“Ice Cold in Alex,” was directed by J. Lee Thompson at the beginning of a well-earned career rise that soon included “Cape Fear,” now considered a classic of the genre, two of the “Planet of the Apes” movies, and the action World War II film “The Guns of Navarone.” Based on the novel by Christopher Landon and cowritten by him and T. J. Morrison, “Ice Cold in Alex” is white-knuckle thriller.
It’s 1942, during World War II, and the Germans have captured Tobruk on the Libyan coast. British troops have quickly left for Allied-held land to the east in Egypt, leaving behind a last medical field unit that must now try to escape and navigate the Nazi-held desert between Libya and Egypt.
With limited resources and only their ambulance, Captain Anson and Warrant Officer Pugh are instructed to leave the base and make their way to Alexandria. Two nurses who were accidentally left behind when the rest of the base was evacuated become the unwanted passengers that Anson is sure will endanger their escape. Refueling, they encounter a stranded South African officer, Captain van der Poel, who they agree to take with them.
Tensions are high, and Anson, fully knowledgeable of their limited chances for survival, hits the bottle with increasing frequency, aided and abetted by van der Poel. Anson’s instincts about the nurses was not far wrong. Sister Norton, suffering from frequent panic attacks, is determined to escape the vehicle and must be sedated by her colleague Sister Murdoch (Note: British nurses are called “Sister”). Murdoch is stalwart and her value is soon recognized by the others.
The desert is unyielding and Anson’s maps indicate that there is only one way out from the base – a mine field. Navigating through the mines is the first indication that this film will raise the hair on your neck. The manner in which they solve the problem is genius of the blood, sweat, and patience variety.
Captain van der Poel earns his keep early on. An Afrikaans, he speaks fluent German. Soon this small group is stopped by a German division. Van der Poel goes out to meet them and explain that this is an ambulance unit without armament and should be protected by the Geneva Convention. Remarkably, they are released but informed that there is virtually no escape route open to them.
Anson, reviewing the maps available to him, chooses the only route that may work, but one that also is more likely to kill them all. He must find a way to traverse the mountains of sand that lay between them and Alexandria. If they survive, Anson will stand them to an ice cold (beer) in Alex (Alexandria). It’s all he wants.
Brilliantly directed from a script that focuses on character, the voyage of Captain Anson, both personally and physically, is never less than riveting. There are no special effects, only a rickety Land Rover, its inhabitants, and vast expanses of desert. One gets to know each of the characters based solely on their actions and reactions to their dilemma.
Thompson has managed to produce the kind of breath taking tension that Henri Clouzot generated in his classic “The Wages of Fear” that centered on two men driving a truck loaded with volatile explosives through the mountains.
The cast is impeccable, led by John Mills as Captain Anson. Mills, who showed himself able to play anything from working class to upper crust military men, left behind an impressive filmography that included the British classics “Tunes of Glory” and “Tiger Bay’ (introducing his daughter Hayley in her first film).
Harry Andrews as Pugh had a stellar career as a character actor seen in a range of classics dating from the 1950s to the 80s including “The Ruling Class,” “Charge of the Light Brigade,” and “Superman.” Sylvia Syms, Murdoch, is a still-working actress who played the Queen mother to Helen Mirin in “The Queen.”
Anthony Quayle as Captain van der Poel may be the most recognizable to audiences because of the major roles he played in “Anne of the Thousand Days,” “Lawrence of Arabia,” and “Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex* But Were Afraid to Ask.” It is significant that Thompson chose all of them for roles in other films he made.
This is a film that transcends age or time period. There is virtually no plot, just a dilemma to be solved and transcended. Character and tension, that’s all there is and that’s more than enough. This isn’t just a movie about World War II. This is a universal classic about the human condition; more man versus nature, in both senses of the word – physical and emotional.
Blu-Ray DVD launches on March 23 as part of a trio of restored British World War II films. Also available on the streaming service