Tag Archives: Ice Station Zebra

Not as cold as Ice Station Zebra, but still the cold war: The Spy Who Came in From the Cold (1963) starring Richard Burton and based on the novel by John le Carré.

The second movie in our cold war trilogy, The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, is a lot grittier than Ice Station Zebra.  Based on the Novel by John le Carre, which is actually the pen name for David John Moore Cornwell, who in the 1950’s and 1960’s who actually work for British intelligence agencies MI5 and MI6, and wrote a series of very successful novels presumably based on his experiences.  His novels are often contrasted with Ian Fleming’s sexy superhero type 007 James Bond movies and films, le Carre’s providing a more accurate portrait of cold war espionage.

The film describes secret agents as “seedy, squalid bastards,” and none is seedier or more squalid than Alec Leamas (Richard Burton), the weary semi-alcoholic brooder sent by British intelligence to East Germany.  The mission into East Berlin is slowly revealed as a complex, table-turning operation that involves Leamas’s idealist Communist librarian turned lover (Claire Bloom) and his vicious, Teutonic counterpart (Peter Van Eyck).  Purposefully going against the grain of a genre known for thrills, glamor and beautiful women, the film’s director Ritt crafts a sober, weighty atmosphere of moral ambiguity in which spies from both sides are bound by their ruthlessness both against the enemy and each other.

With the cold rain pouring at Checkpoint Charlie, in this transition zone stands Alec Leamas the head of the East German British desk waiting-no hoping for the successful defection of one of his spies.  The man in question appears and makes a run for it but is cut down by gunfire.  Leamas is then recalled to London by his boss, Control (Cyril Cusack), expecting to be fired.   Instead Control decides to keep Leamas “out in the cold” for a devilish plot.  Supposedly, Leamas is soon looking for work and ends up as of all things as a menial librarian. With booze as his only friend, he broods and builds up resentment against the British Secret Service.  He hooks up fellow librarian and British secretary of the communist party Nan Perry (Claire Bloom), but soon assaults a shopkeeper and ands up in jail.

Nan must like him though, and vice versa, since she meets him on his release from prison. Interestingly, there is another chap there to see his return to society and he approaches him in the park. Claiming to be from a charity which helps ex-convicts, Carlton (Robert Hardy) takes Leamas to an expensive lunch. This is all double-talk of course — in reality it’s an approach from the enemy, checking out a disgruntled ex-spy and finding out if he’ll defect. Leamas seems to feel that he doesn’t owe Britain anything and, somewhat grudging, seems to accept (purely for the $15,000.00).  Then Leamas circuitously makes his way to Smiley’s (Rupert Davies) house, for a meeting with Control. Everything becomes clear as Control outlines the plan, a devious and cunning attempt to discredit the top East German spy, Hans-Dieter Mundt (Peter Van Eyck). With haste, Leamas is flown to Holland for de-briefing by Fiedler (Oskar Werner), the second in command to Mundt. The crux of the plan is that Fiedler detests Mundt and would do anything to destroy him and tries to but is burned in the process as we discover Mundt is actually a British agent working deep under cover.

The skills that Leamas has for espionage based on his years of experience, keep him alive as he weaves a convincing tale for Fiedler.  Realizing the “truth”, Fiedler bundles Leamas back to East Germany, where he hopes to bring down Mundt in a closed trial. Leamas is an added complication though since he insists that Mundt couldn’t have been a double-agent (he was head of East German operations and would have known). Fiedler still manages to force a trial though, absolutely convinced that Mundt is betraying his country, and the closed session begins. It seems as though the tribunal will rule against Mundt, resulting in his execution, until his defense lawyer presents an unexpected witness—Nan the librarian, whose testimony puts Fiedler into his grave. 

Mundt, though detested by Leamas and vice-versa, arranges for his and Nan’s exfiltration.  They need to get over the wall.  Everything is arranged, the guards are told to keep their spotlights away from a certain part of the wall long enough for the two to climb over.  However, as Leamas and Nan are climbing, their driver shoots Nan in the back (probably because she could prove to be a liability and expose everything) who falls to the ground.  Leamas is standing on the top of the wall as the alarms go off and spotlights shine on the area.  He is urged by fellow agent Smiley to jump.  Leamas does jump, but back to East Germany where he is shot by the guards before he hits the ground.

As the flip-side to the cartoonish antics of James Bond, this movie is both a welcome antidote and a snapshot of the now elegantly departed Cold War era.  The script has believable dialogue (most of the time the characters talk in metaphors, never actually voicing the real meaning) with a slow, wary pacing which reflects the nature of spying (the movie lasted about 90 minutes but felt like 3 hours—a good three hours though).  However, Richard Burton’s acting as the burnt-out, disillusioned, semi-alcoholic, shambling agent is fantastic.  The supporting actors are good, but their performances pale in comparison. The technical aspects, such as the cinematography, are noteworthy, working together to create an atmosphere where human lives are somehow worthless, where information is all that matters.  In summary, a cracking story with superb acting which reflects on a lost but not forgotten period in history.

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Posted by on October 12, 2013 in Movie Reviews


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How cold could the cold war get? Pretty cold: Ice Station Zebra (1968)

You may ask JPFmovies “Why Ice Station Zebra” as a choice for one of the cold war trilogies?  Our interest in the film stems more from the movies biggest fan that the film itself: the one time wealthiest man in the world Howard Hughes.  The Reclusive billionaire (and this is in the 1970’s) Hughes, had experience both as a movie producer and a defense contractor for the United States, watched a private print of Ice Station Zebra 150 times on a continuous loop in his private hotel suite during the years prior to his death.  The film is the epitome of cold-war era espionage films it stared Rock Hudson, Patrick McGoohan, Ernest Borgnine, and NFL legend Jim Brown.  The films screenplay is loosely based upon 1963 novel of the same name that has roots to in real events that apparently took place in 1959.

