Wednesday, October 23, 2013

The Mysteries of Ice Station Zebra

David Jones (Patrick McGoohan): I once killed a man called Jones. Though not for that reason, of course.

I once heard "Ice Station Zebra," which premiered on this day in 1968, described as the ultimate Saturday afternoon movie.

And that's probably a pretty good description. It was a good action–thrilller, ideal for watching in a dark theater on a Saturday afternoon — even if it was difficult at times to follow the cloak–and–daggeresque Cold War plot.

Rock Hudson played the commander of a nuclear submarine who was ordered to rescue British personnel at a weather station in the Arctic — but that was really the cover for a classified mission of which only a mysterious Mr. Jones (played by Patrick McGoohan) knew the details.

Mr. Jones was one of three mysterious passengers on the sub. The other two were an anti–Soviet Russian defector (Ernest Borgnine) and the leader of a unit of Marines assigned to the mission (Jim Brown — that's right, the same Jim Brown who terrorized NFL defenses for years). At times, the dialogue crackled.

Inevitably, there were conflicts, even before the submarine experienced a mishap with the torpedo tube that left one man dead and the rest of the crew starting to comprehend what was going on. The crew didn't know the details, of course, but, by that point in the story, they had seen enough to connect some of the dots.

I don't know if the special effects would be terribly impressive to modern viewers, but, it seems to me, the effects were pretty good for the time. I wasn't the only one who thought so. Apparently, they were good enough to earn an Oscar nomination for visual effects — although not good enough to win.

In fact, for me, the special effects were the true stars of the show. I know they weren't as good as the special effects today, but, as I say, they were good for that time.

That doesn't mean I didn't think the actors did a pretty good job. And the story itself was pretty good. Turned out, both the Soviets and the Americans wanted what was on a satellite that landed near Ice Station Zebra. Both sides not only wanted what was on the satellite but also to prevent the other side from getting it. That latter objective may have had more importance than the former.

Thus, it was a problem for the crew of the submarine when they reached Ice Station Zebra, and the thing for which they had been sent was nowhere to be seen. At that point, the mysterious Mr. Jones and the other two nearly equally mysterious passengers revealed their murderous true colors.

Hudson's character was constantly caught between the agendas of the other three, but, after the film's intermission, McGoohan filled Hudson in on the details — well, some of them.

I have to think that the last half of the movie was weaker than the first. Supposedly, the reclusive Howard Hughes watched "Ice Station Zebra" over and over in the last years of his life, and, given the movie's early strengths, it isn't difficult to see the attraction.

(And, come to think of it, southern Nevada probably was a pretty good place to repeatedly watch a movie set in the Arctic.)

There was a lot of fighting in the second half of the movie, and some of the international characters wound up dead, which set up an ironic conclusion, in which Hudson's crew proceeded with their rescue mission while a news story on a teletype machine hailed it as an example of cooperation between West and East.

I never read Alistair MacLean's novel, upon which the movie was based, but I've heard that the film was mostly true to its source material — which was similar to two real–life events from the late 1950s. The primary differences apparently were the names of the submarine and Hudson's and McGoohan's characters' names.

Critic Roger Ebert didn't care for "Ice Station Zebra." He called it "a dull, stupid movie" and expressed disappointment in the special effects.

To each his own, I suppose. Director John Carpenter called it a "guilty pleasure."