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.

Book Review – Dreams of Flight: “The Great Escape” in American Film and Culture

In the history of rousing action cinema few movies are as revered or have produced such a collective cinematic response as John Sturges’ World War 2 POW picture The Great Escape (1963) starring Steve McQueen, James Garner and Richard Attenborough and a host of upcoming stars including The Magnificent Seven alumni James Coburn and Charles Bronson,  

Dana Polan’s rich assessment of the film’s making coupled with a superb analysis of the film itself, script, style, themes and directorial bravura is filled with informative nuggets. Eschewing the standard star bio approach, Polan goes much deeper to detail how earlier adaptations for American television and Australian radio (made by novelist Morris West’s company and with Rod Taylor as a German guard) affected the film, how it fitted into the British POW tradition (The Colditz Story etc) and the influence of an American offshoot like Stalag 17.

You might already be familiar with the work of Dana Polan since he has written books on Pulp Fiction, The Sopranos and Jane Campion and another half-dozen books besides. This is an excellent addition to his impressive portfolio.

Paul Brickhill, author of The Great Escape (and other war classics The Dam Busters and Reach for the Sky) had been an inmate at Stalag Luft III so drew on personal experience – including that of tunnel digger – and sketches made at the time of the tunnels to turn out, as co-writer, a precursor Escape to Danger. It was either interviews relating to this or a magazine article or condensation that alerted neophyte director Sturges in 1945/1946 to a potential film. The book, published in 1950, sold a million copies in paperback in the UK alone and was a huge global success. And for independent producers Mirisch, for whom Sturges later made The Magnificent Seven, buying the rights was integral to the director’s pact with that company in 1957 and indeed The Great Escape was mooted as his debut picture for them. When finally greenlit, it was intended to be shot in the U.S. with only 10 per cent taking place in Europe. That it went the other way was due to an unusual set of circumstances.

In his analysis of the picture, Polan makes other interesting connections, first of all to the caper picture where each character has a specific task to contribute to the overall effort. Unusually for a heroic film, he points out that courage is continually undercut, each uplifting moment leading to defeat, the film itself having an essentially downbeat ending, the only true victory found in defiance. And in some respects The Great Escape created a bridge between the gung-ho war films of the 1950s and the more cynical approach to war envisioned in The Deer Hunter and Apocalypse Now.

Being British, it had never occurred to me how important the baseball glove was to American culture, the glove representing for many a “certain brand of American problem-solving in the face of adversity” although far more universally accepted would be the premise of the motorcycle escape representing the triumph of the spirit even as it results in a more down to earth resolution.

Tracing Sturges’ stylistic development back to post-WW2 B-movies made for Columbia explains the importance of the trademark parabolic shot in driving action forward. Yet for all his stylistic bravura, Sturges was very grounded when it came to the work required to make pictures, for example here adopting coloured index cards to shuffle around pieces of action to best effect.

The script went through various hands – William Roberts and Walter Newman, both integral to The Magnificent Seven, but was finally credited to crime writer W.R. Burnett (who had worked with Sturges on Sergeants 3, 1962) and James Clavell (who adapted The Satan Bug, 1965), himself a POW in a Japanese camp with British writer Ivan Moffat (Giant, 1956) coming in at the last minute as script doctor. A breakdown of the various scripts attributes the Hilts’ cooler baseball bouncing to Moffat who also wrote the scene that changed Hilts from loner to participant.

In a terrific appendix you can discover exactly the problems facing the real escapees and who came up with the book title (clue – not the author) four years after the idea originally surfaced. There’s a fascinating coda about the film’s impact on Hollywood and general culture and Polan takes time out to reflect on the experience of various fans on their virgin encounter with the picture. The movie was a big hit and so well received that when critic Bosley Crowther wrote a negative review the “New York Times” postbag was filled with complaints. Written with tremendous authority and great style, this is one book you would want to find in your Xmas stocking.

Dreams of Flight: The Great Escape in American Film and Culture by Dana Polan is published by University of California Press at $24.95 / £20 in both paperback & ebook.  ISBN 9780520379305. It is available on Amazon and Kindle.

https://www.ucpress.edu/book/9780520379305/dreams-of-flight

Sergeants 3 (1962)***

There’s a terrific western directed by John Sturges (The Magnificent Seven, 1960) inside this Rat Pack offering, the second of four in the series. On the plus side are plenty twists on traditional scenarios, Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin displaying a certain kind of easy screen charisma, and three exceptional and well-choreographed battle scenes. Sinatra, Martin and Peter Lawford play the eponymous sergeants, Lawford committing the cardinal sin of wanting to quit the regiment to get married, with Sammy Davis Jr. as a former slave, bugler (an important plot point) and horse-lover wanting to sign up, and Joey Bishop (television star and occasional movie actor) as their sergeant-major boss.

A fair bit of time is spent on the usual Rat Pack shenanigans, getting drunk, brawling, playing tricks on each other, and exploring odd comic notions such as playing poker with a blacksmith’s implements as chips. But when it gets down to proper western stuff, it fairly zings along, with a decent plot (a Native American uprising) and excellent action scenes. You could have had William Goldman writing the script for the number of reversals, where the picture keeps one step ahead of audience expectation. For a start, rather than flushing out outlaws from a town, the troopers have to remove Native Americans who have taken it over. Instead of the cavalry pursuing Native Americans, it is mostly the other way round. It is the soldiers rather than the Native Americans who attack a wagon. Sinatra finds himself employing a bow-and-arrow and then a tomahawk rather than being on the receiving end of such weaponry.  Instead of dynamite, the good guys make do with fireworks. Where Native Americans are usually pinned down, this time it is Sinatra’s merry band. And when it comes to resorting to serious violence, that, too is usually the remit of the Native Americans, not as here, Sinatra chucking man off a cliff.

When it sticks to action, the picture is very well done and involving. When Sinatra has to take charge instead of larking about, the movie has focus. Both Sinatra and Martin were undertaking serious roles around this time, the former in The Manchurian Candidate (1962), the latter in political drama Ada (1961) so this might have appeared welcome relief. The comedy isn’t along the laugh-out-loud lines of Support Your Local Sheriff (1969) or Blazing Saddles (1973) and when the action is so full-on you wonder why anybody thought this required comedy at all, although there is a pretty good punchline ending. Action aside, it’s almost the equivalent of easy listening. The Rat Pack was a particular 1960s institution, the members joining each other on stage in Las Vegas or featuring in television programs, but there’s no real modern correlative.

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