Ice Station Zebra (1969) ****

John Sturges’ Alistair Maclean Cold War thriller, released within months of the more action-oriented Where Eagles Dare, twists and turns as Americans in a nuclear submarine and the Soviet Union race to the Arctic to retrieve a fallen space capsule containing a deadly secret. Thoroughly enjoyable hokum filmed in Cinerama 70mm with an earworm of a booming theme from Michel Legrand and mostly outstanding special effects.

Nuke sub Commander Ferraday (Rock Hudson), despatched from Scotland, and believing he is only on a last-gasp mission to the save scientists at a stricken weather station, is somewhat surprised to be forced to carry as passengers arrogant British secret service agent David Jones (Patrick McGoohan) and Russian defector Boris Vaslov (Ernest Borgnine), the former refusing to divulge the reasons for being on board. From the outset the vessel is afflicted by sabotage and the cruel ice. Tensions mount further as they reach the Ice Station Zebra weather station. Since so much depends on mystery in a MacLean thriller, any other revelations would amount to significant plot spoilers.

So while there’s more than enough going on among the various characters and a plot that shifts like a teutonic plate, it’s the submarine section that proves the most riveting, the dives exhilarating. The underwater photography is superb in part thanks to an invention by second unit cameraman John M. Stephens which could film for the first time a continuous dive. Whether the sub is submerging, surfacing, puncturing the ice or in danger of being crushed to smithereens, it’s the nuke that takes centre stage, a significant achievement in the days before CGI.

Not all the effects are quite so top-notch, there’s some dodgy back projection, and the Arctic rocks look fake, but in general, especially with streamlined control panels, jargon spat out at pace, and sub interiors that appear realistic, the result of two years research, it’s a more than solid job, delivering the core of a Saturday night action picture.

The absence of a giant Cinerama screen does not detract from the movie – though if you get the chance to see it in 70mm, as I once did, jump at it – because the Super Panavision cameras capture in enormous detail the bow spray, the massive icebergs, the gleaming intricacy of the controls, and even the sea parting under the weight of the sub creates astonishing visuals. And there’s something inherently dramatic in the commander slapping down the periscope.

Rock Hudson (Tobruk, 1967) is back to straightforward leading man duty after his departure into paranoia in Seconds (1966) and he is burdened with both a chunk of exposition and having to develop a stiff upper lip in response to the secret agent’s reluctance to take him into his confidence. He comes more into his own in the action sequences. The tight-lipped brusque provocative McGoohan (Dr Syn, 1963) clearly has a ball as mischief-maker-in-chief, keeping everyone else on tenterhooks. Ernest Borgnine (The Wild Bunch, 1969) invests his character with wide-eyed charm at the same time as the audience doubts his credentials. Jim Brown (The Split, 1968) has little more than an extended cameo as the Marines’ chief and in smaller roles you can also spot future Oscar-winning producer Tony Bill (Castle Keep, 1969) and veteran Lloyd  Nolan (The Double Man, 1967).

This was the second MacLean adaptation for John Sturges (The Satan Bug, 1965) and he keeps a tighter grip on proceedings, a $10 million budget ensuring he could make the movie he envisaged, part-thriller, part-high adventure with well-orchestrated slugs of action.

What Was On – London’s West End – Week Ending October 11th 1969

A total of 23 cinemas – comprising 22,000 seats – made up the roster for London’s West End, the most important cinemagoing location in the United Kingdom. All films had their British (occasional European or World) premiere here. Eleven cinemas could accommodate over 1,000 patrons, the biggest being the Odeon Leicester Square with 1,994 seats. At the other end of the scale and just round the corner from that Odeon was the Cinecenta, a multiplex of four tiny screens, highly unusual in Britain where the doubling and tripling of cinemas was in its infancy.

Although the roadshow was beginning to die the death in the United States, it remained very big business in London. the longest-running film was The Lion in Winter (1968) still taking £4,803 at the 600-seat Odeon Haymarket in its 40th week, equivalent to $11,046 (taking inflation into account that would amount to a colossal $83,248 at today’s prices). So you can see the advantage of letting films run and run in one location rather than shifting them out as soon as possible onto the circuits. Although roadshow tickets were more expensive than continuous performance, there were substantially fewer showings, a roadshow might be screened 15 times a week compared to 35-40 in continuous.

Top film of the week was aerial spectacular roadshow The Battle of Britain (1969) with an all star cast which took in £17,104 ($39,339) in its third week at the 1,654-seat Dominion. Setting a house record in its debut, Midnight Cowboy (1969), going down the continuous performance route at the 1,004-seat London Pavilion, knocked up £11,577 ($26,627).  Third, with £8,255 ($18,986) was Oscar-winning musical Oliver! (1968) in its 38th week at the 1,407-seat Leicester Square Theatre.

Sam Peckinpah’s controversially violent The Wild Bunch (1969), blown up to 70mm, came fourth at the 1,568-seat Warner Theatre with £8,091 in its seventh week. The sophomore outing at the Odeon Leicester Square of John Wayne and Rock Hudson in The Undefeated (1969) rammed home £6,094. Holding down sixth spot was the 70mm Cinerama disaster epic Krakatoa-East of Java (1968) with £5,091 in its tenth week at the 1,121-seat Astoria.

The Lion in Winter placed seventh. Eighth was a surprise package, Easy Rider (1969), racking up an extraordinary £4,493 in the tiny 272-seat classic Piccadilly. Omar Sharif as revolutionary Che! (1969) was next, first week at the 1,159-seat Carlton bringing in £4,475. Rounding out the top ten was The Fixer with £4,460 in its second week at the 1,366-seat Empire. The last three movies were all in continuous performance.

