When it’s on: Tuesday, 17 July (12.50 pm)
I suppose that like many 35-45 year olds, my first introduction to Ice Cold in Alex was via the aggressive marketing campaigns of branded lagers. Holsten Pils spliced Griff Rhys Jones into footage from The Great Escape. There was retaliation from Carling Black Label with a skit on the bombing scene off The Dambusters, playing on West Germany’s ability to win penalty shoot-outs by having a dam defender saving and parrying each bomb sent in his direction. Carlsberg responded with the simplest concept of them all, lifting the climactic scene of Ice Cold in Alex without edits and simply showing the bit where John Mills downs a glass of beer in a clearly branded glass. Sylvia Syms, Anthony Quayle and Harry Andrews look on admiringly as he finishes his drink and says ‘Worth waiting for.’
It’s a lovely advert and almost a happy accident for Carlsberg, whose name appeared on the glass because the film makers didn’t want to associate Mills’s beer with anything German, opting instead for the safe Danish brand. The commercial’s all the better because Mills looks so in need of his drink. It’s only in watching the film that it emerges this is entirely the case. The entire point of the picture, the moment is’s been building towards, even the title of the piece, refers to the perfect frosty one Mills anticipates when he reaches his destination.
Ice Cold in Alex was once dubbed ‘the ultimate British war film’ by Channel 4, and it’s therefore a surprise to find it challenging many stereotypes of the form. For one thing, Syms plays a strong, independent woman as opposed to the trapped, helpless female so typical of the genre. The love interest that develops between her nurse and Mills’s Captain Anson is a bit forced and obviously shoehorned in. Neither participant seems especially passionate about their budding romance and the whole plot development comes across as an afterthought, but that isn’t the defining aspect of her character. She mucks in with the lads and rarely lets the situation they’re all in overpower her, and it’s to both Syms’s and the film’s credit that the characterisation works. By all accounts, some of her scenes were reshot after she revealed too much cleavage in her clinches with Mills and indeed hers is a strangely buttoned down demeanour in the desert conditions of the film, but ultimately her lack of obvious sexiness adds credibility to her role.
Then there’s the depiction of the Nazis. Ice Cold in Alex takes place in the North African theatre of the early 1940s, as the battle lines shifted constantly along the Sahara desert. Mills and his fellows are driving a knackered old ambulance to Alexandria, making various detours as they attempt to avoid the Germans they fear could be waiting around any bend. As it turns out, they are – twice. And yet in both instances, the enemy lets them move on, they believe because they’re in a medical vehicle and pose no threat. The second nurse travelling with them is shot by the Nazis, but this is a result of the frayed Anson’s attempts to outrun them rather than through malice, and indeed the Germans are never made out to be the heartless monsters you might expect to find. As the story unravels, it becomes apparent that one of the travelling companions is also a Nazi, yet this character is every bit as helpful and genuinely warm-hearted as the others, and the film ends on the kind of sympathetic note that could only be struck in something made years after the war ended.
Mills does as much as any other element to subvert his own image as the clean cut British hero. Anson looks constantly ragged and strung out and is clearly teetering into outright alcoholism as a consequence of the stresses war has played on his nerves. He doesn’t always make the right choices, inadvertently killing one of the team thanks to his own reckless actions, and he shows signs of the tension overcoming him more than once. It helps that he looks tiny compared to the big men played by Andrews and Quayle, to whom he nevertheless dishes out his orders, and it’s the former’s dogged devotion to him that appears to keep Anson in charge.
The most famous moment in the film, apart perhaps from the lager drinking climax, is the team’s effort to guide their ambulance up a dune and beyond the depression they’ve traversed. The task has a futile, Sisyphusian edge to it, but it’s just one of several great bits. I especially like the passage when they cross a minefield, Quayle and Mills leading the ambulance on foot and using it as a sparring of egos between two strong men. The music stops and the long silences of the desert take over, punctuated only by the vehicle moving cautiously behind in first gear. The camera seems to track each faltering footstep, and then Quayle steps on something metal…
J Lee Thompson brought real suspense and a dry wit to the proceedings, more or less making up the minefield scenes as he went along to wring every last drop of tension from it. He brought many elements of Ice Cold in Alex to North West Frontier, made a year later and copying much of the ‘perilous road trip’ dimension despite a very different setting. Indeed, it even features a traitor within the ranks, though Herbert Lom’s nasty is a far less empathetic villain than the one depicted in this entry. It’s good fun, reminiscent of many a spare two-hour slot on the Saturday afternoons BBC2 used to fill with classic films, with excellent support from the stolid Andrews, and Quayle reining in many of his actorly excesses within a bravado-led role that could really have seen him let rip.
Ice Cold in Alex: ****