Ice Station Zebra Reviews
There are some fantastic set pieces in this opening act which include the submarine trying to find out exactly where Ice Station Zebra might be (since it floats with the ice pack), a disastrous accident that seems to be the result of sabotage, and, right before intermission (this being a roadshow engagement, after all), the sub finally managing to crack through the ice pack to hopefully complete its mission, whatever that might be. But then things begin to go horribly, horribly wrong. We've already been led to believe that there's a spy on board, courtesy of the "accident" which seems anything but. The suspects are really limited to Jones, Anders or Vaslov, and the writing here is not nuanced enough to make the eventual denouement much of a surprise.
More problematic is the film's ridiculously lethargic second act, which sees the bulk of the action playing out on obvious studio sets designed to approximate the frozen Arctic wilderness. Once the real reason for the mission comes to light, many are probably going to be asking in disbelief, "That's it?", and that disbelief isn't just the result of a 21st century cynicism-my hunch is audiences in 1968 were probably just as incredulous. The film devolves into a showdown between those nefarious Russkies and the stalwart Americans, and if there's a bit of political nuance that actually creeps into the screenplay, it's clad in an overall "us vs. them" scenario that undercuts any attempt at shades of gray.
If Ice Station Zebra had simply been judiciously trimmed, it might have been one of the biggest blockbusters of the late sixties. As it stands, it seems to be one of the best examples of the major studios attempting-in vain-to recapture the glory days of old with big budget epics that simply didn't have the intrinsic elements to support the gargantuan productions. There's really nothing inherently horrible about Ice Station Zebra and the first half of the film is a surprisingly brisk and exciting entertainment. There's an old adage in the legitimate theater about "second act problems" and that's pretty much exactly what the issue with Ice Station Zebra is. The problem is when a film reaches its conclusion, it's that second act that's most vividly in the audience's mind, while the first act is already beginning to fade into the cold Arctic mist.
McGoohan is interesting and Rock Hudson makes for a congenial captain, but the rest of the casting doesn't pay off very well. Ernest Borgnine never impresses as the friendly Russian spy, simply because he's too familiar. Jim Brown gives it his best, but he's just not actor enough to make his tough Marine character work. Tony Bill's young officer has too predictable a fate; in fact, all three of them are trapped in cornball plot twists that aren't particularly enjoyable.
The disappointing second half of Ice Station Zebra wouldn't be so bad if the physical production were better. As soon as the armed soldiers leave the Tigerfish they step into truly phony stage-bound sets. The ice floe is a uniformly white and blue expanse dotted with conveniently uniform little outcroppings of ice. Fake blown snow and superimposed optical snow add to the artificiality. Visibility remains excellent, nobody has frost on their breath and everything is lit as if this were a Doris Day movie. Likewise, the arrival of Russian jets is covered by some supremely fake angles of static models locked in front of dizzying views of arctic scenery speeding by. In other words, the visual end of the movie falls on its face.
This isn't a film for fans of deep, intricate, nuanced acting. Everyone in the film has one, and only one, note to play. Patrick McGoohan's note is "hair-trigger." He succumbs to a bit of overacting at times; I doubt a real spy would be as jumpy as a chihuahua. Borgnine kinda sorta looks Russian, a little bit-but that's where the similarity ends. He's more convincing as Mermaid Man on SpongeBob Squarepants. Jim Brown has so little to do that I'm not entirely sure I didn't imagine him. Only Hudson escapes relatively unscathed.
The one thing that is good about Ice Station Zebra is casting Patrick McGoohan as a British secret agent similar to his character in the show Danger Man or Secret Agent