Ice Cold in Alex (1958)

When it’s on: Tuesday, 17 July (12.50 pm)
Channel: Film4
IMDb Link

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: ****

North West Frontier (1959)

When it’s on: Sunday, 13 May (12.45 pm)
Channel: BBC2
IMDb Link

It’s easy to picture Michael Palin and Terry Jones, struggling for inspiration over a new comedy show, then stumbling across a screening of North West Frontier and suddenly realising the genius of writing a series of ripping yarns. That’s what this film is – a boy’s own tale, set in the days of the British empire and focusing on breathless adventure.

The plot is simplicity itself. It’s 1905. The northwest border of the British empire in India is a hotbed of tension between the Hindu maharajah and Muslim rebels. As the latter besiege a fort held by British forces protecting young Prince Kishan, a daring scheme is hatched to get the boy to the safety of Kalapur. Leading the party of escapees is Captain Scott (Kenneth More), who decides the best route to safety is boarding a knackered old shunting train, the Empress of India and breaking the blockade. The engine carries a ragtag complement of passengers, along with the prince’s governess, Mrs Wyatt (Lauren Bacall). The story concerns the various plights and pitfalls faced by the party as they make their way through hostile countryside, pursued by rebels, whilst doubts are raised over the loyalties of one of the passengers…

North West Frontier (which was released in America as Flame over India, presumably to avoid confusion with some Hitchcock film that has no doubt since lapsed into obscurity) is essentially Stagecoach in the hands of a British production team. No doubt this has something to do with the script, based on a screenplay by Frank S Nugent, who was a regular collaborator with John Ford. Just like Ford’s classic western, much is made of the fabulous setting, Geoffrey Unsworth taking on cinematography duties and photographing the Indian desert lovingly (it’s Spain really, but who’s counting?). J. Lee Thompson directs. He brings the same sensibility to North West Frontier as he displayed in his hit from the previous year, Ice Cold in Alex, at heart a road movie that elicits maximum tension from the situation rather than things happening.

The passengers encounter a raft of problems on their journey, mainly involving makeshift repairs to the rail track that has been sabotaged by the rebels. As they work, replacing the damaged track before them by lifting bits from behind the engine, there’s a sense that the enemy’s never far away and is closing in. Herbert Lom is on hand as a Dutch-Indian journalist, initially providing a cynical complement to More’s plucky officer but later emerging as a traitor. His efforts to do away with the prince are slowly exposed and Lom has a lot of fun in his role as an oily villain. Wilfrid Hyde-White’s ex-pat is the archetypal fish out of water, gurning and mugging in reaction to the plot’s twists and turns.

It’s a fine couple of hours’ entertainment, the only real sign of dating appearing in the shape of I S Lohar as the  comedy engine driver, Gupta. The film takes in an atrocity, probably its best moment as a trainload of passengers that has been waylaid by the rebels lies in the Empress’s path. When it left the fort, it was teeming with people, sat inside, on the roof and clinging to the sides, and now everyone’s dead, bodies strewn all over. It’s a scene designed to show the British sense of pall at such nastiness, and also to give Mrs Wyatt a moment of American independence as she ignores Captain Scott’s orders and goes on board the train of the dead to collect a living baby.

The tension between More and Bacall develops into romance, though theirs is a chaste courtship with little of the steam she delivered in her American films. All the same, the sight of go-to British character actor, More, and noir veteran Bacall getting it on has the feel of two worlds colliding.

North West Frontier: ***