As was typical in the cold war, NATO and the Warsaw Pact nations were in a race for something: a satellite and ejected a capsule which parachuted to the Arctic Ocean ice pack.

Leading the race for the U.S. was Commander James Ferraday (Rock Hudson), captain of the U.S. nuclear attack submarine USS Tigerfish (SSN-509), stationed at Holy Loch, Scotland.  He is ordered to rescue the personnel at Ice Station Zebra, a British civilian scientific weather station moving with the ice pack.  However, the mission is actually a cover for a highly classified assignment.  As he soon discovers a secretive Mr. “Jones” (Patrick McGoohan) and a platoon of U.S. Marines are aboard his boat.  While underway, a helicopter delivers combat Commander Captain Anders (Jim Brown), who takes over the Marines, and Boris Vaslov (Ernest Borgnine), an amiable Russian defector and spy, who is a trusted colleague of Jones.

The Tigerfish makes its way under the ice to Zebra’s last-known position.  But the ice is too thick so they decide to use a torpedo to blast an opening.  It really doesn’t work out too well as the crewmen suddenly find the torpedo tube is open at both ends, killing one crewman and sending the sub sinking until its breaking point.  While the sub recovers, and investigation determines that this malfunction should be impossible but Jones describes how someone could intentionally rig the tube to malfunction.  The Capitan and his mysterious passenger Jones each conclude there is a saboteur aboard.  Then the sub finds a patch of ice that is thin enough to break through and boat surfaces.

The team approaches the camp to look for survivors, but it is clear the Jones and his fellow spy are not too concerned with the people but are desperately looking for something.  Ferraday is nobody’s fool and demands that he give him the full story.  So Jones fesses up that Britain’s, America’s and the Russian German scientists stolen after the war created a an advanced experimental British camera was stolen by the Soviets, along with an enhanced film emulsion developed by the Americans. The Soviets combined the two and sent it into orbit to photograph the locations of the all the American missile bases.  However, the camera malfunctioned and continued to record Soviet missile sites as well and then a second malfunction forced re-entry in the Arctic, close to Ice Station Zebra.  Soon after, undercover Soviet and British agents arrived to recover the film capsule, and the civilian scientists at Zebra were caught in the crossfire between them.

As the weather clears, Ferraday sets his crew to searching for the capsule. Jones eventually finds a hidden tracking device.  He is blind-sided and knocked unconscious by Vaslov, who is a Soviet agent and the saboteur they have been looking for.  But before Vaslov can make off with his prize, he is confronted by Anders.  As the two men fight, a dazed Jones shoots and kills Captain Anders due to Vaslov’s manipulation of the scenario.

Hot on their heels are Soviet aircraft heading toward Zebra.  Ferraday and his men find the capsule buried in the ice.  While Ferraday’s crew extracts the capsule, Russian paratroopers land at the scene and their commander, Colonel Ostrovsky, demands the capsule.  Believing that the Americans have already secured the canister, the Russian commander threatens to activate the self-destruct mechanism with his radio-detonator.  Ferraday stalls while Vaslov defuses the booby-trapped capsule and takes out the film. Ferraday hands over the empty container, but the deception is revealed and a brief firefight breaks out.  In the confusion, Vaslov makes a break with the film canister.  Jones stops Vaslov, mortally wounds him, and retrieves the film.

Ferraday orders Jones to hand the film over to the Soviets. However, Ferraday had earlier found a radio-detonator identical to Ostrovsky’s.  The Russians send the canister aloft by balloon for recovery by an approaching jet fighter.  Marine lieutenant Walker makes a desperate attempt to get Ostrovsky’s detonator, but fails and is killed.  Commander Ferraday then activates his detonator, destroying the film.  Both sides leave the area under the pretense that everyone was there to rescue the civilians.

Ice Station Zebra was released on October 23, 1968. The film became a major hit, which gave a much-needed boost to Rock Hudson’s flagging career.

Why does it provide an example of the cold war era?  Simple, once again the two sides are stuck in a stalemate as they both wanted the film that revealed secrets about the other but while on the brink of war, each side actually ends up with nothing.  This was the reality of the cold war: two sides teetering on the brink of conflict but neither one getting the better of the other.  Those of you too young to experience the cold war will never know the feeling of always having to look over your shoulder to see if the enemy was there.



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Posted by on September 28, 2013 in Movie Reviews


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The Cold War–A Tribute.

I was watching my step daughter’s history documentary list for school and one of the last videos supposedly documents the Cold War.  Then it hit me.  Both she and her younger sister have no idea what living during the cold was like.  In fact, my ten year old even asked” “Why would anyone have an iron curtain?”

So our next tribute (which as you know is always three movies) is dedicated to films representing or otherwise try to capture the tension of the cold war.  Our first film, Ice Station Zebra (1968) is a classic staring (among others) Rock Hudson, Earnest Borgnine and Jim Brown.  One little known fact about this movie is that one of my hero’s (before he went off the deep end) the great pilot Howard Hughes was said to have watched the film on a continuous loop over 150 times in one sitting.

Our second movie in The Cold War tribute is The Spy Who Came in Out of the Cold (1965) starring Richard Burton and is about a British Spy who is stuck in East Germany,

The third and final tribute to the Cold War is The Hunt For Red October (1990) starring Alec Baldwin, Sean Connery, Fred Thompson, James Earl Jones and Sam Neill.  The formidable cast in the film makes it a great movie to watch and is even relatively clean for the kids.

So there you have it.  Our tribute to the Cold War—watch for the pending reviews.


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Posted by on September 21, 2013 in Movie Reviews


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