. Those of the younger generation spoiled by modern CGI effects will find the special effects here almost comical. Just go with it, enjoy it for what it was intended to be, a fun, Saturday afternoon cold war flick. If you make an attempt to put your self into those trying times you will get a lot more out of the film. You should also forget about great cinema, this never was and never will be considered for any best of list. Still, the campy fun is there for your enjoyment. It’s a wonder that this film was nominated for an Oscar for special effects, since it was up against 2001 there really wasn’t much of a chance for a win that year.

Rock Hudson was a versatile and talented actor, capable of taking on any role from light romantic comedies to serious drama. Here, his talent is restricted by the script but professional that he was he gave is all to the project. He manages to portray a man sent on a difficult mission, doubtful of some of the command decisions forced on him yet devoted to doing his absolute best. In this fashion it would seem that Hudson could bring what he as an actor had to do into his character. For those that grew up when I did Patrick McGoohan is the definitive spy. With roles like Secret Agent, the Prisoner and even a spy turned murderer in a Columbo episode. McGoohan owns the title of master spy more than most of the actors that played James Bond. He is always cool and in control, possesses an uncanny diverse knowledge base and is certain to come out on top of any fight. Jim Brown was a football player who decided to break into films. He is physical imposing here and thankfully his dialogue is limited to about a dozen sentences. Ernest Borgnine is another excellent and talented actor that was mostly used as comic relief here. His Russian accent is dismal but again, think camp.

Looking at my film collection I discovered that John Sturges was one of my favorite directors. His illustrious resume included such definitive films as The Magnificent Seven, Bad Day at Black Rock, The Great Escape and even another camp flick, Marooned. Often nominated for awards but rarely the winner this director brought a touch of class to every single film he created. Here, Sturges uses his considerable talent to work within the restrictions the studio imposed on him. Since the special effects where far form special he concentrated on the situation to drive the film. He trusted his cast to perform as if this was the best film ever and the result was not great but sill enjoyable. He did what many modern directors have forgotten, the primary purpose of a film to draw the audience in and entertain them. He was also a director that fully understood how to use a wide screen format. He fills the frame with details that will take several viewings to catch them all. Sturges used the prevalent fear and discontentment of the audience to help create the proper mood for the film. The film was also nominated for its cinematography and this was deserved. The use of lighting and the camera work was excellent.

I would have to say that after decades of watching this film on an old VHS the DVD was great. At last there is an anamorphic 2.20:1 video of this film and although the print shows its age with some defects and the occasional fleck of white it held up rather well. The Dolby 5.1 remix is effective, a bit overdone in places but the six speakers combine to provide a realistic sound stage. The only real extra is a vintage making of featurette The Man Who Makes the Difference which is an interesting piece from a historical point of view. This is one to get and watch on a rainy Saturday afternoon.

Posted 12/26/04

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