Sunday, May 3, 2009

The Innocent And The Inevitable

To this day ICE STATION ZEBRA remains in the public consciousness as a punchline more than an exciting submarine epic, mostly because it’s best known as Howard Hughes’s favorite movie and he apparently watched the film dozens if not hundreds of times and going through multiple prints that MGM would supply him. By comparison I’ve only seen it twice—once on DVD and once now in a theater at the Cinematheque which wasn’t one of the biggest turnouts there that I’ve ever seen, to put it mildly. I freely admit that it’s kind of fun in an old-school even if it feels a little like it’s meant to be a joke played on somebody. Every frame of the film screams BIG, EPIC, CINERAMA!!!! but nothing that happens in the story ever warrants such an approach, not to mention that there’s a considerable lack of real incident to the whole thing. By the end, it’s a little like, so, what was that? I went to see it again fully knowing this but I also figured what the hell? Ultimately I was cool with that but anyone ever thinking about checking it out should keep this in mind.

Soon after a satellite reenters the Earth’s atmosphere, U.S. Commander James Ferraday (Rock Hudson), captain of the nuclear submarine the USS Tigerfish is ordered on a rescue mission to civilian weather station Ice Station Zebra up near the Arctic Circle. He is ordered to take with him British Intelligence Agent Mr. Jones (Patrick McGoohan) as well as a platoon of Marines for reasons which remain mysterious to him. Soon after the Navy delivers a few more passengers, namely Captain Anders (Jim Brown) to take charge of the Marines and likable Russian defector Boris Vaslov (Ernest Borgnine) an old friend and colleague of Jones. Though Ferraday is frustrated by not being told exactly what this mission is, he sucks it up but when a torpedo tube accident almost brings a premature end to the mission it is determined that there must be a saboteur aboard. As they reach their destination Ferraday and his men head out in search of the weather station and what must be the most thrilling second half you’ve ever seen in the history of movies. Right? RIGHT???

That’s the thing—nothing much ever happens in ICE STATION ZEBRA. It’s a lot of buildup to not very much at all. There’s a lot of detail given over to the submarine which is kind of cool in its technical specifics and there’s even some clever, intelligent dialogue throughout but by a certain point we just want some kind of payoff to what’s being promised. It doesn’t really happen when we finally get to the weather station up in the Arctic and the would-be epic feel isn’t helped by filing the entire Arctic section on a giant indoor set which is more detailed than the average set on STAR TREK, but still about as convincing. The whole set up is cool enough that we’re willing to give our patience for long stretches but the only time we’re rewarded for any of this is when the whole who’s-the-saboteur plotline comes to a head in a sequence which is genuinely suspenseful and well-played. For a few minutes, we can feel the hand of someone like John Sturges in charge of this but for the most part the film feels too anonymous, as if everyone is just overwhelmed by the scale that they’re trying to pretend is really there. The climax, instead of giving us the battle we’ve been waiting for, just has the Americans and Soviets just standing there, each side waiting for the other to do something and it never really happens. The resolution at least makes some sense but it’s still kind of a letdown and all you can really do is just bemusedly smile, feeling a little like the movie pulled one over on its audience. This sort of stand off worked much better in the Bond film FOR YOUR EYES ONLY which was also one of the more smaller-scale entries, so it wasn’t a problem. In this sort of movie, we’re not looking for Détente. We want giant gun battles between the U.S. and the Soviets, explosions, hand-to-hand combat with the Marines they’ve made such a big deal about but we never get it so when the end credits roll all we can do is shrug and, like Alec Baldwin, simply state, “Well, that happened.” Michel Legrand’s glorious main theme comes through every now and then, trying to convince us of the epic scope of this tale and a few times it almost succeeds with some dynamic water ocean footage and miniatures which, even when they’re not entirely convincing, are still pretty impressive. In case anyone’s curious, the DVD included an intermission which I’m assuming is how it played on its initial Cinerama engagements. On this more normal 35mm print there was no intermission, just a fade out/fade in at that point. Shucks, and I was going to go get some coffee across the street at that point. I remember watching that DVD a few years ago and when the Intermission card came up I thought, “But nothing’s happened yet!” I had no idea what wasn’t still to come. And yet I still kind of enjoy watching it. Obviously, I have some kind of problem.

