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.

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