Monday, March 11, 2013


Well, there it is, right there in black and white. The release date for ICE STATION ZEBRA (according to Wikipedia) was October 23, 1968. I would have bet good money that it was a summer release but it appears that my memory on this one is incorrect. However, I do recall the following facts correctly: I saw the film on the night it opened in Austin (a Friday) at the Capitol Plaza Cinema and I got my haircut at Bailey's Barbershop (now Sportsman's) on Jefferson Street earlier that afternoon. I don't recall the name of the barber but I do remember being juiced with anticipation and excitement over the prospect of seeing the film that evening. Don't ask me how or why I can remember those details but for some reason, I do. 

I didn't have to get a haircut before watching ICE STATION ZEBRA again last night. It was the first time I'd seen the film in its' entirety in many, many years. I loved it as a twelve-year seventh grader and I wanted to see if the film still works for me as a fifty-seven year old adult. It does to some extent but I wasn't blown away by it. I think what I like most about this film is the idea of it: a grand submarine/cold war thriller/arctic adventure movie played out on the big screen with four solid actors in the lead roles. A screenplay based on a novel by the master of adventure, Alistair MacLean. A great score by Michel Legrand. And a terrific poster. What's not to like?

ICE STATION ZEBRA was one of the last films produced by MGM in the 70mm Cinerama format. It was also released as an "event" film. The version I watched on DVD last night has an overture, an intermission and exit music, the kind of presentation reserved for the best of the best films, like Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY (also released in 1968). I don't recall the film being presented in this way when I first saw it but that was a long time ago and the special presentation may have been reserved for theaters in larger cities. The whistles and bells add much to the grandeur and scope of ICE STATION ZEBRA but they can't disguise the fact that the film is really not much more than a tricked up B-movie.

The plot concerns a Russian spy satellite that has come back to earth near Ice Station Zebra, an American weather station situated above the Arctic Circle. Both the Americans and the Russians want to get their hands on the film contained in the satellite as it shows the precise location of American missile bases across the globe. The crew of Ice Station Zebra is cut off by a severe storm and communications have ceased. The only option is to send in the nuclear sub Tigerfish (commanded by Rock Hudson). The sub will make the journey under the ice, rescue any survivors and retrieve the satellite.
Along for the voyage is a mysterious intelligence agent (Patrick McGoohan) who refuses to reveal exactly what his mission is, a Russian agent working for the Americans (Ernest Borgnine) and a tight-lipped  captain (Jim Brown) in command of a contingent of U.S. Marines. One of these three is not what he appears to be and the mission is placed in jeopardy by his actions. 

There are some very impressive shots of the sub under the ice but once the men arrive at their destination, the polar ice cap is clearly a studio bound set with fake ice boulders and a painted backdrop (it looks like a STAR TREK episode on steroids). After some additional skulduggery (which leaves one man dead), they are just about to zero in on the location of the satellite when Russian paratroopers arrive demanding the capsule be turned over to them. A tense stand-off follows and ultimately Hudson wins the day by surrendering the capsule and then destroying it by remote control.

Here's one extraordinarily odd bit of trivia about ICE STATION ZEBRA. It was reportedly billionaire recluse Howard Hughes's favorite film. While he was living away from the world at the Las Vegas Hilton hotel he used to call one of the local television stations and demand that they broadcast the film for his enjoyment. Eventually (so the story goes), Hughes acquired a print of the film and he is said to have watched it 150 times before his death. 

I don't know what it was about ICE STATION ZEBRA that floated Howard Hughes's boat. But I do know what twelve-year-old Frank liked about it. It's a fond memory of my childhood which remains a good film after all of these years. Recommended.

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