On paper, Ice Station Zebra must have looked like a slam-dunk. The director of The Great Escape helming a film based on the work of the author of The Guns of Navarone. Unfortunately, Ice Station Zebra doesn’t possess the untethered sense of adventure found in either of its ancestors.
That doesn’t mean that this film isn’t enjoyable. When I remember seeing the film in my youth, my primary recollection is of the fairly rigorous authenticity of the submarine sequences. Sub buffs can certainly enjoy the film on that level. There is also some dazzling widescreen photography in some of the at-sea scenes as well, at least until the sub reaches the North Pole and they discover that it’s a sound stage.
Cmdr. Ferraday (Rock Hudson) is handed a new mission. Take a British civilian, “David Jones,” (Patrick McGoohan) and a detachment of marines abort his sub and go where “Jones” tells him to. While at sea, they pick up two new arrivals, a Russian defector (Ernest Borgnine) who knows Jones and a new commander for the marines (Jim Brown). All Jones is willing to share is that its vital that he and the marines reach a research station known as “Ice Station Zebra” as soon as humanly possible, if not sooner.
The mission is nearly doomed by an accident in the torpedo room that turns out to be no accident at all, leaving Ferraday and Jones with the unsettling knowledge that there is a saboteur aboard the sub. They eventually reach Ice Station Zebra where, in short order, they learn the nature of their mission and are menaced by Soviet paratroops and four models of MiG fighters in front of a rear projection screen.
One of the key weaknesses is that Hudson simply doesn’t have the presence to bring off a role that was allegedly written for Steve McQueen, who was busy making Bullitt at the time. Borgnine also seems to have attended the Walter Koenig School of Russian Dialects. Unfortunately, that’s not a compliment.
This is a film that can be enjoyed as light entertainment, as long as you don’t think too hard, and as the last decent submarine movie until Das Boot.