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Senior Shackster
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Discussion Starter · #1 · (Edited)
Baby it's cold outside...or was it? Well perhaps not on the MGM stage where "Ice Station Zebra" was shot. It was probably extremelly hot under those arc lights in 65mm. So hot I'm surprised steam didn't emit from the actor's artic coats rather than cold air from their mouths which was conspicuously missing.

All kidding aside, I actually enjoyed "Ice Station Zebra" despite it's bad reputation. It's an entertaining but flawed movie.

Here's the background...

There are a number of reason's for this movie's initial poor reception. First and foremost is that it was the movie that replaced MGM's cult hit, "2001: A Space Odyssey". Stanley Kubrick shot his innovative masterpiece in England in near complete secrecy and was able to ensure creative control in his contract. The brass at the studio didn't see the movie until it's Roadshow premiere in 70mm Cinerama and they were shocked if not aghast at what was on the screen. They had no idea what the movie was about nor how to sell it based on their coming attraction trailers. They anticipated the biggest bomb in that studio's history and put all of their hope and hype into the considerably more mainstream release of "Ice Station Zebra". Another Alistair McLean dramatization of his formula but fun adventure novels. So much so that they pre-booked this film in their Cinerama theaters to replace what they antipated as poor box-office for the Kubrick film.

Then something unexpected happened. Despite generally bad critical response if not outright condemnation for the Kubrick movie, it became an immediate sensation and 'talking points' hit. So much so that the studio ended up abandoning the hard ticket policy of all Roadshow movies which forced audiences to pre-order tickets for reserved seats by mail prior to the release. It became a 'youth' hit (although this wasn't intended by Kubrick) and
head movie. People starting showing up at the Cinerama theaters to see the feature multiple
times, toting up during the climatic star gate sequence. MGM didn't know what to do other than letting whomever wanted to purchase their tickets at the theater, forgetting reserved seats. This policy ended up being adopted by other theaters and while "Roadshow" exclusive presentations continued through the eighties (i.e. "Star Wars", "Close Encounters") the reserved seat formula was discontinued.

To make matters more bewildering for the brass at MGM, when they pulled the profitable
Kubrick film from the Cinerama theaters and replaced it with "Ice Station Zebra", there were actual protests from the moviegoing public. So much so that for the first time in cinema history, they brought back "2001" in Cinerama after "Ice Station Zebra" had played out and the Kubrick film did even better business on it's second run. This was still prior to it's general release in 35mm.

So movie buffs pretty much condemned this old style adventure flick as outdated and hokey. There was much to be critical of. The special effects were somewhat embarassing compared to Kubrick's film. He set the bar so high that all other pictures made in that era seemed primitive.

"2001" featured camera negative optical effects. In other words, Kubrick double and tripled
exposed the miniatures and space backgrounds on the camera negative. No process photography of ships superimposed on rear screen like they do in this movie. No fake artic sets which are obviously artificial without cold breath coming out of the actor's mouth. In comparison, Frank Capra shot the snow scenes in a freezer for "Lost Horizon" way back in 1937 so they would look believable. How could a 1968 feature try to fake such things?

Well now it's 41 years later and we can watch this movie with a clean slate. Yes, it's a Cold
War movie with a clever but anti-climatic resolution. Yes, the artic sets are completely artificial and phony looking, the shots of the plane superimposed on rear screen are embarassing. And turning this minor Cold War adventure into an bloated Roadshow was probably not a wise decision. An overture and an awkwardly placed intermission seemed out of place. "The Guns of Navarone" was released as a standard general release eight years earlier even though it was the same length.

But...if you can ignore those flaws, it's an entertaining flick. The premise is fun. A spy satellite crashes in the artic. Amercians and Russians race to retrieve it because it took survelliance photos of military secrets. On the American side is Rock Hudson as the stoic commander of a nuclear sub. On board is the late Patrick McGoohan as the type of cynical spy that resigned in his weird "Prisoner" series which was in production at the same time. Then there is football star and ex-Dirty Dozen member, Jim Brown, as a tough army commander along for the ride. Finally, there is Ernest Borgnine over acting shamelessly as a Russian double agent. It takes a long time to get to Ice Station Zebra but that is part of the fun. There are some submarine plot devices borrowed from other movies along the way including sabotage and trying to break through the ice. While it does drag on for a long time, I was still entertained. Rock Hudson claimed it was his favorite role although I thought he gave a more nuanced performance in "Giant". It was also one of Howard Hughes favorite flicks which he screened over and over again in his home theater (which projected
films not video). I have no idea why.

The cinematography and standard video transfer (anamorphically enhanced) is very impressive. This movie was shot in 65mm so it looks razor sharp and fine grain. Of course for the process shots that makes the movie look more rediculous but in general it's a very pleasing image and I can imagine what it looked like projected in 70mm on the deeply curved Cinerama screen. The musical score by Michel Legrand is epic sounding and magestic and one of the attributes of the film. The 5.1 adaptation of the original six track magnetic stereo mix is good.

Like all MacLean stories, a team of military experts is assigned to a remote fortress with a mission to accomplish and there is a traitor among them. That was his formula but it worked and is fun to watch.

The suppliments include the MGM promo piece about the second unit photographer who shot
sequences with a special camera rig for the real nuclar submarine used for the exteriors is
pretty interesting for those who want to see how movies were shot in the pre-digital age.

Is this a great movie? No, it's a minor adventure bloated into a mock epic Roadshow
picture. Much ado about nothing (or very little in terms of plot) but also an example of sixties' filmmaking. So I recommend this providing you can ignore it's flaws. After the film is over the theme music will stick in your head and you'll hear the term 'thin ice, thin ice' in your mind.
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