Ice Cold in Alex Review
Ice Cold in Alex is the epitome of the British war film. Stiff upper lips are on display throughout, along with stoic heroism and self-deprecating humour. Except, it isn’t quite that simple. Made in 1958 it has one foot in the past and one in the future, movie-wise. Director J. Lee Thompson (The Guns of Navarone) embraces stereotypes while investing them with a gritty realism. And, just like last year's Dunkirk, it isn’t actually a war film. It’s suspense, with the desert and his own demons presenting more formidable foes to John Mills’ Captain Anson than the Germans.
Sat somewhere between The Wages of Fear and Flight of the Phoenix, it's powerful, nerve-shredding stuff that isn’t afraid to embrace the populist studio conventions of the time. On the contrary, Thompson’s films are fantastic, bold, full-blooded entertainment and Ice Cold in Alex pushes convention where it can, undermined only by one particular narrative habit of the time that couldn't be avoided. Otherwise, it is a firm favourite of many for good reason and with a sophistication that has carried it through the subsequent decades to new audiences. Sylvia Sims sums the film up perfectly in an interview included on this excellent 60th-anniversary release from StudioCanal: A "good old adventure story... with complicated characters".
The film is based on a book, itself a series of articles about the period. So, it isn’t a true story as such, but it is a real one. Set in 1942 in the Libyan war zone, the plot follows a British ambulance crew, forced to abandon their base following a German invasion. They become separated from the rest of their unit and must make it to Alexandria on their own. Led by Captain Anson, he is a challenging proposition for the genre. Alcoholic and already beaten before he starts, he is an exhausted unlikely hero. John Mills is wonderful in the role. Harry Andrews plays the Sergeant Major that backs him up at every turn while escorting Sister Murdoch (Sylvia Sims), picking up brash South African Captain van der Poel (Anthony Quayle) en route. He’s a bit suspicious but gets them out of more than one jam.
Once they’re on their own and tackling the desert, the film becomes a series of set-pieces, each more excruciating than the last; a minefield, quicksand, Germans, the ambulance breaking down (affectionately known as “Katy”) and a blooming great hill requiring the very patient use of a hand-crank. The editing and cinematography (by Gilbert Taylor) are extraordinary, with some ideas enough to make Henri-Georges Clouzot jealous, as he may have reasonably assumed he’d covered everything in Wages of Fear that could mess a truck up. That is until Anthony Quayle had to act as a human jack or almost drown in mud.
The tension is palpable, the plot a perfectly succinct thriller full of potential for torturing the characters, and the cast is faultless in selling that suspense. The kind of cast that made movies as romantic as they were once upon a time, while Thompson's deft delivery of the material means it's stood the test of time. It's not Mad Max: Fury Road, but there's a pedigree between the two.
From beginning to end this is John Mills’ film as we will him to get to the promise of a cold lager in his favourite Alexandria bar. That might sound counterintuitive considering he spends the first act sneaking gin, but I told you he was challenging. By comparison, Quayle has it easier (aside from almost drowning in studio mud) as a great, larger than life character, he threatens to steal the film. Sylvia Sims, in one of her very first roles, is quite brilliant as Sister Murdoch. She holds her own throughout so deserves much better than the third act, in which studio convention appears to demand a shoehorned romance that makes no sense at all.
That slip into convention is precisely what Thompson’s film had thus far resisted. The whole idea of an alcoholic hero that's already broken in that opening act is tough stuff and Mills is incredible in the role. Vulnerable, dangerous and fallible. The quiet condemnation of his comrade, his superior getting blown up, Sims pulling her hysterical colleague under control; this is stark, urgent filmmaking, ahead of its time. The love scene serves nothing but to belittle the production and the script becomes thumpingly sexist for a while. Up to that point, every character was an individual, especially Sister Murdoch. The scene in question was edited, but that didn’t stop the images adorning the posters and lobby art. It’s such a shame because it takes the wind right out of the film’s sails, but still, it's hard to be too critical. Female roles in war movies are rare, and one written as well as this for at least two-thirds of the running time, and combined with Sims' gutsy performance right to the end, still puts modern genre filmmaking to shame. It isn't hyperbole to suggest that despite the superb work by her co-stars, the longevity of Ice Cold in Alex could very well be down to the luminous Sylvia Sims providing a perfect, historically accurate role model.
And of course, everyone remembers the finale. Satisfying and a little indulgent, it's fabulous. Between lager and dog tags, it’s a classic scene for all the right reasons and Ice Cold in Alex could make for a bizarre drinking game if you try to match Captain Anson, especially if you save watching it until the height of summer. J. Lee Thompson might be most well known for Guns of Navarone, but Ice Cold in Alex could just be his best. A tone that slavishly obeys the tropes of the genre whilst creating new ones means it could also be his most timeless work.
Steve Chibnall On J. Lee Thompson (13m) - A bit dry, but Chibnall fills the time well with lots of anecdotes about the inception and production, particularly from the perspective of its director.
Interview with Melanie Williams (16m) - Picks up where Steve left off, widening the conversation to where the story came from and the overall production.
Interview with Sylvia Sims (22m) - Sylvia Sims is a lovely, formidable and passionate woman with lots of detail about the time. Her memories of Mills, Andrews, Quayle and Thompson are wonderfully vivid and there is a sense of how they looked after her. Well, until Thompson almost caused her to be run over by the truck and the actors told him off!
John Mills Home Movie Footage (15m) - This is a unique and valuable perspective from the set. Mills would often film in 16mm colour and the results are a candid insight.
Old Trailer (3m)
Behind the Scenes Stills Gallery (2m)
A Very British War Movie Documentary (13m) - A misleading title. It's just a clip from the full documentary, nevertheless, the brief interviews are great.
This edition from StudioCanal features a very fine transfer. It's clean and consistent throughout. Gilbert Taylor's mono photography is wonderful and full of detail, far more ambitious than you might assume. There is barely any noticeable shift between location and studio scenes for example. It is a great film of some renown in which the production isn't always given the credit it deserves. This new edition puts that right.
As with the photography, the monaural soundtrack is nuanced and unpredictable and this new edition does it justice. It's a dialogue-heavy film and voices are crystal clear, while 'Katy' has a growl not to be underestimated. There is little of Leighton Lucas' music, which in itself is somewhat unusual for the time and the genre. The 'March' theme though bears a resemblance with other soundtracks yet to come, so in a small way, it had an influence just as the rest of the production would have.