Ice Station Zebra: Patrick McGoohan steals the show in John Sturges’ taut cold war thriller adapted from the Alistair MacLean bestseller

Ice Station Zebra(1968), directed by the great action director, John Sturges, is an adaptation of Alistair McLean’s eponymous adventure novel set during the cold war, and features Rock Hudson, Jim Brown and Earnest Borgnine in key roles alongside the great British actor, Patrick McGoohan, in a scène-stealing performance.

The first time i saw Patrick McGoohan was in Mel Gibson’s Braveheart(1995). He played King Edward Longshanks, the chief nemesis of Gibson’s Scottish hero, William Wallace. I was totally captivated by him in that film; he was so strange and unique, yet majestic and powerful; his voice was fantastic and his dialogue delivery was simply awesome. He could transform the most banal words into poetry with his musical delivery. I had never seen him in a film before and it will be quite a while before i would get to see him again. I guess, at the time, i just dismissed him as one among a million talented supporting actors who randomly pop up in big Hollywood productions and then disappear. The second time i saw McGoohan was in Ice Station Zebra(1968), directed by John Sturges and adapted from an Alistair MacLean novel of the same name. I was a big fan of both Sturges and MacLean, and that was the chief attraction for me. It was while watching this film that the actor playing the role of the mysterious British spy “Mr. Jones” caught my eye; his body language, his face, his voice, his dialogue delivery, all felt very familiar and striking. This was a film made almost 30 years before Braveheart, and McGoohan looked young and dashing; a far cry from the old, sour sack that King Edward was. So i couldn’t immediately make the connection. But when i did, i was once again blown away. “Zebra” was neither a top-tier Sturges film nor a great MacLean adaptation; it was average at best, with a bland Rock Hudson playing the nominal hero as the submarine captain. But the real hero was McGoohan, who acted rings around, not only Hudson, but also an over the top Ernest Borgnine and a rather underused Jim Brown; and that too in an overproduced, under-scripted, roadshow epic, the kind of film which can be merciless to good actors and performances. With his extraordinarily droll performance, McGoohan elevated the film from an average movie into an above-average or even a good film; at least an extremely entertaining and watchable film. Qualitatively, the film, when McGoohan is on screen, and, when he’s not, appear to be two completely different films. It’s another matter that the film itself appear to be two different kind of films combined together: the pre-intermission section set on a submarine is stylistically very different from the post-intermission section set on an artificially created North Pole. McGoohan’s charisma and his performance is so overpowering that even the phony artic sets, probably made of Styrofoam and created fully on studio soundstages, doesn’t spoil your fun. That’s the real measure of a great movie star-actor; any actor can score in a great film or a good film, but it’s the really great ones that make a film better purely by their presence\performance.

Such is the case, i wondered why i haven’t seen more of him?. Why wasn’t he a big star like his other British contemporaries like Richard Burton, Richard Harris or Michael Caine, who are much much inferior to him in screen presence or acting talent?. When i investigated further, i realized that he was a big star on British TV, having done two major series’: Danger Man(retitle Secret agent tin U.S.) and The Prisoner in the 60s. That was way before i was born, so it was natural that i missed it. He was also in contention for playing James Bond, twice; first in the early 60s, when Sean Connery won the role, and then later, when Connery retired from the role. He turned it down then because of religious reasons, as he was a strict catholic. He also turned down the role of Simon Templar in The Saint, which made Roger Moore a star. Still, it’s hard to believe that a man of such charisma and talent never made the transformation to a major movie star. McGoohan would have been terrific as Bond, and his role in Ice Station Zebra is basically a ‘James Bond’ type character, without the girls of course. There isn’t a single female character in the film, which is par for the course for Director, John Sturges. Sturges make films about men, and women are either insignificant or non-existent in his films. I don’t mean it as a putdown: if a director is very good, or even more comfortable, with masculine subjects then he should very well make them, and Sturges has proven beyond doubt he’s at his best when tackling subjects about men bonding together to overcome impossible odds. His best films: Bad day at Black Rock, Gunfight at OK Corral, The Magnificent Seven, The Great Escape and Hour of the Gun are all brilliant mainstream action pictures and bears testimony to his ability in tackling subjects of that sort. The subject matter of Ice Station Zebra also falls into the same bracket, and even though it does not reach the level of those great masculine action-adventure films from Sturges, it is not without its merits and still bear his characteristic touches.

