Ice Station Zebra
Someone at Warner Home Video has a sly wit. When the DVD distributor came to package Ice Station Zebra, this anonymous but sage individual attached to it the trailer for The Aviator, Martin Scorsese's biopic about Howard Hughes from John Logan's script. Scorsese's film follows the tycoon only from the late 1920s to the early 1950s, taking leave of Hughes just as the loony years were mounting in earnest. That was the time of Mormon lieutenants, hotel suite habituation, unclipped fingernails, and multiple daily screenings of Ice Station Zebra. Yes, this Cold War thriller was Hughes's favorite film. Near the end of his life the recluse showed it to himself continuously in a private screening room (or had the local Las Vegas TV station he owned do repeat airings). The question is, why? If Hughes had any sentience left, what did he find so attractive about Ice Station Zebra? A wild guess is that this tale of subversion and deception appealed to the aging Red-baiter, who, while owner of RKO, used the response to the script of a film he wanted to make, eventually shot as The Woman on Pier 13 (aka I Married a Communist) as a loyalty test. Or maybe the (according to Charles Higham, anyway) bisexual Hughes was simply in love with Rock Hudson, here at his robust best. Or maybe the man who spent his remaining decades confined to hotel rooms identified with the denizens of a cramped submarine. Whatever Hughes's interest, Ice Station Zebra bears other marks of distinction. It earns a place in history as one of the last of 11 Cinerama films (the single projector kind, though it was shot in the Super Panavision widescreen format). And it was a film shown repeatedly on cable television in the 1980s, as if the owners of the burgeoning premium channels viewed the public as budding Hugheses who couldn't get enough of the thing.
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Ice Station Zebra, released in 1968, is an adaptation of a techno-thriller by Alistair MacLean, whose vogue was just about running out at that time. The plot concerns nuclear sub captain Jim Ferraday (Rock Hudson), whose emergency task is to transport mysterious secret agent man David Jones (Patrick McGoohan) to the North Pole. There Jones will fetch, before the Soviets get it, a downed satellite camera from the weather station of the title. The film's McGuffin, this reel of film contains photos of key Soviet and American missile bases around the globe, and would give either side dominating intel about the other. Unfortunately among the team is a Soviet spy, who sabotages the sub. And who is this fifth columnist? Is it Russian refugee Boris Vaslof (Ernest Borgnine)? Is it Marine captain Anders (a wasted Jim Brown)? Is it Jones himself? Surely it couldn't be Captain Ferraday? When the team finally reaches the North Pole, the film transitions from expansive exterior shots of the sub at sea to studio-bound sets of duplicated ice blocks. These scenes are a far cry from John Carpenter's The Thing, but his crew probably watched Zebra anyway if for no other reason than for what to avoid. Credited writer Douglas Heyes's script is one of those "arrivals and departures" texts, in which every scene hinges on some new person arriving or the sub casting off yet again. Eventually, most of this footage grows very boring, with endless takes of Hudson walking from one pub to another to get his assignment, or of cars pulling up to planes, or of Soviet jets badly matted against what looks like footage left over from Dr. Strangelove. The jittery Hughes must have found such footage relaxing. Warner offers a clean, subdued anamorphic transfer (2.20:1) of the Metrocolor Ice Station Zebra with a new Dolby Digital 5.1 audio track, in English and French, which makes Michel Legrand's terrific score sound great but does little for the unimaginative sound cues. Supplements consist of a contemporaneous "making of" (7 min.) that focuses on second-unit cameraman John Stephens, who made innovative use of especially mounted cameras in Grand Prix, and here captured the first successful POV images of a real sub descending into the sea (he later worked on Titanic and numerous other films). In addition, there is the theatrical trailer, plus trailers for Bad Day at Black Rock, Giant, and Where Eagles Dare. The 152-minute movie also comes with an overture, an intermission, and exit music. Keep-case.