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.   

Behind the Scenes – “Ice Station Zebra” (1968)

Director John Sturges was not flying quite as high as when he had greenlit The Satan Bug. Since then two films had flopped – big-budget 70mm western The Hallelujah Trail (1965) and Hour of the Gun (1967). Two others had been shelved – Steve McQueen motor racing epic Day of the Champion and The Yards of Essendorf. But his mastery of the action picture made him first choice for Ice Station Zebra.

Independent producer Martin Ransohoff (The Cincinnati Kid, 1965) had snapped up the rights in 1964, initially scheduling production to begin the following spring. He financed a screenplay by Paddy Chayefsky (The Americanization of Emily, 1964). Judging by later reports MacLean appeared happy with the screenwriter’s approach, especially after being so annoyed with the way Carl Foreman had appropriated The Guns of Navarone. Ransohoff put together a stellar cast – The Guns of Navarone (1961) alumni Gregory Peck and David Niven plus George Segal (The Quiller Memorandum, 1966). But each wanted to act against type. Peck, having played a submarine commander in On the Beach (1959), wished the role of an American secret agent, Niven to play his British equivalent with Segal left to pick up the role of skipper. Then Peck objected to the way his character was portrayed.

Sturges, paid a whopping $500,000 to direct, was unhappy with the Chayefsky script commissioned by the producer so he hired Harry Julian Fink (Major Dundee, 1965) and W.R. Burnett (The Great Escape, 1963). But he hated the results so much he suggested MGM drop the entire project. That was hardly what Ransohoff, after forking out $650,000 on screenplays and $1.7 million on special effects, needed to hear. As a last resort, Sturges turned to Douglas Heyes (Beau Geste, 1966) who beefed up the Alistair MacLean story, completely changing the ending, introducing the U.S. vs U.S.S.R. race to the Arctic,  and a bunch of new characters including those played by Jim Brown and Ernest Borgnine, who had previously worked together on The Dirty Dozen (1967).

Six months after its roadshow engagement in New York, the picture went into
general release in continuous performance.

After a string of flops, Hudson, celebrating his 20th year in the business, chased after the role of sub commander. Although it has been reported that Laurence Harvey briefly came into the frame for the part that went to Borgnine, I could find no record of that. Confusion may have arisen because in 1964 Harvey was prepping another MacLean picture, The Golden Rendezvous, which he planned to direct in the Bahamas. Having landed the major supporting role in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf (1966), Segal was the casting coup before he, too, jumped ship.

British star Patrick McGoohan (Dr Syn, 1963) who had not made a movie in five years, was an unlikely candidate for the second lead. Sturges saw him as the next Steve McQueen. But his inclusion only came about because of the sharp increase in his popularity Stateside after fans had bombarded the networks to bring back the Danger Man (1964-1967) television series (renamed Secret Agent for American consumption) after it had initially underwhelmed.  Increased public demand for the “old-fashioned hero with morals” became a feature of an advertising campaign. McGoohan received the accolade of a write-up in the New York Times. It seemed a cinch to have a denoted television secret agent star to play another spy in the film.

The all-male cast prompted the director to consider adding a hallucinogenic dream sequence involving women. Despite his penchant for action pictures, Sturges was a gadget nut and particularly interested in the space race, tracking by ham radio the launch of the Russian Sputnik 1, concerned that the Americans had been beaten. While moon landings remained some way off, the next battle for supremacy was nuclear submarines, of which Sturges was in awe.

Principal photography began in mid-June, 1967 and finished 19 weeks later. The $8 million budget topped out at $10 million. The non-nuclear U.S.S. Tronquil stood in for the book’s sub with U.S.S. Blackfin doubling in other shots. The vessel’s interiors dominated MGM’s soundstages with a 16ft superstructure as the centerpiece with hydraulics creating the tilting and rocking effects. Art director Addison Hehr’s commitment to authenticity saw his team buying real submarine effects from junk yards to fit out the interiors. The conning tower was almost as tall as a five-storey building and the submarine, built in sections, measured 600ft. The Polar landscape was created by draining the MGM tank, at the time the largest in Hollywood, of three million gallons of water and then mounted with snow and rocks and the burnt-out weather station.