The film’s plot evolves thus: the Soviet Union has launched a satellite containing a camera that is taking pictures of United States defense bases, but it malfunctions and start taking pictures of Russian missile installations as well. That satellite, upon reentry, ejects a capsule, which parachutes to the Arctic and falls near a British weather station named Ice Station Zebra. The capsule contains the camera in which the photographs of the missile installations are taken. Naturally, both the Americans and the Russians want the capsule. The Americans sends its nuclear attack submarine, USS Tigerfish, commandeered by Captain James Ferraday(Rock Hudson) on the mission to find the capsule; a passenger from British secret service, David Jones (Patrick McGoohan), goes along to provide expert knowledge, and along the way, a Russian defector, Boris Vaslov(Earnest Borgnine), whom Jones trust, and a US Marine Captain, Anders(Jim Brown), also joins the voyage. The Jones-Vaslov duo does not trust Ferraday-Anders duo, and vice versa, and it makes for some tense moments on the voyage; there is also possibility of sabotage aboard the sub, and all folks involved are wondering if there is a spy aboard the submarine intend on sabotaging the mission. Jones thinks that the spy is Anders, while Ferraday thinks it is Vaslov, but the suspicions are never properly resolved Finally, the American vessel makes it to the weather station, but even more of a disaster has occurred there; a fire has broken out, there are survivors, but they are in no shape to go capsule hunting. And, to make matters worse, the Russians have sent an air force strike to Zebra in order to lay claim to this camera and its film contents. All these elements converge to create a nerve-wracking standoff in the climax, with US Marines on one side, Russian paratroopers on the other, and Jones, Vaslov and Ferraday caught in the middle, with the hunt for the capsule(and a possible spy) still on.

Ice Station Zebra is based on Alistair MacLean’s 1963 novel of the same name. In 1968, two Alistair Maclean movie adaptation hit the screen: the first was Where Eagles Dare, a ‘Men on a Mission’ adventure set during WWII starring Clint Eastwood and Richard Burton. That film was a critical and box office smash and continues to be a very popular film. The second one was Zebra, which was not an outright flop, but it failed to recover its huge investment, that was close to $10 million dollars. It was also not a critic favorite either, generating mixed to bad reviews. But over the years, it has generated a cult following. Zebra was published soon after the stupendous success of the movie adaptation of MacLean’s Guns of Navarone(1961). So there was a huge interest in adapting his novels. Zebra was originally intended to reteam the Guns of Navarone stars, Gregory Peck and David Niven, but a lack of a good enough script and other technical issues delayed the film. The first draft of the script was written by Paddy Chayefsky of all people, and looked more like a stage play. When director John Sturges came on board to direct, he had that script thrown out, and commissioned a new one from TV writer Douglas Heyes. Finally, When Sturges was ready to make this film, Peck and Niven were busy and had to be replaced with Hudson and McGoohan. The basic plot of the film is pretty interesting and was based on some actual events that took place during the cold war era. The script of the film deviates considerably from the novel in certain aspects, especially in the final act to make it more cinematic. The climax in the book would not have worked on film. The characters of Vaslov and Anders are additions made specifically for the film.

Though the film’s story make it look like another typical John Sturges adventure, the main difference here is that this was designed to be a big roadshow production, and hence had to have a certain length and deliver a certain amount of spectacle. Sturges’ previous films like The Great Escape may have boasted an epic runtime and an abundance of characters, but they were lean, mean and austere productions purely driven by plot and action. Zebra has a runtime of 150 minutes and it just doesn’t have enough plot to carry it that long. At 100 minutes (or less) this would have been a tight, tense thriller. Also, Sturges had just burned himself badly with his first roadshow production, the Burt Lancaster starrer, The Hallelujah Trail(1965): which was not only a box office disaster, but was also a botched production that lead to the death of a stuntman. The ill-effects of making that film clearly drained a lot of his filmmaking abilities, and he wasn’t the same director again. It also didn’t help that they never could work out a satisfying ending for this film, and had to make up a lot of stuff on the location, which just isn’t convincing. This is very much felt in the final portions of this film, which are some of the tamest Sturges had ever put together: we get a little bit of a firefight between Americans and Russians, then yellow smoke, then lots and lots of talk; this is one of the most talkative films Sturges had made. That’s a strict no no for an action-adventure film intended to be shown on a Cinerama screen. Also, the action in Zebra is confined to very claustrophobic locations, first inside a submarine and then on the snowy Artic station; both of which are fully created on studio soundstages. Sturges, on the other hand, is a full-blooded outdoor filmmaker, who shot a predominantly one-location movie like The Great Escape in Germany rather than on Hollywood soundstages. So this film was quite a misfit for him. Sturges himself regretted making the film, which he did predominantly for the money; with this film he became the highest paid director in the industry, surpassing even the great David Lean. The fact that Sturges’ last film, Hour of the Gun (one of his best films), was a commercial disaster must have also played a part in prompting him to seek out a sure-fire box office success formula, and what could be better than adapting a MacLean bestseller.

