Wednesday, December 26, 2007


This big-budget spy/adventure flick was originally shown in the ballyhooed Cinerama format (as was 2001 the year before), so it must have looked especially good to theater audiences of the day. Unfortunately, though it's hardly a disaster, it's not nearly as compelling as it needs to be. A British weather station in the Arctic, code named Ice Station Zebra, has been sending out distress signals. Rock Hudson, a Navy commander, has been assigned by his boss, Lloyd Nolan, to take a team of men up there in a submarine to help out. Nolan lets Hudson know that his official mission is a cover-up for some more important top-secret doings, but he's left in the dark as to what those might be. Though technically in charge of the sub, Hudson has to play second fiddle to British agent Patrick McGoohan who knows exactly what the mission is: a Russian spy satellite (made from stolen British plans) has crashed near the weather station, and the Brits and Americans want to get to it before the Russians do. Also along for the ride: Ernest Borgnine as a Russian who has apparently turned into a spy for the Brits (or has he?) and Jim Brown as a tough Marine captain with a mysterious background. Because of bad weather, the sub has to go up under the ice pack, leading to some damage due to sabotage. Once they break through the ice, they find the station filled with mostly dead men and have to contend with an unknown spy (Could McGoohan be a traitor? Maybe even Hudson?) and a fleet of Soviet paratroopers before all the mysteries are solved. Though not a traditional spy thriller (no trenchcoats, no shadowy alleys, no sexy Bond girls), it is an almost archetypal Cold War drama, especially at its climax, and that kind of "period-drama" appeal makes it worth watching. Hudson is suitably stoic, Borgnine does the Russian shtick to the hilt, but it's McGoohan who is the most fun to watch, partly because he is such a slippery character. Jim Brown is surprisingly good in a role that, you realize after the fact, is pretty small, and handsome Tony Bill is the only other supporting actor to make an impression as an easy-going Marine who is resented by the tough-guy Brown. The sub must certainly be the biggest, roomiest one ever in a Hollywood movie (no claustrophobic atmosphere here). The Arctic sets are colorful and remarkably phony-looking, yet there is still an Old Hollywood charm to them. At 2-1/2 hours, it's way too long, which makes the DVR or a DVD the perfect way to watch it, so you can spread it out over an entire lazy Sunday afternoon. [TCM]

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