It takes 90 minutes for ICE STATION ZEBRA to get to Ice Station Zebra.
I’m not saying that this is a negative, but I can’t imagine this film, if made today, would be 2 1/2 hours long or that it would take 1 1/2 of those hours to get to the location where the primary action occurs. What’s truly amazing about ZEBRA, though, isn’t the time aspect in and of itself, but the time aspect considering there’s only three primary characters: Commander James Ferraday (Rock Hudson), British spy David Jones (Patrick McGoohan), and Russian spy Boris Vaslov (Ernest Borgnine). Yeah, Jim Brown gets his name and face on the poster, but ZEBRA doesn’t give him much to do, to the point where I decided somewhere in the middle of this movie that one of my next novels is going to feature a character for 1960s Jim Brown to play in the movie adaptation.
So, get on that time machine, scientists.
Much of those first 90 minutes of ZEBRA is dedicated to getting Mr. Jones to Ice Station Zebra, and the bulk of this action takes place on the USS Tigerfish submarine that Ferraday commands. There is a ton of procedural stuff here: “Up this,” “Down that,” “Take us to X depth,” “30 fathoms,” “40 fathoms,” “50 fathoms,” “60 fathoms,” “70 fathoms,” “Yes, Captain,” “No, Captain,” “As you were.” Allegedly, Alfred Hitchcock once said that if you ever get stuck in a movie and don’t know what to do, just show the audience how something works because people love to see behind the scenes. Well, if you’ve ever wanted to know how to operate a nuclear submarine, join the Navy. But if you’ve ever wanted to pretend to know how to operate a nuclear submarine, watch ICE STATION ZEBRA.
All of this sounds like a negative (in total if not in particular), but ZEBRA just works for me. Despite the slow moving plot (and the inclusion of a musical overture to start the film and then a musical interlude during an intermission break), I was hooked right from the start and stayed that way right through the end.
The key to ZEBRA’s success for me is that everyone here is a professional and while they extend professional courtesies to one another, they’ve all got their own jobs to do. It’s striking that while clearly we’re set up to think that Ferraday is the protagonist (he’s introduced first, he’s the captain, and Hudson gets top billing), he’s kept in the dark about certain aspects of the mission. As Jones reminds him at one point, he’s actually in charge of the mission, he just hasn’t stepped on Ferraday’s toes because everything Ferraday’s done has been what Jones wants done. The implication, however, is clear: over the course of those first 90 minutes, Captain Ferraday is, in essence, little more than a bus driver.
ZEBRA constantly cuts Ferraday’s authority off at the knees: Jones doesn’t tell him the whole truth, Vaslov doesn’t tell him the whole truth, and Captain Anders (Brown) doesn’t tell him the whole truth. This makes Ferraday’s ultimate role as hero in the film’s final encounter with the Russians hit with greater impact because he gets to rise to the front of the film.
John Sturges is an excellent director in terms of keeping the story moving, but his camera placement deserves a bit of a discussion. With so much of the film taking place in the cramped quarters of a submarine (especially considering all of the U.S. Marines that are being transported alongside the normal crew), Sturges largely keeps the camera at a distance. It’s as if most scene are shot from the room’s far corner or opposing wall from the action. At least while the action is taking place on the sub, it almost feels like a mult-camera sitcom in that we, as viewers, spend the entire time sitting behind the fourth wall. It would be the easy decision to get the cameras in everyone’s face as much as possible because it would help to raise the dramatic tension, but by keeping the camera back we get to see more of the operations, and we get to feel Ferraday’s sense of not knowing who these people are that have come aboard his ship. Sturges and Cinematographer Daniel Fapp use their camera to make us feel what Ferraday must be feeling – Jones, Vaslov, and Anders are all unknown quantities to him who keep themselves at a distance from him.
Similarly to The Guns of Navarone (another movie based on an Alistair MacLean novel), the main character is professional, capable, and a bit boring. Just as the real star performance in Navarone is given by Anthony Quinn, in ZEBRA it’s Patrick McGoohan who gives the film its primary charge. McGoohan is fantastic. His quick, vocal delivery and quietly hawkish manner are more interesting to me than any of the decent action sequences. In fact, when we finally get a big action scene on the sub, I’m almost bored by it. I’d rather just watch these characters talk and interact with one another. Maybe one of the reasons why I like ZEBRA so much despite the length is that it’s very Tarrantino-esque in terms of being dialogue driven. There’s no heated, pop culture argument about Kirby’s Silver Surfer vs. Moebius’ Silver Surfer, but this is a very character-driven piece.
What is fascinating to me (and since this is the second MacLean-based film in which this is true, it must be at least partly because of MacLean) is that ZEBRA character-driven without being intimate. We don’t know about these characters’ personal lives or watch them fall into a military-induced bromance – these are just professional men doing professional work, and figuring out who they are, what makes them tick, and what their ultimate purpose is for being in the narrative makes them interesting. It gives a far greater emphasis on the characters’ actions, so when Vaslov spends an extra tick looking at a piece of the sub’s machinery or when Jones is startled awake and he jumps up with a gun in his hand, it has a far greater impact because we don’t know who these men really are. The puzzle pieces, as it were, take on greater importance because we have so few pieces and no idea what the overall puzzle is going to look like in totality.
ICE STATION ZEBRA isn’t a movie I’m going to watch over and over again. I think the film’s weaknesses would become increasingly evident with repeated viewings, and a decent action scene like some men falling through the ice would start to feel pointless because they’re not included to further the plot as much as to make sure the film doesn’t go too long without something happening other than dudes talking to one another inside a cramped room.
I do like this movie, though, and I like it quite a bit. While the action isn’t as good as in Guns of Navarone, I like the story and characters in ZEBRA better. Even little things like the way ZEBRA continually favors a blue and white color palette strikes the right chord with me. I wish the film had given Jim Brown more to do and I wish to God (and I’m not even religious) that Ernest Borgnine’s cartoonish Russian accent had been given less to do, but McGoohan’s performance more than makes up for any of the film’s weaker moments.
Mark Bousquet is the author of several novels, including Gunfighter Gothic, Stuffed Animals for Hire, Dreamer’s Syndrome, Harpsichord and the Wormhole Witches, andAdventures of the Five. He has also published a review collection entitle Marvel Comics on Film, which covers every cinematic and TV movie based on a superhero from the House of Ideas. A complete listing of all his work can be found at his Amazon author page.