Book into Film – “Ice Station Zebra” (1968)

Many liberties have been taken with the work of Alistair MacLean but there is little to match the arrogance of director John Sturges in deciding that the author’s original ending just wasn’t good enough. Setting aside the achievements of The Magnificent Seven (1960) and The Great Escape (1963), he was known for lapses of cinematic judgement, namely in switching completely the tone of The Satan Bug (1965) and assuming audiences shared his sense of humour with The Hallelujah Trail (1965).

According to Glenn Lovell, Sturges’ biographer, the director had “cringed” when presented with the Chayefsky screenplay, claiming the book had no “finish.” Closer, in Lovell’s words, to Agatha Christie than Ian Fleming. You have to ask if Sturges, or Lovell for that matter, had ever read Alistair MacLean’s astonishing tour de force of an ending.

The MacLean version climaxes in the submarine not on shore. And it takes to the ultimate the problems of confinement. You would have thought Sturges would have had little problem with the deadly incarceration of the MacLean climactic chapter given that had been a main element of The Great Escape, especially in the scenes with the claustrophobic Charles Bronson.

What Sturges passed up was what films like Das Boot (1981) later did so well – the sheer terror of being trapped underwater. MacLean’s book envisages the survivors of the fire at Ice Station Zebra rescued and returned to the submarine with the knowledge in the mind of David Jones (Patrick McGoohan in the film) that among them is a murderer, a Russian spy who caused the fire. The vessel is then subjected to further sabotage. A fire in the engine room causes the submarine to stop. That in turn causes the temperature to plummet, leaving the men in an “ice cold tomb.” Worse, they are running out of oxygen. Carbon monoxide is poisoning the atmosphere. In a short time a hundred will be dead. And to top it all, they have lost their bearings, the compasses don’t work, they are going round and round in a circle.

Can you imagine the possibilities? Absolute chaos. Not just thick acrid smoke everywhere, men strewn unconscious, the fire still burning, panic, terror. A submarine that was slowly becoming an underwater grave with still a killer on the loose.

Sturges could not imagine the possibilities. Perhaps he had not read the book either and Chayefsky had skipped through that part of the novel to get to the “trial,” the uncovering of the traitor that had been deemed too much like Agatha Christie. But The Guns of Navarone, one of the most successful movies of all time, had enjoyed a similar scene, when a surprise traitor was unmasked.

The ending Sturges slapped on the picture had its genesis in a couple of lines from the book where the British secret agent explained that Russian airplanes had come to the Arctic in the guise of helping the rescue but in reality looking for the film from the satellite. All the stuff about the new type of camera being stolen by the Russians and of film containing sensitive information about American missile sites needing to be recovered had come from the book. In the MacLean version, the traitor would dump the film out into the sea via the sub’s garbage chute but tagged with a floating device and a yellow marker so it could be picked up by a Russian vessel.

Instead, Sturges went for some kind of direct confrontation with the Russians, a shoot-out on the ice. It seemed a mighty odd decision, given the opportunities in 70mm Cinerama for a full-scale panic on board an immobilised submarine drifting to its doom.

In order to make his version work, Sturges had to draft in a squad of marines eventually led by Capt Anders (Jim Brown). The introduction of Russian defector Boris Vaslov (Ernest Borgnine) makes less sense, especially as, snooping around the submarine, he is obviously up to no good, but that might be for sound cinematic reasons since otherwise the traitor would only turn up once the movie reached Zebra and even then would need to come to the fore for some obvious reason.

Interestingly, the screenplay omits one element. Heading the Zebra Arctic operation is the older brother of the British secret agent, giving him a secondary reason for his mission, and the potential for emotional reaction on finding his sibling dead.

Sometimes screenwriters just seem to earn their keep by changing names for no apparent reason. So the book’s Commander Swanson becomes Ferraday (Rock Hudson) and British agent Dr Carpenter is renamed David Jones minus medical degree. All the initial sabotage comes from the fertile mind of the author and long before Tom Clancy, beginning with The Hunt for Red October, invented a brand-new publishing genre concentrating on military detail, MacLean reveals an extraordinary grasp of every detail of a nuclear submarine, the Arctic, the weather and what exactly might go wrong from a fire on board or should the vessel lose speed.

Neither would you recognise Rock Hudson in MacLean’s description of the submarine commander as “short, plump…(and) a pink cherubic face.” MacLean’s British agent is less arrogant and acerbic, keeps much more to himself, revealing his character at appropriate moments spaced through the book, than does the film’s David Jones. That Dr Carpenter, the narrator, knows massive amounts about everything means that he does not need to showboat like the filmic David Jones to prove he is in charge.

The book is a turbo-charged thrill ride. That the final piece of sabotage and its consequences last nearly 50 pages is proof of MacLean’s skill as a page-turner. Much as I enjoyed the film as it stands, it’s just a shame that Sturges did not follow the author into his astonishing climactic sequences.   

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