While aerial shots of Greenland ice floes and fjords doubled for Siberia, to capture the wild ocean Sturges and cameraman John Stephens took a helicopter ride 30 miles out from the coast of Oahu where a 45-knot wind created “monumental” seas. A 10ft miniature in a tank permitted shots underwater and cameras attached to the Tronquil’s deck and conning tower achieved the unique sub’s-eye-view. The unconvincing Arctic landscape was shot on a sound stage.

Early trade double-page advertisement (hence the lines in the middle).

Not only did screenwriter Douglas Heyes alter the original ending, but Sturges claimed improvisation was often the order of the day.  “We made it up as we went along,” he said, “adding a whole bunch of gimmicks – the homing device, the capsule in the ice, the blowtorch…I don’t think it had any political significance. It just dealt with an existing phenomenon in an interesting way.” (Note: the homing device was in the original novel.)

A major hitch hit the planned roadshow opening in New York, essential to building up the brand. MGM proved reluctant to whisk 2001: A Space Odyssey out of the Pacific East Cinerama theater while the Stanley Kubrick opus was still doing so well. So it opened in the Big Apple on December 20, over two months after its world premiere at the Cinerama Dome in Los Angeles, where MGM had decked out the lobby with a submarine measuring 20ft long and 12 ft high.  From the publicity point-of-view the delay was a drawback since New York critics – who attracted the biggest cinematic readership in the country – would not review the film until it had opened and should they take a positive slant their quotes would come too late for the national advertising campaign.

SOURCES: Glenn Lovell, Escape Artist, The Life and Films of John Sturges (The University of Wisconsin Press, 2008) p262-268; “Film in Focus, Ice Station Zebra,” Cinema Retro, Vol 17, Issue 51, 2021, p18-27; “Harvey Huddles with Maugham on Bondage,” Variety, May 15, 1963, p25; “New York Sound Track,” Variety, April 29, 1964, p18; “Ransohoff-Metro Prep Zebra Via Chayefsky,” Variety, January 20, 1965, p4; “Novelist, Producer Meet On Ice Station Zebra,” Box Office,  April5, 1965, pNE2;“George Segal,” Variety, April 28, 1965, p17; Advertisement, Variety, April 20, 1966, p44-45; William Kirtz, “Out To Beat Bond,” New York Times, Jun 23, 1966, p109;  “Ponti Seeks David Niven,” Variety, October 26, 1966, p3; “Cinerama Process for Metro’s Zebra,” Variety, May 17, 1967, p24;   Advertisement, Variety, June 21, 1967, p8-9;“26 Probable Roadshows Due in Next Two Years,” Variety, January 17, 1968, p7; “Poor Ratings But Film Plums Going To Pat McGoohan,” Variety, July 3, 1968, p3.”Premiere Display Built for Ice Station Zebra,” Box Office, October 14, 1968, pW2; “Ice Station Zebra Frozen, No N.Y. Cinerama Booking,” Variety, October 23, 1968, p12; “Ice Station Zebra in World Premiere,” Box Office, Oct 28, 1968, pW1; “No Zebra Shootout in N.Y. , Gets 2001 Niche, Latter Grinds,” Variety, October 30, 1968, p3; “Filmways Stake in Ten Features for $55m,” Variety, November 20, 1968, p7.

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.

Dr Syn, Alias The Scarecrow (1963) ****

The mysterious masked Scarecrow was the creepiest character thus far put on celluloid by Disney. A lot of the action takes place at dusk so it is soaked in crepuscular atmosphere. Filmed against the sky, every horse seems to thunder past. Gallows swing ominously. Coupled with a strong storyline and clever ruses by alter ago the mild-mannered clergyman Dr Syn (Patrick McGoohan), this is one for the Under-Rated Hall of Fame.  

