Ice Station Zebra (1968)

A friend was talking about Douglas Sirk and Rock Hudson the other day. Rummaging through my pile of films at home, I couldn’t find any Douglas Sirk, but Ice Station Zebra, directed by John Sturges and with Rock Hudson heading an all-male cast, was around. I’d heard of this Cold War film (though I still haven’t read the Alistair Maclean novel on which it was based), and Rock Hudson was adequate—and looked good. So Ice Station Zebra it was.

The film begins with a space vessel of some sort being monitored by the Russians and the Americans (separately, of course) as it returns to earth somewhere in an expanse of snow and ice, where a man goes to collect it. The action then switches to Scotland, where Commander James Ferraday (Rock Hudson), captain of the US nuclear submarine Tigerfish, receives instructions to pick up some unusual passengers: a troop of US marines, and a mysterious British civilian called Jones (Patrick McGoohan).

The Tigerfish picks up passengers

Jones lets Ferraday know in no uncertain terms that Ferraday’s job is to get Jones safely to Ice Station Zebra, a civilian weather station at the North Pole. There’s been an accident, with fire and perhaps an explosion, at Ice Station Zebra. People have died, radio communication is sporadic, and weather conditions such that an air rescue is impossible. Ferraday realises that a troop of Marines isn’t needed for a rescue mission, but Jones won’t divulge the real reason for this trip.

Ferraday meets Jones

Ferraday receives further instructions that the Tigerfish is to rendezvous with an unknown party at given coordinates. When the sub surfaces, two more passengers are lowered from a helicopter onto the deck. One is a US Marine, Captain Anders (Jim Brown); the other’s a jovial Russian ex-naval officer called Boris Vaslov (Ernest Borgnine) who’s defected and is now a close friend and associate of Jones’s.

Jones meets an old pal - Vaslov

The Tigerfish makes its way north, and then slips under the drifting pack ice—the only way, says Ferraday, they can get to Ice Station Zebra. The crew tries breaking through the ice a couple of times, but it’s too thick.

The Tigerfish under the ice

Ferraday then decides to blow a hole in the ice by using a torpedo. That’s when disaster strikes; water rushes in through the torpedo tube. The Tigerfish ends up with one man dead and three injured. Jones investigates, and tells Ferraday that the torpedo tubes were sabotaged.

Sabotage? Ferraday and Jones have a chat

Ferraday finds the evidence for himself, but can’t figure out who the saboteur is. Jones is liable to think it’s Anders: nobody can vouch for him; he was picked up, as he admits, `in transit’, and he’s a hard, uncompromising man. The men he’s been brought in to command don’t like him either—and he doesn’t care.

not Mr Popular!

Ferraday finally manages to get his passengers onto the ice and they arrive at Ice Station Zebra, a burnt-out wreck of a place. They find a small huddle of barely-conscious men in one hut. While the sub’s doctor is trying to administer medical help, Jones and Vaslov ask each slowly-awakening man: “Where’s Goodwin? Where’s Halliwell?”

At Ice Station Zebra

Shortly after, moving around the camp, Ferraday enters another hut, to find Jones and Vaslov searching frantically for something.

Ferraday comes upon Jones and Vaslov

What are they looking for? Who were Goodwin and Halliwell? What has Ice Station Zebra been up to? Who sabotaged the torpedo tubes back in the Tigerfish? Is Anders really a Marines Captain? What do Jones and Vaslov have to do with all of this?
There are loads of questions here, and Ferraday gets the nasty feeling there’s vastly more to all of this than Jones is letting on (which is meagre anyway).

What I liked about this film:
The underwater sequences, particularly as the submarine slips carefully under the treacherous, shifting ice—are very good. I almost found myself wincing as Ferraday and his men try to navigate their way through. Even otherwise, the atmosphere inside the submarine is realistic.
The music, especially when the Tigerfish surfaces or dives, is gorgeously majestic.
The jargon they use on board was initially a little tedious—but I got used to that after a while, and when the tension begins to mount, it actually helps add to the suspense.

Commander Ferraday at work

What I didn’t like:
The latter bit of the film seems a bit disjointed: the suspense just seems to fall apart. I haven’t read the original novel, but I’ve heard John Sturges and his gang changed most of the story after the first half, so I guess one can’t pin the blame on Alistair Maclean for this.
The special effects, though they won Ice Station Zebra an Oscar nomination, seem uncomfortably tacky now. The shots on the ice in particular appeared very obviously on a set.

Little bit of trivia:
Rock Hudson, in one of his last interviews, apparently called this his favourite film of the ones he’d acted in. Interestingly enough, according to this article, the Julie Andrews flick The Americanisation of Emily came close to ensuring Ice Station Zebra never got made—the US Navy were so miffed at the poor portrayal of an Admiral in the former that they initially refused to render any co-operation for the making of the latter.
The Tigerfish, by the way, was actually the USS Ronquil, which was used to film the sub sequences.


7 thoughts on “Ice Station Zebra (1968)

  1. That trivia with The Americanization of Emily, a good find that.

    From my thread on IMDb’s Classic Film board from Nov. 2014:

    “Eye-pleasing widescreen photography, nice use of miniatures and a rousing score by Michel Legrand were the only factors that stayed with me.

    I just could not get engrossed with the machinations of the plot or get invested in any of the characters. The real plot did not even start until over an hour into the film. In fact considering the 150-minute length of the film, very little actually happens in it. And what happens is not very interesting. In this kind of a film which is more slow-burning tension than gung-ho action, there has to be a tangible factor of tension and danger involved to all major characters. I did not feel that at all. Patrick McGoohan gave a good performance as the cold-hearted secret agent but he has been much better elsewhere – The Prisoner, Braveheart, even Escape from Alcatraz. Everyone else was just slumming.”


    • To be honest, it’s been such a long time since I watched this film, I’ve pretty much forgotten what it was all about, except for the fact that it made it quite obvious that Ice Station Zebra was made during the Cold War. It cannot have been frightfully memorable, I suppose, now that I think about it…


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