Today we reminisce about
Ice Station Zebra (1968)
Directed by John Sturges
Starring: Rock Hudson, Ernest Borgnine, Patrick McGoohan, Jim Brown
This film has two parts complete with a musical overture, an intermission, an entr’acte and exit music.
The opening scenes show a satellite floating through space that is slowly making its way towards Earth for re-entry. It is being tracked by both the United States and Russia. As the satellite enters the Earth’s atmosphere, it breaks apart with the nose falling to the ground in a place that has an extremely cold climate. Conveniently enough, someone is there to retrieve an unidentified (for now) object that was carried in the satellite’s nose.
In the meantime, U.S. Naval Captain Jim Ferraday (Hudson) is enjoying a drink in a pub located where he has been stationed in the Scottish Highlands. He receives a phone call that prompts him to leave and meet with a high-ranking Admiral. Without getting into too many specifics, the Admiral assigns Capt. Ferraday and his men aboard the U.S.S. Tigerfish submarine to go on a rescue mission to the North Pole. They are to aid the survivors who have radioed for help at a British civilian weather station named “Ice Station Zebra”. Any other details are considered as classified.
Tigerfish is prepared for the trip by Capt. Ferraday and his crew, also accompanied by a squadron of Marines as well as a member of British Intelligence, Mr. David Jones (McGoohan), working for the United States. Jones is an unusual character who is a brilliant mind but also someone who drinks too much and has the habit of sleeping with a gun. He also remains elusive regarding the reasons for him being on board. Later, two other men join the expedition: Russian-born defective Boris Vaslov (Borgnine) and Marine Captain Anders (Brown). Their arrival is sudden and also without explanation, leaving Capt. Ferraday sceptical of their presence.
As the submarine gets closer to its destination, it rises up from the depths of the sea towards the surface. The ice from the icebergs above them is quite thick but Capt. Ferraday orders the sub to try penetrating the ice bank. After several unsuccessful attempts, Capt. Ferraday decides to use torpedoes to destroy the iceberg blocking their path. Disaster occurs when water starts rushing through a torpedo valve that was normally supposed to have been shut from the outside. The massive amount of water and its extra weight start making the submarine sink quite rapidly. Mr. Jones is able to fix the problem in the nick of time before the submarine risks crashing violently on the bottom of the sea.
It does not take long to deduce that someone aboard the ship committed sabotage. Mr. Jones suspects Capt. Anders but trusts Vaslov who has been screened and approved by the CIA and FBI. Capt. Ferraday does not rightfully blame anyone though he remains suspicious of everyone. He is more focused on breaking though a recently spotted thin piece of ice which they end up doing successfully. A part of the men led Capt. Ferraday make their way onto the ice to start searching for the crew of Ice Station Zebra.
The men eventually discover the camp and start questioning the survivors who are left behind, most of whom are unable to provide any useful information. It is obvious that many of the tents of the weather station had been deliberately set ablaze, including one that contained the bodies of several elite members of the Zebra team. Some of these men had been undercover operatives from both the United States and Russia. Mr. Jones finally reveals to Capt. Ferraday that Ice Station Zebra had been used as a front for the Russians who wanted to recuperate a reel of film that had been contained in the nose of the fallen satellite. Pictures had been taken of American missile bases, which they wanted, and also of Russian installations, which they did not want. The Russians were desperate to get a hold of the film before anyone else, especially since they had secretly implanted it without anyone’s knowledge.
Where is the much sought after reel of film to be found? Was the person who committed sabotage on the Tigerfish ever caught and identified? Will all of this lead to a conflict between the Americans and the Russians?
This is usually not the genre of film that appeals to me but I was intrigued to watch it after discovering that it was Howard Hughes’ favourite film. According to several sources citing the recollections of Hughes’ aides, the reclusive and highly eccentric billionaire watched Ice Station Zebra on a continuous loop in the months preceding his death. This goes without mentioning the countless other times he watched the film including when he ordered local Las Vegas station WLAS (which he owned) to show the film whenever he so desired. As I was watching Ice Station Zebra myself, a part of me tried to view it from Hughes’ vantage point as to understand why he was so fascinated with it. I did manage to see why it was appealing to him at the same as I found out that the film itself is quite entertaining.