It’s Patrick McGoohan who is most impressive among the cast, with his banging on tables, gun under his pillow as a security blanket and desire for whiskey for medicinal purposes. He was the only actor who got any applause, coming at both his credit as well as his first appearance and he deserved it. He’s the coolest, most engaging presence here by a long shot and it’s fascinating just listening to the actor speak—I love the way he has the word “retros” roll off his tongue--so it’s unfortunate when he spends most of the climax just standing around. Actually, everyone seems to spend it just standing around, but he isn’t even allowed to contribute, a cool character mostly forgotten about in the final standoff. When he suspects someone of sabotage and suggests that they might have killed the real person and assumed their identity he mentions having done this very thing before…why don’t we get to see that movie? It sounds much more exciting. Much of the rest of the cast is extremely low-key in comparison. Rock Hudson might come off as a tree trunk, but in fairness that’s what the role requires and his stoic presence is absolutely correct as a counterpoint to McGoohan’s eccentricities. He projects enough confidence that he doesn’t need to be anything more than that. Jim Brown is cool when doing nothing more than glaring at somebody and it seems a shame that we never get to see him kick ass the way we’d like…I guess that’s what THE DIRTY DOZEN is for. Even Ernest Borgnine surprisingly dials things way down, I guess I figured that with a Russian accent he didn’t need to add much to it.

I can’t quite recommend it unless it’s to somebody who wants to see every single one of these giant sixties war movies. There’s no real excitement to speak of and yet, sitting there munching my popcorn, I had fun anyway, with the submarine miniatures, the commanding presence of these actors and the whole fake-epic quality of the whole thing. Don’t ask why. ICE STATION ZEBRA is a conundrum and instead of asking why it is the way it is we should just take pleasure when we get to see it. Even if not many people turned up at the Egyptian on Saturday night for the chance.


alone in the dark said...

cheers! so glad you went, and so angry with myself that i didn't go.

i do love how the paddy gets to stand around and look sleepy through the finale, as well he should since he's just gotten a stout cosh on the noggin.

Mr. Peel aka Peter Avellino said...

Sorry you couldn't be there, you would have made it even more fun. Even if he had gotten into that scrape before the big standoff, I still wish we got to see him doing more stuff at the end there. It's an action movie where the climax has everyone just standing around for a while.

Fred said...

I saw this during a family trip to Mexico in the mid-70s. We were staying at the Princess in Acapulco, and they screened movies every afternoon in a giant, indoor tennis court which was, appropriately enough, the temperature of a meat locker (this made the film an early version of sensurround for me and my brothers). I remember being cold and bored, but I stuck with it. I guess it is ironic that Mr. Hughes was probably not far from our hotel, watching his own copy of this cinematic snoozer. Personally, I preferred Kelly's Heroes and Night of Dark Shadows, which were also screened at the hotel during the trip. Oh yeah, and we also stayed in the Camino Real in Mexico City on the same trip, which was one of the locations for Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia.

Ned Merrill said...

Have fond memories of Pop-Pop renting this for my brother and me 25 years ago. I think I'm going to keep those and refrain from watching again.

Mr. Peel aka Peter Avellino said...

You never know, maybe it'll be worth another look and some of those memories will come flooding back. It could happen.

le0pard13 said...

Another of the Alistair MacLean novels turned into a 60's blockbuster. I agree the only thing I'd recommend in this is Patrick McGoohan (who is riffing on his John Drake Danger Man/Secret Agent persona--may he RIP). Compared to the others, namely The Guns of Navarone and Where Eagles Dare, this one pales. Thanks, Mr. Peel, for the look back.