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July 2011

Ice Cold In Alex

cast: John Mills, Harry Andrews, Sylvia Syms, Anthony Quayle, and Richard Leech

director: J. Lee Thompson

124 minutes (PG) 1958
Optimum blu-ray region B

RATING: 6/10
review by Christopher Geary

Ice Cold In Alex

More of a journeyman style character study with road-movie appeal, than a genuine 'war story', this has a somewhat undeserved reputation for being one of the best-loved British war movies. Perhaps that's because of its largely downbeat narrative of an arduous trek, which eventually serves up happy endings all round. Perhaps it's because it stars home-grown cinema favourite John Mills, doing his best of British impression as a soldier reaching the end of his tether, but pulling himself together just in time for the gratuitously cheerful finale. Its screenplay based upon Christopher Landon's novel, was said to be partly inspired by autobiographical details from the author's life in WWII. A lot of technical details presented here, especially with regard to military transports, accumulate to convey a distinctive impression of authenticity, which subtly enhances the drama's appeal.

Apart from the minor use of stock footage, there's ample evidence that many scenes were shot on inhospitable location in Libya, which adds immeasurably to the story's backdrop of vast almost featureless North African desert. Shortly before the siege of Tobruk, drunken Captain Anson (John Mills), and his ambulance driver Tom (Harry Andrews), are escorting two nurses across perilous terrain, to Alexandria (the titular 'Alex'), in Egypt. The group's old reliable Austin K2 truck is affectionately nicknamed 'Katy', and it's the principal machine-character in a very human drama, so that even the surviving nurse, Diana (Sylvia Syms), grows fond of the sturdy ambulance before long, despite having to perform medical work on her wounded, injured, or exhausted companions in the back of the overheated vehicle.

Anson's crew pick-up a dodgy Dutch/ South African (Anthony Quayle), who's actually a German spy, but he turns out to be a wholly sympathetic character by the end of the group's long journey. A trip through a minefield produces the ominous line: "There's something under my foot." Katy the ambulance is chased by German tanks who shoot (although only by 'accident') the other frantically nervous, briefly hysterical nurse. It's one of the film's most broodingly grim scenes when Anson's crew have to bury a dead girl under a cairn in desert.

Against all the odds, overcoming tragedy or misfortune at limits of human endurance, Ice Cold In Alex is a tale of solemnity and bravado, with superb black-and-white cinematography (by Gilbert Taylor, who also worked on Dr Strangelove, Repulsion, The Omen, and Star Wars, among many others), made to look even sharper on this hi-definition release than it ever did for numerous TV screenings. The seriousness of its wartime subject matter aside, it's bemusing to note the postwar decorum in effect, as sweaty heroine Diana keeps her uniform blouse and trousers on throughout, in spite of the blistering heat. In any modern production, she'd be stripped down to her underwear - if only for health reasons - just like the men.

From the last oasis to a salt-marsh depression onto "the old camel road, which all the ruddy fools since Alexander the Great have taken to Alex" the film rolls along with a fairly relentless pace, breezing though its nightly stopovers and quieter moments but inching forward calculatedly for suspenseful action or stunts, to a destination where a well-deserved booze-up is in order... "Set 'em up, Joe." Starts the film's most famous sequence; recycled decades later for a couple of TV advertising campaigns, including a colourised version for the same Carlsberg brand of lager that appears in the film.



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