“Worth waiting for ...”
Director J. Lee Thompson had quite a pedigree across the genre-span, what with The Guns Of Navarone, Conquest Of and Battle For The Planet Of The Apes, King Solomon's Mines and, best of all, the original Cape Fear before going on to the lethargic formula of Charlie Bronson vengeance-kicks in 10 To Midnight and The Evil That Men Do (and the less said about Death Wish 4: The Crackdown, the better) but his finest hour came with 1958's epic desert war-yarn, Ice Cold In Alex. Adapted by Christopher Landon from his own classic novel published the year before, and actually based upon his own experiences serving in North Africa during World War II, this great British staple of Bank Holidays, Sunday afternoons and festive TV scheduling now comes to UK region B Blu-ray courtesy of Optimum and Studio Canal amid a flurry of war-time dramas infiltrating the format.
The Germans are making their big push through North Africa, their elite desert forces, the esteemed Afrika Korps (always cinematically cool to look at in those uber-snazzy uniforms) are pressing down on the beleaguered Allied troops in Libya, surging towards the trapped base in Tobruk. The order is given to evacuate before the “balloon goes up” and the Brits get “put in the bag”. Fatigued and battle-weary, Captain Anson (John Mills) of the transport division, is given the job of leading out the small convoy of military ambulances and making a bid for freedom before the circle of German steel closes. But complications immediately ensue and he, along with his highly dependable and extremely resilient Sgt. Major, Tom Pugh (Harry Andrews), is tasked with escorting two army nurses, who had been left behind during the big fall-back, all the way to Alexandria, which is still under Allied control. In their little trundling ambulance, nicknamed Katy, they undertake the perilous journey across hundreds of miles of scorching desert, dodging enemy patrols, traversing minefields and quick-sand, suffering vehicle failures and emotional breakdowns and, most pertinently, negotiating the possibility that the South African officer, Captain Van der Poel (Anthony Quayle), who has hitched a ride with them, could well be a German spy. Their epic adventure will tax them all to the limits of their physical and mental endurance, creating tensions that will threaten to rip their little group apart and place them all in grave danger. Anson's own reckless behaviour could prove to be either their salvation or their undoing – his weakness for alcohol fuelled by the endless bottles of gin (the good stuff and not the crud from the NAAFI) that the South African seems able to haul from that suspiciously large pack he carries around with him everywhere he goes.
And yet all that keeps any of them going, as death and disaster seem to derail and delay them at almost every turn, is Captain Anson's promise that he will buy them all a glass of beer in this bar he knows in Alexandria if they ever reach there alive. A special kind of lager that he has been dreaming of that is served so chilled that the mist forms on the glass before it even touches the bar. Ice Cold In Alex.
By and large, this is a remarkably faithful adaptation of the novel, as you would expect from having its author pen the screenplay, alongside T.J. Morrison. Even the dialogue is lifted, almost wholesale in some parts, from the page. What has been altered is, in the main part, purely superficial. Quayle's macho Afrikaner is called Zimmerman in the book and not Van der Poel, and it is Rheingold beer and not Carlsberg that the characters enjoy in that celebrated and iconic finale. But the main difference is that Captain Anson, as Landon wrote him, was an alcoholic already, and didn't need the trauma of becoming a prisoner-of-war and being forced to escape to freedom over two tortuous days in the desert to drive him over the edge – just the monotony of being under siege several times over a couple years had done the trick. Thus, Anson was already a quivering and frightened maverick, so highly strung that he would take unnecessary risks. In some ways, he was the Martin Riggs of the unit, only a whole lot more of a team-player. John Mills obviously gets this confused and complex psychological dilemma and his Captain Anson is totally the one that Landon wrote about.
Many will argue that Mills has been better but, for me, his gin-haunted army driver is certainly my favourite of his performances. He is totally believable without ever once putting a foot wrong in that treacherous minefield of patriotic cliché. Ghosted by the events of his frantic escape-and-evasion (that Andrews' Sgt. Major mentions behind his captain's back and Anson, himself, does not make an issue of), he is a credibly jittery bag of nerves wrapped up in a leathery, blistered hide of battered bravado and anxious, duty-bound determination. One minute, he is in control of things and optimistic, and in the next his rash actions and temper have gotten someone killed. The man may come with the requisite stiff upper lip of the typical British war-hero, but it doesn't quite mask the fact that he has been knocked-about and taken down a peg-or-two by circumstances his noble pride and sense of derring-do have not been able to overcome, and that, realistically, he may well carrying some wounds on the inside. Anson is no more cynical than the ever-dependable Pugh, but his ability to cope with the flak that the scenario throws at him – situations that, ordinarily, he'd surmount with a cheerful grin - has taken a severe bashing. Mills is magnificent. After one pulse-pounding encounter with a patrol of Germans leaves the ambulance raked-open with bullets, his subsequent realisation of the needless risk that he put his passengers under with such a foolhardy attempt to escape, and the devastating repercussion that his actions have led to, is quietly heartbreaking. Mills underplays the scene when he grasps that one of the nurses, played by Diane Clare from Hammer's The Plague Of The Zombies, has been fatally caught by a Jerry bullet … and it is all the more devastating because of it.
