Ice Station Zebra (1968)

Ice Station Zebra was such a good book (see my review here) that it would have been hard for a movie version to live up to it. Well, this movie didn't come close.

I favor films that follow books' plots faithfully. That doesn't mean word for word or even scene for scene; film and literature are different genres with their own strengths and weaknesses, and you can't duplicate one in the other. Still, when I like the way an author has written a tale, it pains me to see his ideas canned and replaced with vastly inferior ones, as happened with Ice Station Zebra.

At the most basic level, the movie imitates the film's plot: a British agent is sent on an American nuclear submarine to track down some film of incalculable intelligence value — and to find out how some scientists, and other agents, died — at an isolated Arctic science station. Beyond that, the screenwriter took appalling amounts of license with the plot. He added a couple of major characters; introduced a Soviet military incursion; and glossed over the detective work and psychological niceties that were the book's strengths. (Admittedly, it's hard to turn many of the protagonist's thoughts into video, but scenes that should have been taut became merely head-scratchers as various unidentifiable characters in huge fur-trimmed coats wandered about in a snowstorm.)

Rather than opposing intelligence operatives, the climactic confrontation is between the submarine commander and a Soviet counterpart. The latter is supposed to seem cultured and smart, but he takes absurd actions, such as giving his enemies two minutes to decide whether to relinquish the film to him. (He might as well have added, "I hope that's enough time for you to do something clever with it that would render it worthless to me.")

The acting is also disappointing, even for a 1960s thriller. Patrick McGoohan (star of the classic TV series "The Prisoner") gives us a cartoonish version of the British agent, bouncing between wry bon vivant and man of mystery. At more serious moments late in the movie, he merely looks pained. Rock Hudson, the submarine captain, makes a believable military commander, though his steely gaze and crisp declarations occasionally border on parody. Jim Brown (yes, the famous football star turned actor) is wooden as a supposed-to-be-tough Marine captain. And Ernest Borgnine — who had already enjoyed many maritime adventures in "McHale's Navy" — has the thankless task of portraying a Russian turncoat who tries to ingratiate himself (in a most grating way) with the Allied personnel.

Special effects also strike a jarring note. Repeated scenes of Russian fighter jets in flight are so obviously faked (with pasted-in backgrounds) that one wonders why the filmmakers decided to make them so long.

One last pair of weird touches: the movie begins with an extended musical interlude (with an unchanging screen image), and about halfway through the word "Intermission" appears while more music plays for a while. I've seen many movies from this era but don't recall those odd breaks in any others!

Overall, I didn't care for the plot changes, most of the acting, the strange musical delays, or much of anything else in this film.


(4 out of 10)