Most of the film’s action takes place aboard Tigerfish and military protocol language is interwoven in the script. The characters generally keep their distance from one another, remaining very serious in their roles as military men. Although Hughes had not served in the military, he had an unquenchable passion for flying and worked closely with some military branches as a result. His aviation experiments nearly cost him his life and although he lived through some terrible crashes, his body would be in poor shape for the rest of his life. Watching scenes of a military mission probably not only struck his personal interest but also brought back good memories. He may have even thought that the threats described in the film were very real, frightening yet mesmerising him at the same time. Unfortunately for Hughes, he suffered some brain injuries in these accidents which left him with paranoia. There is a good chance that he took Ice Station Zebra a little more seriously than even the biggest conspiracy theorists out there.
An added feature that made the experience feel more real was the way in which the movie was filmed. Award-winning cinematographer Daniel L. Fapp used a widescreen process called Cinerama which was similar to Cinemascope. Complimenting this technique was advanced underwater filming technology that captured Tigerfish as it sailed on the water all the way to it travelling beneath the water’s surface. One can only imagine how impressive these images were to audiences viewing the film on the big screen. Since Hughes had his own personal cinema with a considerably-sized screen and sound system, he certainly got the most of the experience. The re-mastering of the film in high definition on Blu-ray makes these special effects all the more life-like. Undoubtedly, Hughes would have been even further immersed in the film had he lived to see it this way.
Oddly enough for a military-themed action film, there were a few notable Film Noir touches in the beginning of the film. For example, Capt. Ferraday is called upon when it is very dark and foggy outside. He is wearing a trench-like coat through no side-tipped hat. 🙂 There is no telling what time of night or early morning it is. When Capt. Ferraday finishes talking with the Admiral, they both exit their building and head into a shadowy alleyway with only a lamppost above their heads to provide illumination. I think that the filmmakers used this tactic to enhance the mystery surrounding the mission as well as the overall strange, unexplained circumstances. Another instance of Noir influence was the car in which Mr. Jones arrives. It is a gangster-type limousine that is most definitely not of the times in late 1960’s Great Britain. When it comes to identifying the passenger in the car, a flashlight is shone on to Mr. Jones’ face rather than just allowing him to exit the vehicle. Again, this heightens the suspense.
The general feeling of the film is enjoyable. It is obvious that certain parts were filmed on a soundstage though it easy to forgive this imperfection because the effects are quite good. Some of the scientific instruments are boxy and stereotypically kitsch but luckily this is no major offence. One thing that I did appreciate was the angles used in certain shots, such as when Capt. Ferraday walks through the submarine. Since the tip of the vessel has been flooded and weighs more, it tips the body forward. As Capt. Ferraday walks down, it is obvious that he is on a decline. He even attempts to stop himself from automatically running down the slant by making his footsteps heavier. I got the impression that the actors really understood their working environment which helped them appear even more natural in their roles. The only real disappointment I have is the ending, which I found to be terribly anti-climatic and almost cheesy. Essentially, I felt let down after such a long and momentous build-up that fell flat.
By the late 1960’s, Rock Hudson’s career was growing stagnant and some critics considered him to be the most overpaid movie star in Hollywood. A good deal of the films that he had done in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s had him acting a leading man in light-hearted comedies for which Rock himself did not particularly care. Ice Station Zebra came an important time in “making or breaking” his future in motion pictures. The film did well and was a box office hit although it was hard to offset the extraordinarily high production costs, resulting in an insignificant profit for MGM. Nonetheless, audiences reacted positively to the film and Rock had a success under his belt. Rock would not appear in a great number of films during the 1970s through the early 1980’s up until his death. In 1969, he starred in a well-received Western alongside John Wayne called The Defeated and the following year in a more controversial one called Hornet’s Nest.
Like any other Rock Hudson picture, it is a sheer pleasure to watch him on-screen in Ice Station Zebra. His commanding voice and impressive stature fits the mould of a Navy Captain perfectly. Let’s just say that Rock in a cap and military-style jacket is pretty darned great, not to mention him in full uniform. He was around 42 years old when he shot the film and still looked very much in his prime. His investment in the film was obvious because the delivery of his lines sounded very natural and you could tell that he really enjoyed this change of film style. The character of Jim Ferraday was quite a serious fellow who followed orders but who also always had eyes in the back of his head.
Something I really admire about Rock was his professionalism in always giving his best in a performance whether or not he liked the material. His good looks initially draw you in though you stay for the quality of the person. There was really no one like else like him and there will never be a replacement. He was an extraordinary person, marvellous thespian, and an icon for so many of us. The world became a sadder place the day he left us so prematurely though he left behind much happiness for those of watching his films and keeping his work alive and well.