If Mills is more renowned for other work, Harry Andrews was never better than here as Sgt. Major Tom Pugh. Christopher Landon actually bases this character, name and all, on someone he knew in this theatre of war who served with the ambulance cars in the Western Desert. If Anson is a little wiry chap, whose scrawny arms look like knots in string, and demeanour is that of a terrier, then Andews establishes Pugh's practical minded, no-nonsense West Country yokel as, characteristically for the actor, much more of a bulldog. Andrews revels in the part. Normally a ferocious presence on the periphery, he has a considerably larger role than usual, his more typically gruff and agitated Sgt. Major (he made a career out of playing men of that rank Or butlers, Kryptonian councillors, Victorian ministers or, rather brilliantly, a doomed critic in the awesome Theatre Of Blood) is now compromised this time around, by, of all things, a realistic and fully three-dimensional personality that – get this – actually humanises that tenacious and authoritarian wall of granite. Surely Harry Andrews – the great Harry Andrews – should not be treated this way. We should fear him! We should shudder from that pitiless glare, and jump at every jagged-voweled bark of his gravelly voice. But we don't. And we don't because, in this stark character-piece, he is allowed to relax and to drop that stoic and imperious guard that would make such a Old School theatrical force of nature in such things as Michael Winner's The Nightcomers and Robert Fuest's Wuthering Heights and Tony Richardson's The Charge Of The Light Brigade. Oh, he's still adhering to a strict military code of duty, of honour, but he's both subordinate (to Anson) and saviour (to Anson, again) and, as such, his volatility is watered-down, is thunder diffused with the kind of compassion that only come from a man who's done with pushing others around, and has found his perfect niche and position in the grand scheme, and is now far better in situations that exist “outside” of the formal rank and file. Just as passionately as Mills does with Captain Anson, Andrews completely embraces the true essence of Tom Pugh. I really wish that we'd seen more of Harry Andrews in films of all types and genres. Even at his most belligerent – which was, let's face it, how he comes across in most roles – there was something profoundly reassuring about him. Even if he seems beholden to utter “Sir!” at the end of almost every line like some highly-trained parrot, SM Pugh is the human axle that will hold this ragtag gathering firm, through thick and thin. And his belief in his troubled Captain is forever endearing.
The other main point in the triangle of this sun-blighted voyage into the perseverance of the human spirit is that of Anthony Quayle's cunning hitch-hiker. The actor's South African accent may wander into parody at times, it is so over-egged, but alarm bells should be ringing when it is discovered that he can speak fluent German – and that this skill proves unusually adept at getting the ambulance crew out of trouble on a couple of occasions. As Anson, himself, puts it - “once is good luck, but twice is pushing it.” But Quayle delivers us a bravura performance that is, once again, brilliantly sieved from the character that Landon describes. Quayle never really made it, despite a clutch of barnstorming performances. He really knows how to use the camera, chewing up the arid scenery and cheekily stealing the show from under the noses of Mills and Andrews. Van der Poel (“it's pronounced Puhl”) goes against the grain, it's true, but the Southport-born actor would often portray hard-line and difficult personalities, his real-life experience as a Major during WWII obviously informing his assertive command in front of the camera. With a bronzed and brawny physique, a witty quip and a keen sense of inveiglement, Van der Poel is a rascal just looking to rock the boat, or the ambulance. And yet there is a defiant pride about him that both aids and splinters the group in equal measure. Powerful and strong-willed, he could be considered a threat in much more immediate terms, yet this is never the real issue. In fact, the mission, however surreal it comes to be, could never succeed without him. He might be an incredibly strong and formidable shadow of potential darkness here, but Quayle was never considered leading-man material – well not in the conventional sense, anyway – but this another why the film works so well. He and his co-stars are playing “real” people thrust into a very realistic and largely unsensational situation, well, unsensational in Hollywood war-flick terms, that is.