The film was photographed in the extremely wide Panavision70 format and Metrocolor by Cinematographer David L. Fapp, and he won an Oscar nomination for his work in this film. His use of wide angled lenses to capture the action inside the submarine is extremely effective, and give the film a spacious, epic scope. Moreover, his use of color in the Artic portions to capture the studio bound sets give it a very stylized quality, which may not be in tune with the kind of film that they are making, but it looks really beautiful. Truly, the Artic portions are the most divisive element in the film. It’s like the first half is a “Das Boot” like taut submarine thriller, and then post-interval, it becomes a sort of Sci-fi or fictional fantasy, with the North Pole resembling a fantasy land straight out of Chronicles of Narnia or Alice in Wonderland or an alien planet from Star Wars or Ice Pirates. The characters wear Parkas, Mufflers, goggles and assorted gear, but when the final confrontation happens, their faces are fully uncovered. If they did that in the Arctic weather, their noses would have fallen off. Not to mention the fact that the characters speak for a long time without being out of breath, and worse, we cant even see their breath in such a cold climate. Also, there are narrative issues as well: once the mission-team reaches “Station Zebra”, the tension and suspense that have been built up till that point simply dissipates; because there’s hardly much plot to cover here; the rogue agent in the middle is quickly revealed and from then on the film drags to its ultimate conclusion. Now, I’m no climatic pendant or stickler for authenticity. I know that we cant have an entire second half with expensive stars covered from head to toe and barely speaking to each other. That’s not what audiences pay money to watch. And again this is more of a ‘James Bond’ style fantastical adventure rather than an realistic war thriller. Also, i do realize that a film should work first foremost as a piece of cinema and realism comes only second. But i guess the tonal shifts from the first half to the second half is too severe to ignore it. The film was designed to be shown on the giant, curvy Cinerama screens, and i wonder how good or bad these scenes played on it. I have seen it only on DVD and Blu-ray; obviously Blu-ray looked much better. It looks other-worldly and enchanting, with the actors’ colorful costumes set against this fantastical background.

Unfortunately, the same cannot be said about the performances of the actors (barring McGoohan of course). Ernest Borgnine, who by nature is an over the top actor, is saddled with a bizarre Russian accent that makes his performance intolerable. Jim Brown is cool as usual, but he doesn’t have much do, and is put on the sub only to have an extra guy for the audience to be suspicious of. Frankly, the whole ‘spy on the sub’ angle is rather uninteresting and redundant in the overall scheme of the film. It’s a common theme in all of MacLean’s novels; whether it’s Guns of Navarone or Where Eagles Dare, there is always one or more guys among the team who is hell-bent on sabotaging the mission. But here, the film version diverges from the novel on this point; it’s a key factor in the novel, but not much needed in the film. Anyway there are only 4 main characters here, and once we remove Ferraday and Jones from our suspicions, its a toss up between Vaslov and Anders. So, the resolution becomes very predictable. Rock Hudson is not bad as Ferraday, but he was always an actor of very limited ability. He’s blown off the screen every time he comes face to face with McGoohan. I wonder how Gregory Peck would have fared in the same role; not much better i feel, because the role itself is too bland and colorless. It would have been more interesting to watch a grander, larger-than-life actor like Charlton Heston play the role. His confrontations with McGoohan would have been electrifying. Heston was offered the role after Peck became unavailable, but Heston rightly assessed the lack of characterization in the role and rejected it.

But all that said, Sturges still makes the first half of the films really thrilling. His uncluttered and clean visual style comes real handy in staging scenes inside a submarine; the scenes possesses some of the dynamism and the spare, austere style of his great films. The suspense is also built up with precision, with characters being introduced one after another, and the plot twists taking off from there. It also helps that the audiences are put in Captain Ferraday’s shoes right from the beginning of the film, and he has no clear idea what the whole mission is supposed to be. He is only ordered to take Jones to the Artic weather station. Jones is the lynchpin of the operation and the one who has full knowledge of the entire plot. He is one cagey, tightly-wound fellow, who gives out information only when there’s a terrible need to do so. So as when Ferraday extracts (or gets) information from Jones about the mission, we, the audience, discover things along with him. That’s a superb set-up for ratcheting up the suspense quotient. And here again we come back to McGoohan’s terrific performance. A guy who withholds information from the main protagonist (and thereby the audiences) comes across as irritating, but it’s to his credit that he makes it interesting and fun.

Right from the moment McGoohan makes his entrance as ‘David Jones’, we have his attention. He’s introduced in classic film Noir style: a car arrives on the docks in the night, a flashlight is shone into the darkness of the inside of the car, and his face suddenly appears out of the darkness. The name David Jones is obviously phony, and Jones himself makes fun of the fact: he once killed a man named Jones, but not for carrying that name. Also, he may come across as a strange character, but he insists he doesn’t have any character, he always assume one. McGoohan plays him as very cool, but he’s also quite volatile underneath, and is addicted to a mixture of coffee and whiskey that he repeatedly uses as a relaxant. That gives his performance an extra edge; it’s unpredictable, and you don’t know what he’s going to do or say next. The dialogues he’s given to work with are all pure gold. I would really like to know how much of it was written by the film’s writers and how much of it was made up by McGoohan himself; he’s a great writer in his own right, and the words he speak bears the distinct imprint of his personality. The dialogues sparkles when it comes to him, but is barely serviceable when it comes to others.

