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.

In the News Sixty Years Ago: April 1961

HOLLYWOOD CASHING IN ON EICHMANN TRIAL  

With the upcoming trial of Nazi Adolf Eichmann dominating the media for weeks, and publishers enjoying a boom with titles on Eichmann and Hitler, and with Life magazine’s biggest issue so far in the year being one with Hitler on the cover, movie studios had at last wakened up to the opportunities. A Swiss documentary Mein Kampf was due to open as was Operation Eichmann and Stanley Kramer’s big-budget Judgement at Nuremberg with Spencer Tracy and Burt Lancaster heading an all-star cast. Also in the offing were a Hitler biopic from Allied Artists, Hitler’s Women, a movie based on John Hersey novel The Wall and French director Roger Vadim with an idea to update De Sade as a Nazi.

BRITISH STARS MAKE ‘EM LAUGH

At a time when the Steve Reeves musclemen pictures had dominated the foreign film market, nine British comedies had taken the U.S. by storm. While their box office figures were not colossal by U.S. standards, they were extremely hot compared to the numbers normally racked up at the American ticket wickets by British films. For the 1960 season the British beat all other foreign film contenders. A total of 135 British movies released generating $22.9 million in rentals, well ahead of the nearest rival Italy whose 116 pictures took in $12.2 million (rentals being what the studios received from the overall box office gross). Carry On Nurse was one of the hottest British comedies as well as The Mouse That Roared and I’m Alright, Jack both starring Peter Sellers, Alec Guinness in Our Man in Havana, and Ted Ray in Please Turn Over. Brigitte Bardot was single-handedly the biggest foreign attraction with eight movies on show.

KING AND I REISSUE FLOPS

Twentieth Century Fox had brought back The King and I (1956) in 70mm in its Grandeur format as a two-a-day roadshow at the upscale Rivoli in New York on March 23 only to discover that audiences would not bite and a week later it was shifted to “grind” (continuous performance). Meanwhile, Columbia was backing a revival of Picnic (1955) starring William Holden and Kim Novak, promising a new campaign and artwork.

FIRST PURPOSE-BUILT CINERAMA THEATER OPENS

Although the Cinerama phenomenon had been all the rage for nearly a decade, the movies had always been shown in specially-converted cinemas. Now the first purpose-built theater had opened, the Cooper, in Denver, Colorado, at a cost of $1 million with seating for 814.

TRIPLE NAME CHANGE FOR THE HUSTLER

The Robert Rossen movie featuring Paul Newman as a poolroom shark had already started filming in New York when it changed its title first to Stroke of Luck and then quickly to Sin of Angels and under that title – to confuse potential moviegoers – had snagged considerable coverage in Time, the New York Times and the New York Herald-Tribune before reverting back to the original title.

BARDOT BIOPIC

Although the French sex symbol had barely been a star for half a dozen years, she was already lining up a biopic to be directed by one of the leading New Wave exponents 28-year-old Louis Malle. Co-starring Marcello Mastroianni, it appeared as A Very Private Affair in 1962.

WB SHELLS OUT FOR CAMELOT

Six years before the Lerner and Loewe musical finally hit the screens, Jack Warner paid $1.5 million for the screen rights plus 25% of the net profits.

Sources: “New Nazi Beast Film Cycle” (Variety, April 5, 1961, p1); “British Humor Scores in the U.S.” (Variety, April 26, 1961, 1); “Hard Ducat Not For Reissue?” (Variety, April 5, 1961, p3); “Advert, Picnic” (Box Office, April 3, 1961, 10); “World’s First Theater Built Specially for Cinerama Opens in Denver” (Box Office, April 3, 1961, p28);  “Brave Young Director Faces Bardot Playing Herself in Her Own Biopic” (Variety, April 12, 1961, p1); “WB’s Camelot Buy” (Variety, April 12, 1961, p1).

Easy Rider (1969) *****

You could be forgiven for thinking that the movie’s main influences were the early Cinerama pictures that focused on extensive tracking shots of scenery (in this case, the open road) and unusual customs (ditto, alternative lifestyles, dope-taking etc) and Mike Nichol’s use of contemporary pop music in The Graduate (1967). But it also drew on the assumption, as did Hitchcock in Vertigo (1958) and Kubrick with 2001: A Space Odyssey a decade later, that a camera doing nothing can be hypnotic.

Selling a picture to the public and selling it to cinemas were two separate marketing skills. The easiest way to guarantee bookings for any film was to promote the box office figures through the trade press – as here in the British “Kine Weekly.” Columbia had cleverly booked the movie into one of the smallest cinemas in London’s West End where it was almost certainly guaranteed to break the box office record. But even the studio must have been taken aback by the way Easy Rider pulverized the previous record.