What's great about it is the absolute lack of good-looking, square-jawed heroes. Ice Cold is bolted onto a code of intense characterisation and not upon audience-pleasing aesthetics and, to go along with this refreshing viewpoint, there are no Yanks cropping-up in the cast to appease to the marketing of the film. Only a few years later, we would revisit the setting in Arthur Hiller's rather more gung-ho actioner, Tobruk, which somehow drafted-in the likes of Rock Hudson and George Peppard into our commando ranks. Well, okay, Peppard was a German-Jew fighting on our side, but you get the point of how studios felt the need to, ahem, pepper their pictures with clean-cut and glamorous faces to make them sell. In fact, with such rich, lived-in and sunburned faces dominating the screen, Ice Cold actually comes to resemble a sort of relocated Spaghetti Western.
Of course, we do get some glamour courtesy of Sylvia Syms, who is tremendous as the nurse who finds victims to treat of an altogether different sort than she's been trained to deal with. All of a sudden she's got drunk drivers suffering nervous breakdowns, possible German spies performing back-breaking deeds of heroism, trigger-happy Jerries spewing lead across the desert and poor old Katy blowing gaskets, cracking springs and haemorrhaging water to nurse. The only battlefield causality that she gets to treat is, ironically enough, the tragic corpse of her companion. Although it is inevitable that strong relationships are forged in the midst of such chaos and strife, I will say that the only downside in the film is the “love-on-the-run” that develops between Syms' delectable Diana and the increasingly more dishevelled Anson. Admittedly, it is only brief and it is another element that has been taken directly from the book, but it just doesn't seem to sit right with the rest of the drama. With it being so mercifully brief and uncloyingly dealt with, this possibly reveals director Thompson's own doubts about the credibility of the nurse and the nutter getting it on in the dunes. Syms, who recently played the Queen Mother opposite Helen Mirren in The Queen would actually star alongside both Anthony Quayle and John Mills again (as well as George Peppard) in 1965's Operation Crossbow for Michael Anderson.
Although we never get to know Diana's doomed companion beyond her incessant screaming, we definitely get to feel the loss of Diane Clare's terrified younger nurse. There is a palpable sense of grief that palls over the film during her final moments as she attempts, in vain, to impart some whispered message that could prove vital to the survivors. And this weight of pain and tragedy only intensifies during Anson's realisation of what his actions have led to, and the subsequent burial scene, until it begins to eat into you. Thompson handles these difficult scenes with a steady hand, totally believing in his cast and just letting them get on with it. Andrews obligingly supplies the final words at her hasty graveside as, in a wonderfully touching moment, the rest of the motley crew, unable to find the right epitaphs, all turn to look at him. Thus the loss of life in this small and unorthodox unit comes to symbolise the terrible losses being suffered all over. It is a poignant statement about the sacrifices being made.
It is customary and indeed clichéd to remark about the landscape, or a vehicle being characters in a film simply because we may spend so much time in them. But, depending upon how well they are depicted and utilised, this is absolutely true. And Thompson is beyond equal in this respect. The military ambulance, Anson's treasured Katy, is a genuine entity in this film. Of course she is essential to the plot, but we get to know her, how she works, how she deals with situations, almost how she feels. And, in turn, we care about what happens to her. As her wheels gently unearth a mine that none of the others have seen, as the washer is shredded on her pump, as Germans chew her up with machine-gunfire, as her axle bears down on the little pile of stones, reluctantly crushing the stricken Van der Poel underneath … and, most emphatically of all, as the survivors battle to push her up the hill of soft sand against all odds … we are just as determined that she get to Alexandria in one piece, too. That little pat of admiration that Anson gives her at the end is something that we wish we could also provide. And, of course, the sweeping and irresistible location work that the film-crew delivered, using the real setting and terrain of the Libyan desert is something that cannot be over-praised. We can feel the heat of the furnace that is the rice-pudding consistency of the Depression. The almost Martian surface of the land is full of ridges, wadies, and searingly endless plateaus. With Thompson's excellent direction and the throat-drying evocativeness of Gilbert (The Omen/Star Wars) Taylor's cinematography, Ice Cold genuinely feels lost and lonely and desperate. And epic. To go along with this sumptuously realistic setting, Thompson makes good on the story's wildly suspenseful set-pieces. The chase scene, with half-tracks pursuing Katy across the bleached earth, is thunderously directed, and edited with whip-taut precision. The moment when the arrogant Brigadier from Tobruk's fallen command, played by Liam Redmond, stands tall in his car to berate the Germans for shelling his little outpost and is reduced to a burning hole on the highway for his troubles is quite a shocker and brilliantly orchestrated. The minefield episode and the tense struggle in the quicksand are pure white-knucklers (wouldn't it have been great if the bean-can actually hit a mine and detonated it when Van der Poel tossed it away?), as is the incredible moment when South African takes the strain and supports the ailing Katy on his broad shoulders. But watch for the amusingly developed scene when the group make it as far as the Qara Oasis, and some armed Bedouin defenders make for an ingeniously timed comic interlude.
