Ice Cold in Alex
Just thinking of it as another war film doesn't really do it justice, for there's a lot more to it than that. Apart from one moment it doesn't contain the usually over dramatic and soft focus moments of older films, the performances are restrained and real, and the characters are complex and far from the black and white of the film.
Watching it again in this newly digitally restored version it's surprising how great a film it is and how well it stands up.
The Captain, played by John Mills, has been in charge of a hospital and ambulance team for some time, successfully getting them back and forth across the desert and saving many a life. However recently he was captured and barely managed to escape alive, having to walk days across the desert to safety. Now he's burnt out, a shell of the man he was, and he's taken to drinking heavily to get through the days of shelling.
He's ordered to get the squadron away from the advancing troops and leave a skeleton crew at the hospital, surely left to die, and for him to escort the commander to the field headquarters. They come across a stranded ambulance and two nurses, played by Sylvia Sims and Diane Clare, who haven't managed to keep up with the rest and he takes command with his Sergeant, played by Harry Andrews, to get them to safety.
Along their way the route is blocked by advancing Germans and scuppered bridges, and on their new route they come across a South African Captain, played by Anthony Quayle, stranded and in need of transport.
Added to this is the pressure of the Captain's struggle with alcohol, the ambulance struggling to keep going through horrendous desert conditions, a lack of water, German patrols and much, much more.
The story for Ice Cold in Alex is apparently based on a real one and watching it again I was surprised how real it felt. Sure there were still limitations in the film-making, but for a 1958 film there are next to no overly romanticised moments, the only one being the short romantic moment between Sister Diana Murdoch, the nurse played by Sylvia Sims, and Captain Anson, played superbly well by John Mills. Even this is short and allows the characters relationships to be made a little more complex. Later on it is used as a moment to show the sheer drive and determination of the character of Anson, as well as his failings when he snaps and lashes out at others.
The rest of the story feels tough and very real. The moments with the quicksand do become a little shocking at one point, putting a character in peril and becoming surprising hard hitting. The film does manage to portray the hardships they are facing and it never feels as though there's a sugar coating being poured over it all.
The portrayal of the Captain's struggle is very well done and it's one of the key areas of the film I forgot about. It's rather subtle through the journey itself, and you never really know if he's beaten it, but John Mills does manage to keep you thinking of the thirst and withdrawal that he's experiencing. Shaking hands, licking lips, turning to the only bottle left in the ambulance, and all this done rather subtly without too much emphasis.
Anthony Quayle also gives a strong performance, and his character is an interesting one to watch, never really sure who he is or what he's doing the film manages to give you hints and clues on the way without spelling it all out. It's a feature of the film that it doesn't over explain threads, it keeps us on the level with the characters and their journey, and it feels much more modern than 1958.
Harry Andrews and Sylvia Sims are good to watch and they add extra weight to the film, but it's the performances of Quayle and especially Mills that are the main reasons to be drawn to the characters.
One of the great moments is the slow winding of the truck up the sand dune and the moment when things go wrong. You can feel yourself sink at the same time as the characters and I certainly felt a sliver of the emotion that they would have been in that situation. Those are powerful scenes, and here, as is the case through the film, you're never really sure which way the characters are going to turn.
The real power of the film is in the classic closing scenes and the build up to this moment through the journey of the group and how their relationships with Captain van der Poel have developed to this point. These scenes, like so much of the film, are quieter and more considered than a lot of older war films, and there are just as many shades of grey in the story as there are in the film stock itself. Moments are held perfectly, stretched well, and reactions are underplayed, boiling over at just the right moment.
J. Lee Thompson directed the film and he went on to direct The Guns of Navarone, Cape Fear, Conquest of the Planet of the Apes and Battle for the Planet of the Apes and a number of Charles Bronson films, not to mention the rather fun King Solomon's Mines.
The soundtrack has been cleaned up with the digital restoration and is good, however it still lies in Dolby Digital 2.0. Unfortunately it would seem there was no scope for remastering the soundtrack into something better, perhaps a slightly wider Dolby Digital 5.1 track, but then I don't think the film suffers for being only in stereo, the focus is on the performances and the determination of the characters.
The original format picture has been digitised and cleaned up and does look sharp and clear, you can even see those beads of ice cold condensation running down that glass in the closing scenes, and in some of the close up shots of the faces the detail pours out.
Sylvia Sims interview; John Mills on set filming; Behind the Scenes Photographs
Sylvia Sims interview
The interview takes place some sixty years after the film, and while you might start to think that it's a little rehearsed, the real Sims comes through as you watch. She's as dramatic as some of her acting but has some amusing tales to tell of filming as well as some shocking ones. It's an interesting insight into what went on behind the scenes.
John Mills on set filming
John Mills took 16mm film from behind the scenes and on location of the films he worked on, and we see fifteen minutes of footage that takes us to some amazing locations in Libya, where the film was shot, as well as a few moments behind the scenes and with the cast. Fascinating and amusing to watch.
Behind the Scenes Photographs
A few photographs from behind the scenes, some of which look great on a big, high definition screen.
Ice Cold in Alex is a surprisingly strong war film that doesn't follow the usual routes you might expect. The film delivers a strong character based story that doesn't race off with stereotypes of war films either in the characters or in the story itself.
There are some strong performances with John Mills proving one of the best actors amongst them, he's fabulous to watch, but then he is delivered a great character who is very well written.
That's something that shouldn't be forgotten about, the writing is very good and does stay clear of overly long explanatory speeches and "gung ho chaps" moments that you might be expecting from a black and white war film.
The direction follows that writing and allows the slow considered pace, and at times the held moments of quiet and character introspection are perfect.
Ice Cold in Alex is a war film that still stands the test of time and definitely has a message that transcends the war. Well worth watching and highly recommended.