Director: J. Lee Thompson
Screenplay: T.J. Morrison, Christopher Landon
Based on a Novel by: Christopher Landon
Starring: John Mills, Anthony Quayle, Sylvia Syms, Harry Andrews, Diane Clare
Running Time: 130 min
BBFC Certificate: PG
I watch an awful lot of classic films, but even I have plenty of ‘blind spots’; films that I or others feel I should have seen, but haven’t. Among these have been a handful of British classics, that even your typical Joe Bloggs in the UK has seen a hundred times. I’ve managed to cross off a couple of biggies this last couple of months though with my first viewing of The Great Escape during the Christmas break and now this, Ice Cold in Alex which is best known for one scene more than anything else. Can such films ever live up to decades of hype and cries of “what do you mean you’ve never seen…” though?
If you’ve never seen Ice Cold in Alex (what do you mean you’ve never seen Ice Cold in Alex!?) it’s based on true accounts of the Western Desert Campaign of the WWII. Captain Anson (John Mills) is the officer commanding a British RASC Motor Ambulance Company. When it becomes clear that their station is due to come under attack, Anson is ordered to escort most of his unit out of Tobruk, back up to Alexandria (the Alex of the title), whilst a handful of troops remain to face a siege. As the evacuation begins though, Anson comes across a couple of nurses, Diana Murdoch (Sylvia Syms) and Denise Norton (Diane Clare), who have become separated from an earlier evacuation. So, in an Austin K2/Y ambulance nicknamed ‘Katy', Anson and his second in command Tom Pugh (Harry Andrews) decide to drive them across the desert back to British lines. This trip proves particularly treacherous, not helped by Anson’s battle fatigue and alcoholism. They also pick up a South African officer, Captain van der Poel (Anthony Quayle), whose strength and grasp of the German language prove useful, however Pugh and Murdoch find him more than a little suspicious. Can the ragtag bunch make it to safety and the ice cold lager of the title that Anson craves?
Old British war movies can be a bit hard to swallow these days. They tend to be overstuffed with ‘stiff upper lip’ tropes and hampered by black and white views of ‘good guys’ and ‘bad guys’. Things changed as the years went on and memories of the war grew distant, but the 50s were still rife with flag-waving, simplistic tales of unflustered heroes kicking the old Jerries up the backside. So I was pleased to see that Ice Cold in Alex avoided such pitfalls, despite its age.
For one, the film has flawed, interesting characters. It’s as much a drama about the mental impact of war and alcoholism as it is a war movie. Mills’ Anson is a troubled character who’s hard to warm to. Mills plays him well enough for the audience to care though, bringing out the human frailty behind his bitter attacks on those around him. Quayle’s van der Poel is an interesting addition to the bunch too. His arrogant macho posturing hiding some secrets to be revealed further down the line. Murdoch and Pugh are a bit bland, but filling the film with tough, troubled types might make for a group that is difficult to root for. I didn’t buy the love story shoe-horned in towards the end though.
On top of the well drawn characters, the film’s depiction of the Germans is ahead of its time. They’re not straight up evil as they were often depicted closer to the war years. The Germans even let the British truck travel on once or twice when they cross paths and the finale offers up an interesting decision on what to do with a German spy in their midst.
Speaking of the finale, the classic lager drinking scene at the end is fully deserving of its classic status. The moment is brilliantly realised and is backed up by the clever and suspenseful tying up of one of the film’s key plot points.
Indeed, the film is quite suspenseful throughout. Director J. Lee Thompson was a self-professed fan of Hitchcock and he demonstrates this through a handful of excellent set-pieces where the tension is ratcheted up close to breaking point. Among these are a slow walk through a minefield, a crumbling home-made jack for the truck, and an attempt to free van der Poel from quicksand. Overall perhaps it’s a little long and can feel leisurely paced here and there, but the regular flow of suspense sequences makes for an exciting watch.
So yes, Ice Cold in Alex did live up to the hype. Possibly not enough for me to give it the full five stars, as the tacked on love story bothered me and it could have been a little tighter perhaps, but all in all, the film is a solid war time adventure with strong characters and a knack for thrilling set pieces.
Ice Cold in Alex is out on 19th February on Blu-Ray in the UK, released by Studiocanal. The film has been polished up nicely, looking sharp and clean with a solid soundtrack.
Special features are as follows:
* NEW Steve Chibnall on J. Lee Thompson
* NEW Interview with Melanie Williams - Senior Lecturer in Film Studies, University of East Anglia
* Interview with Sylvia Syms
* John Mills Home Video Footage
* Original Trailer
* Behind The Scenes Stills Gallery
* Extended Clip from A Very British War Movie Documentary
It’s a satisfying collection of material, providing some juicy anecdotes and insight into the production, its background and the film’s reception.