Ice Station Zebra (1968)
Ice Station Zebra is a movie I have watched a good number of times over the years really wanting to like it. My reasons for this were multiple. First off it boasts a creative team of considerable pedigree. Its director John Sturges had been responsible for a number of my favorite films. Bad Day at Black Rock (1955), Gunfight at the OK Corral (1957), Last Train from Gun Hill (1959), and The Magnificent 7 (1960). The cast headed by the always reliable Rock Hudson, supported by Ernest Borgnine, Patrick McGoohan of the classic TV series The Prisoner (1967) and Escape from Alcatraz (1979), Jim Brown, football player turned movie actor (The Dirty Dozen (1967) and Tony Bill an actor (Come Blow Your Horn – 1963) whom I met briefly who later went on to become a successful producer (The Sting -1973) and director (Flyboys- 2006).It was adapted from a novel by Alistair MacLean whose previous novel Guns of Navarone (1964) had been made into an exciting film. It was Rock Hudson’s favorite film and a lot of friends whose opinion I respect love this movie. But most importantly I re-watch this film because it was a favorite of eccentric; some might say crazy, billionaire Howard Hughes. I’d read somewhere that he was always running it for his barber when he was getting a haircut. Telling him: “Watch this; you’ll learn something from it.” The poor man is supposed to have seen the film more than a dozen times and had no idea what he had learned in the process except that perhaps Hughes was a little batshit. Or maybe even more than a little. Anyway I saw the film when it first came out in 1968 on a big screen (which is the only way to see a film like this) in New York City and thought it intelligent but not at all thrilling. Then I started reading all these write-ups on it saying that it was underrated and underappreciated, so I looked at it again and again. Then after reading that thing about Hughes I went back and watched it one more time trying to glean what about it that he found so fascinating. I must confess, I’m totally baffled.
I find Hudson’s performance in the lead uninteresting and stolid, McGoohan, who I usually like, overemphatic to the point where he seems to be illustrating the part more than playing it, Borgnine cartoonish bordering on buffoonery, Tony Bill dull and Jim Brown stiff. Sturges direction flat and the screenplay by Douglas Heyes (Kitten with a Whip-1964) uninspired. Nothing in the story surprises me or ignites my curiosity in any way. I also didn’t believe a word of it. Even the settings looked like sound stages and sets to me. On the whole the film just seems to go on and on long after my tolerance has been exhausted. And clocking in at 148 minutes it seems to be at least 20 minutes too long.
This is a film I can’t get into the rhythm of at all. Still I keep thinking that somehow I’m wrong and that the fault is in me and not all the talented who put the film together or Mr. Howard Hughes who loved it so much. It just goes to show you the power eccentricity can wield even years after its originator has shuffled off this mortal coil.