Reissues were surprisingly popular. Gone with the Wind (1939), also showing in 70mm, was in its 12th week – after a long run at the Empire – at the 1,360-seat Odeon Marble Arch while The Jolson Story (1946) starring Larry Parks played separate performances at the 1,394 Metropole in an eight-week run.

Also making their debuts were Cannes Award Winner Z (1969) at the 546-seat Curzon, The Royal Hunt of the Sun at the 713-seat Odeon St. Martin’s Lane, documentary Footprints on the Moon – Apollo 11 at the 570-seat Rialto, and in move-over The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie at the 550-seat Studio One.

Other long-runners were: Barbra Streisand giving an Oscar-winning performance in musical Funny Girl (1968) in its 38th week at the 760-seat Columbia; Where Eagles Dare (1968), also in 70mm, in its 30th week at the 412-seat Ritz, after a long run at the Empire; Ice Station Zebra (1968), filmed in 70mm Cinerama, in its 28th week at the 1,127-seat Casino Cinerama; Robert Aldrich’s The Killing of Sister George (1968) also in its 28th week at the 648-seat Prince Charles; and Oh! What a Lovely War (1969) in its 26th week at the 972-seat paramount.

Other films still showing include The Graduate (1967) in week fourteen at the 154-seat Cinecenta 4 and Goodbye, Columbus (1969)  in week five at the 820-seat Plaza.  

In those days the length of run a film racked up in the West End impacted on when it would go into general release. So if a film ran for six months in the West End, it could delay its circuit release for that length of time.

Movies were judged as much by length of run as box office. Except in the case of specialize product, a film achieving “legs” was seen as indicative of its future performance. There was  subtle marketing going on here – West End films were advertised every day in the London evening newspapers so if a film ran for six months that was six months of daily exposure of that picture for the rest of the city’s inhabitants who, unable to afford West End prices, were desperate for it to appear at their local cinema.

SOURCE: “Box Office Business,” Kine Weekly, October 11, 1969, p8.

The Blue Max (1965) ****

Quite how working-class George Peppard makes the transition from grunt in the trenches to Germany’s elite flying corps is never made clear in John Guillermin’s glorious World War One aerial adventure.

But he certainly brings with him an arsenal of attitude, clashing  immediately with upper-class colleagues who retain fanciful notions of chivalry in a conflict notorious for mass slaughter. He climbs the society ladder on the back of a publicity campaign designed by James Mason intent on creating a new public hero.

On the way to ruthlessly gaining the medal of the title, awarded for downing twenty enemy aircraft, he beds Mason’s playful – although ultimately treacherous – mistress Ursula Andress, for once given the chance to act. Mason’s aristocratic German somewhat redeems the actor after his appalling turn the same year as a Chinaman in Genghis Khan.

While the human element is skillfully drawn, it is the aerial element that captures the attention. The planes are both balletic and deadly. Because biplanes fly so much more slowly than World War Two fighters, the aerial scenes are far more intense than, say, The Battle of Britain (1969) and the dogfights, where you can see your opposite number’s face, just riveting. Recognition of the peril involved in taking to the sky in planes that seem to be held together with straw is on a par with Midway.

I was astonishing to discover not only was this a flop – in part due to an attempt to sell it as a roadshow (blown up to 70mm for its New York premiere) – but critically disdained since it is an astonishing piece of work.

Guillermin makes the shift from small British films (The Day They Robbed the Bank of England, 1960; Guns at Batasi, 1964) to a full-blown Hollywood epic with ease. His camera tracks and pans and zooms to capture emotion and other times is perfectly still. (Films and Filming magazine complained he moved the camera too much!).

The action sequences are brilliantly constructed, far better than, for example 1917, and one battle involving planes and the military is a masterpiece of cinematic orchestration, contrasting raw hand-to-hand combat on the ground with aerial skirmish. Guillermin takes a classical approach to widescreen with action often taking place in long shot with the compositional clarity of a John Ford western. Equally, he uses faces to express emotional response to imminent or ongoing action.

Peppard is both the best thing and the worst thing about the picture. He certainly hits the bull’s eye as a man whose chip on one shoulder is neatly balanced by arrogance on the other. But it is too much of a one-note performance and the stiff chin and blazing eyes are not tempered enough with other emotion. It would have been a five-star picture had he brought a bit more savvy to the screen, but otherwise it is at the top of the four-star brigade. Mason is at his suave best, Jeremy Kemp surprisingly good as the equally ruthless but distinctly more humane superior officer and, as previously noted, Andress does more than just swan around.

One scene in particular showed Guillermin had complete command over his material. Peppard has been invited to dinner with Andress. We start off with a close up of Pepperd, cut to a close up of Andress, suggesting an intimate meeting, but the next shot reveals the reality, Peppard seated at the opposite end of a long table miles away from his host.

The best scene, packing an action and emotional wallop, will knock your socks off. Having eliminated any threat from an enemy plane, rather than shoot down the pilot, Peppard escorts it back to base, but just as he arrives the tail-gunner suddenly rouses himself and Peppard finishes the plane off  over the home airfield, the awe his maneuver originally inspired from his watching colleagues turning to disgust.  

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Blue-Max-DVD-George-Peppard/dp/B007JV72ZO/ref=tmm_dvd_swatch_0?_encoding=UTF8&qid=1592640176&sr=8-2

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