While the character has antecedents in folk-hero Robin Hood, the Scarecrow is more rooted in the brutal reality of Britain in the mid-1700s when to fund a host of foreign wars King George taxed already-impoverished peasants to the hilt, making smuggling essential to survival. The Scarecrow is not just the underworld kingpin but has operational skills a spy would be proud of, coded messages, secret rendezvous et al.  

Ruthless General Pugh (Geoffrey Keen), sent to rid the countryside of this menace, makes no bones about putting the squeeze on the wives of villagers to force them into providing the information he requires. Outwitted from the off by Dr Syn, the infuriated general begins torching houses. Helped unwittingly by local squire and judge Thomas Banks (Michael Hordern), the general acquires an informer Joseph Ransley (Patrick Wymark).

This is not the bucolic England of Robin Hood or other historical yarns of Hollywood invention featuring glorious scenery and ample female cleavage. Here, a barmaid is likely to use a meat cleaver to defend herself. This was also the era of press gangs, where government-appointed hoodlums would raid a village and carry off young men as unwilling recruits for the Royal Navy. It was a time of imminent insurrection, the King’s subjects in the North American colonies on the point of sedition. And when money – or its lack – infected every area of society.       

Although like any super-hero the Scarecrow occasionally comes to the rescue, the movie is distinguished by the fact that is more often Dr Syn who subverts the General through cunning subterfuge. Victory through force of arms is impossible since violence visited on the king’s troops would result in a multiplication of their numbers. So it is more a battle of wits. In addition, the Scarecrow faces a dilemma – how to punish a traitor with such severity his authority is never questioned again while at the same time upholding the principles of Dr Syn. Just how these issues and others are resolved make for a very involving picture.

Minor subplots – a romance between the squire’s daughter and an officer, a deserter from the Navy and the presence of an American (Tony Britton) – serve the main story. So the narrative remains taut. And, interestingly, that hangs upon what characters have to lose rather than gain. It is not about greed but survival.

For a Disney picture there is considerable directorial vigor, not just the depiction of the smuggling and pounding hooves accompanying peril or escape, but two terrific trial scenes, a masterly escape conducted in the complete absence of on-screen music and, of course, the terrifying vision of the Scarecrow himself.

The acting has a sterling quality. While Michael Hordern was a stage star, the film primarily called upon actors who later achieved fame on British television programs. Patrick McGoohan headlined The Prisoner (1967-1968), George Cole was in Minder (1979-1994), Patrick Wymark and Alan Dobie in The Plane Makers (1963-1965) Geoffrey Keen in Mogul (1965-1972), and Tony Britton in Robin’s Nest (1977-1981). McGoohan had a previous television incarnation as Danger Man  (1960-1961) and Cole had been a con man in the St Trinian’s films. You can also spot in small roles Kay Walsh, a former British leading lady, and a young Richard O’Sullivan, later star of Man About the House (1973-1976).

Director James Neilson was a Disney favorite, having helmed Moon Pilot (1962), Bon Voyage! (1962) and Summer Magic (1963). But these were all lightweight features and it is to his credit he met the challenge of turning Dr Syn, Alias the Scarecrow into a dramatic actioner. British writer Robert Westerby (The Square Ring, 1953), who also created the source material for Kali-Yug, Goddess of Vengeance (1963),  fashioned the screenplay from the books of William Buchanan and Russell Thorndike

Although Disney had cannibalized the Davy Crockett television series in the 1950s, stitching together episodes for feature films, this was something of a reversal. As part of its The Magical Wonderful World of Disney U.S. television program the studio had shown The Scarecrow of Romney Marsh as a three-part mini-series while Dr Syn, Alias the Scarecrow was released as a movie in Britain.  

You will need to go onto ebay or other secondhand sources to find the movie. The television mini-series can be found below.

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