But Ice Cold In Alex is justifiably more famous for that classic final scene when things do become ice cold … in Alex … and our heroes stack up the beers in one of British Cinema's most satisfying moments. Both Holsten Pils and Carlsberg used this iconic final bar footage for their respective ad campaigns in the 80's, although the original film clearly has Carlsberg engraved on the glasses. There is simply no way that you get through this movie, sit with Anson and his chums in the Greek's bar in Alexandria and not crave a glass of lager. Even you're teetotal … or just a child. Or dead. This is the most convincing that a film can ever be at suggesting emotions, urges and genuine exultant taste, literally breaking that unseen barrier between us and the movie.
Just as interesting is the effect that the film conceivably had when it first came out.
Ice Cold was possibly considered quite subversive to some people, especially in view of the period in which it was released – what with the paranoia of the Cold War making the freedom of cinematic speech and creativity difficult, with spies and enemies of the state seemingly lurking under every bed. In the US, Thompson's film was cut down quite drastically and made into a “B” programmer to fill the bottom half of a double-bill. Now this ties-in with the notion that distributors found potential problems with a story in which the good guys actively side with the enemy. In Black List 50's America this could well have been seen a being practically a treasonous conceit. Even in the UK, the film ran into problems with the censor, with many elements of the screenplay coming under fire. Thompson's protests actually led to a shift in the censor's attitude and were, in no small part, a factor in the replacement of the BBFC's John Nicholls with Peter Trevelyan, who would go on to have a tempestuous tenure with Hammer Films. Now, of course, the film is an established classic that has become one of those cherished British War Films, a production that symbolises the courage, determination and ingenuity of a time and a people whose ethics and unity have since passed into veritable myth and nostalgic folklore. The film is mentioned in the same breath as The Cruel Sea, The Dam Busters, The Colditz Story and 633 Squadron – all stalwart British clarion-calls. As far as I am concerned, though, Ice Cold In Alex surpasses these and, indeed, the majority of other pure-blood Blighty-backed war films.
It doesn't play by the accepted rules. The Germans, when we encounter them, do not seem all that bad. They apologise for firing on the ambulance and offer assistance and give directions. They even condemn the English for taking women onto a battlefield – something that they would never do. And the “enemy within” is not exactly a threat either. The suspected spy is a proven asset to the close-knit group, and a thoroughly likeable addition to their number.
And yet the film is full of drama, excitement, suspense and heroism as each mile is chewed-up. Like Captain Willard and his boat-crew in Apocalypse Now, the characters are caught up in a curious limbo-land existing somewhere between Hell and the Front-line, and it is a place in which anything can happen. Where the measure of a man can be found, and his soul laid bare. Both Captain Anson and Captain Van der Poel go through the wringer and are stripped to their cores – and both are irrevocably changed as a result. Ice Cold was a brave and a bold attempt to look at a conflict that Cinema, at the time, was depicting as resolutely black-and-white … from a completely different perspective. It is therefore not beyond the realms that, thanks to Thompson's Alex, the floodgates were opened on to a more thoughtful and sympathetic study of those who fought in the Big One, from all sides. Afterwards, we would have The Blue Max, the aforementioned Tobruk (both of which saw George Peppard as a blonde, blue-eyed German hero), and then, in the more nihilistic 70's, Peckinpah's revisionist Cross Of Iron (see Cas Harlow's excellent BD review). They all have Thompson's film to thank for audiences becoming more sophisticated and prepared to accept these alternate viewpoints so readily.
Ice Cold In Alex is a bonafide classic war film that rewards each and every time that it is viewed. It boasts fabulous performances, a realism that you can taste and set-pieces that rely upon character and emotion and not simply pyrotechnics.
Worth waiting for?
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