Sample this: when Ferraday insist on knowing more about the mission, he simply blurts out: “Those orders come to you from your Chief of Naval Operations, and direct to him from your President, so before we go any further, I suggest that you get me there, put another torpedo up the spout, blow a hole in the ice, and get me up there“. The first part of the dialogue is delivered coldly, but when it reaches the end, he has a kind of nervous breakdown and slams his hand on the table. There is a terrific action sequence that follow the sabotage of the torpedoes, in which sea water rushes in flooding the compartment and the sub nosedives to the bottom of the ocean, before it is saved in the nick of time. It was Jones who helped out in saving the sub from crashing, and we realize that he knows more about submarines than he ought to. That’s the same thought that befuddles Ferraday as well and he confronts him with it. Jones retorts with the snappy line: “I know how to wreck them, and I know how to lie, steal, kidnap, counterfeit, suborn and kill. That’s my job. I do it with great pride.” But the real tour de force is a little speech that he gives immediately after he saves the sub and finds out how the torpedoes were sabotaged: “You cross-connect the hydraulic manifold to the outside door mechanism so that the indicator reads shut when the door is actually open. The same sort of electrical cross on these two panels, and the open position reads green when it should flash red. Then you plug up the inlet to the test cock with chewing gum, sealing wax, anything… just so that it shows a dribble. And then you open the tube, and Good Night.“. He makes all that technical jargon sound really fun, delivering them in a tone close to a breakdown. Soon after this, we see him nervously scrambling around for whiskey and coffee. And his snappiness also save a hell of a lot of exposition in the Artic portion of the film, when he drolly explains to Ferraday what exactly went wrong and why they are there: “The Russians put our camera made by *our* German scientists and your film made by *your* German scientists into their satellite made by *their* German scientists.“. Huh!, i never stop laughing at that one. Indeed, without McGoohan, surviving this film is unthinkable. Michael Legrand’s sweeping score also adds an epic grandeur to the film.

9 thoughts on “Ice Station Zebra: Patrick McGoohan steals the show in John Sturges’ taut cold war thriller adapted from the Alistair MacLean bestseller

  1. You’re article about this classic film is way too long, however, i do agree on the constant dialogue between the characters which swiches the film from being a drama than being an action flick. But most espionage fans like myself will appreciate the theme content of the movie. Obviously the late patrick mcgoohan was cast because of his previous credits as a secret agent on television back in the 1960s era, glad you did you’re research on his career because i grew up watching his “dangerman” spy series in england. In my opinion, “ice station zebra” could do with a remake with film director christopher nolan at the helm we certainly would get more action.

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    1. Thanks for your response Baldwin. I do like to go Deep into the movies. That’s why it becomes a little long. Regarding a remake by Nolan, yes it would work, though I don’t know who today can effectively portray mcgoohan’s role

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  2. I am an unapologetic anglophile.Especially when it comes to film.In my pursuit of hidden cinema gems I came across one that I think you would find of interest.It is titled The Helldrivers or possibly The Hell Drivers.The lead was played by Stanley Blacker.The supporting characters were played by some very familiar names.Among them were Sean Connery (In a pre- eyebrow trimmed role),David McCallum,Jill Ireland (McCallum’s wife at the time) and Patrick McGoohan as the ov
    er the top psychopathic heavy.It is very interesting to watch since it was early in the careers of everybody involved and these individuals were involved in developing their own style of acting.I do not recall the directors name but it seems he had adequate control of the script and the cast.All that is but for the exception of Mr.McGoohan.When he was in a scene,it seemed as it was a bare stage because not only had he devoured the scenery but the drapes,windows and furniture as well.It was a low budget black&white production made in the 50’s and it shows.But does document the acting chops of those involved.I beleive it is worth checking out.

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    1. Yeah… I came across Hell Drivers one day (probably on TCM) and lit up seeing David McCallum with wife Jill Ireland together in it. It was a “thrilling ride” as adverts would say back then. I knew McCallum from Man from UNCLE and seeing Great Escape on network television was upset with the end train station scene.

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  3. Would like to see more film reviews by you mank, espicially the (1960s) and (1970s) era. Could i also be a contributor to you’re blog? Thanks for you’re reply it’s well appreciated.

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    1. My casting favourites for remake of film “ice station zebra” just my opinion, henry cavill or damian lewis for the character previously played by the late patrick mcgoohan.

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