Message pictures were the remit of older directors like Stanley Kramer and Martin Ritt and films that had something to say about the human condition generally emanated from Europe and not low-budget efforts coming out of Hollywood. Easy Rider has a European sensibility, an almost random collection of unconnected episodes with no narrative connection to the main story, itself incredibly slight, of two mild-mannered dudes heading to New Orleans to see the Mardi Gras.

Road trips were not particularly unusual in American cinema but the form of previous locomotion was horse-related – westerns. The journey has been a central theme to movies. This is an 80-minute picture masquerading as a 95-minute one, a good fifteen minutes of screen time taken up with endless shots of Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper on bikes passing through the landscape, with a contemporary soundtrack as comment.

Unusually, it’s also a hymn to ancient values, heads bowed in prayer at meals as different as you could get, the Mexican family and the commune, a marching band playing “When the Saints Go Marching In” and the recitation of prayers in the cemetery.

Success in London was no guarantee that a movie would perform as well all over the country. Columbia continued to book it into smaller venues in the hope it would repeat the London experience of breaking box office records. When it did the studio took out another advert in Kine Weekly to let exhibitors know.

What marks the film out stylistically, perhaps enforced by the lean financing, is the sparing way it is told. The most dramatic scenes – the three murders – are filmed in shockingly simple fashion. There are often long pans along groups of characters. While innovative, the flash-cut flash-forward editing adds little to what is otherwise a very reflective film. Inspired use is made of natural sound, the muffled thumping of oil derricks at the cemetery, the soundtrack to one death is just the battering of unseen clubs by unseen assailants.

The dialogue could have been written by Tarantino, none of the confrontation or angst that drives most films, but odd musings that bring characters to life. At the beginning of the trip, Hopper and Fonda are welcomed wherever they travel, but towards the end resented, treated as though a pair of itinerant aliens. They entrance young girls but are vilified by authority, jailed for no reason except the threat to traditional values they apparently represent.

Elements not discussed at the time of release make this more rounded than you would imagine. The excitable Hopper, a nerd in hippie costume, is driven by the American dream of making money. The more reflective Fonda senses something is not only missing from his life but has been lost forever. He has the rare stillness of a top actor, face reflecting unspoken inner turmoil.

It remains an extraordinary film, a series of accumulated incidentals holding up a mirror to an America nobody wanted to acknowledge and the brutal climax no less powerful now.   

Of course, the Easy Rider soundtrack itself summons up memories of the era and it is worth listening to just by itself and you might even want to go all the way and listen to it in the original vinyl.

Below is a link for the DVD.

   https://www.amazon.co.uk/Easy-Rider-DVD-Peter-Fonda/dp/B00LTK2Z44/ref=sr_1_1?crid=YSG6SCL8QQF9&dchild=1&keywords=easy+rider+dvd&qid=1596660339&s=dvd&sprefix=easy+rider%2Caps%2C153&sr=1-1

Khartoum (1966) ****

You don’t have to look far for contemporary parallels in this absorbing drama.

A charismatic and clever military strategist the Mahdi (Laurence Olivier) inspires a holy war in the Middle East. Ruling global power Britain wants to avoid  “policing the world” and instead of sending in the army despatches in an unofficial capacity its hero of the day, the equally charismatic “Chinese” Gordon (Charlton Heston).

He is the do-gooder as man-of-action having quelled an uprising in China and destroyed the slave trade in Sudan, of which Khartoum is the capital. Offered £6,000 by local interests to become Governor of Sudan, he takes £2,000, “that’s all I need.”

But where a similar kind of hero, Lawrence of Arabia, was politically naive, Gordon is politically adept and much of the joy of this picture is seeing him out-maneuver British prime minister Gladstone (Ralph Richardson – compare this performance to his bumbling bore in The Wrong Box out the same year). Gordon’s ostensible task is to evacuate Egyptians from Khartoum. If he succeeds, Britain saves face, if he fails he takes the rap. Directed by British stalwart Basil Dearden (The Blue Lamp, 1950; Victim, 1961), the pictures cleaves closer to drama than spectacle.

I remember being quite bored by all the talk when I saw this as a twelve-year-old, but this time round found it completely absorbing, a battle of wits between Gordon and the Mahdi on the one hand and between Gordon and Gladstone on the othor. The action, when it comes, is riveting without the aplomb of Lawrence of Arabia, but audience interest is focused on the main characters.

Richard Johnson, removed from his Bulldog Drummond persona (Some Girls Do), is excellent as Gordon’s aide or, as he acknowledges, “Gladstone’s spy.”

This is a Cinerama picture (cue spectacular widescreen scenery) without the distracting Cinerama effects (a race downhill, a runaway train), a bold political drama poorly received at a time when Cinerama meant spectacular effects and much more action. Definitely worth a second – or first – look.    

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Khartoum-DVD-Charlton-Heston/dp/B000089AUD/ref=sr_1_1?crid=2WXSB64ZF7PIT&dchild=1&keywords=khartoum+dvd&qid=1592640053&sprefix=khartoum%2Caps%2C147&sr=8-1

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