British Cinema, Second World War

Ice Cold In Alex (1958)

I don’t know about anyone else, but I sure do love a good survival against the elements film. Ice Cold In Alex is one of the very best. You can practically feel the heat of the sun, feel the trickling drops of sweat, smell the sweat, and feel the raging thirst being experienced by all the characters.

Ice Cold In Alex is directed by J.Lee Thompson, the film is based upon the novel by Christopher Landon. Landon joined T.J Morrison in writing the tense and gripping screenplay for the film. There is some fine camera work on display here provided by Gilbert Taylor. The way this one is shot gives it an almost documentary look, and I think that it adds greatly to the realism of the story. Much of the film was shot on location and I do think that was the perfect decision, as you just can’t beat the realism that using real locations brings to these types of films.

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The group trapped in the desert. Screenshot by me.

I like how this film isn’t really your typical war film. It is more of a character study than most WW2 flicks are. These characters are caught up in the war, but are not really taking part in it, as they are mostly seen moving through conflict zones or away from them. 

This one is more about what war does to those caught up in it and how you survive in such situations. It is also one of the best survival stories ever filmed in my opinion.

Our characters must endure insane levels of heat, and a serious lack of water and food. They find they must put aside their differences so they have a chance at surviving.  Their ambulance becomes their home and shelter, but it too becomes difficult to endure when it breaks down, or when the inside of it really heats up during the day making it unbearable for the passengers.

I also think that the film was quite ahead of its time in showing John Mills character as suffering from the issues he does. He’s alcoholic and suffering from PTSD caused by his time as a prisoner. It’s rare to see either of these issues depicted in war films made during or just after the real events. I think that the inclusion of this helps to make the character even more relatable and real in a way, as we can see he is suffering and fighting against himself to stay strong and in control. It also brings home the realities of war to us; people never come out of a war as the same people they went into it as.

Ice Cold In Alex begins in the searing heat of Tobruk, Africa in 1942. Rommell’s desert campaign is at its height. Nervous and boozy ambulance driver Captain Anson(John Mills)is ordered by his commanding officer to take his ambulance, affectionately known as “Katy”, and head over to Alexandria.

Anson is joined by his loyal mate Tom Pugh(the hugely underrated Harry Andrews)and two young nurses Diana Murdoch(Sylvia Syms)and Denise Norton(Diane Clare). The nurses were left stranded when they were fired on during an evacuation attempt at the harbour.Anson is suffering from PTSD and alcoholism. He was recently captured by the Germans, he managed to escape, but his escape forced him to walk through the desert for a couple of days without water, and he is now reliant on alcohol to steady his nerves. When their convoy is attacked, Anson must try and find a way to stay sober so he can find a way of leading them all to safety.

Things get complicated when the group are attacked by Germans and they pick up a stranded African soldier, Captain Van Der Poel(Anthony Quale)who they begin to suspect of possibly being a German spy. Anson also has problems of a different nature, when he slowly begins to realise that Diana is falling in love with him, and that he shares her feelings and desires.

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Anson. Screenshot by me.

 

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Van Der Poel. Screenshot by me.

 

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Pugh. Screenshot by me.

As the danger increases and the desert temperature gets hotter and hotter, our characters are tested in every way possible. Tempers are lost, courage is shown and a strong bond is forged.

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Anson and Diana share a moment. Screenshot by me.

The story is superb and it is filled with so much tension that it really keeps you on the edge of your seat. As good as the story is though I think it’s fair to say that it is the performances and characters that are the real highlight here. 

We become so caught up in the story that we become very connected with these characters, and they all come across as being quite believable and very real individuals. We feel for them and we fear for them.

I particularly love the growing attraction and bond which develops between Diana and Anson. I think Sylvia and John both do a terrific job of conveying the sexual tension and growing emotional attachment between their characters. 

Mills is perfect as the brave and cynical Anson, slowly snapping under the intense pressure and trying to stay off the alcohol. I consider his performance here to be the best he ever gave. Mills conveys so well the emotional and physical strain this mission is placing on Anson.

We can see the desperation in Anson’s eyes, you can feel his increasing desire for a drink to calm himself growing and growing. Most important of all Mills shows us that this man is almost at breaking point, when he snaps, it won’t be a pretty sight. I think it is such a shame that Mills never again got a role quite like this one. This is such a shame as he gets to show here what a truly gifted dramatic actor he really was.

There’s excellent support from the rest of the cast. Anthony Quale, as the strong, quiet, and enigmatic Captain Van Der Poel. I’ve never been a big fan of Quale, but I think he is excellent here and this is one of his best performances for sure. He keeps you guessing as to his characters motivation and loyalty.

Andrews is perfect as the gruff, no nonsense Tom Pugh, a seasoned veteran he focuses upon the task in hand and nothing else. This character is calm under pressure and is someone you’d want around in a crisis.

Sylvia Syms is excellent as Diana, the young woman with a cool head on her shoulders, who must overcome her own fears to stay strong in order to survive. I like how she acts tough, even during times when she could have just crumpled and broke down. The growing attraction between Anson and Diana is believable and both Mills and Syms convey their characters growing attraction perfectly.

Highlights of the film include a nail biting walk and drive through a live minefield; Van Der Poel getting trapped in a swamp; the ending in the bar, which of course gave us that famous TV advert for lager.

When I’m in the mood for a film filled with strong performances and a realistic and tense story, then this is a film that I always take down from the DVD shelf. No matter how many times I watch this film it never fails to impress me, or to have me on the edge of my seat in fear for the characters (even though I know what’s going to happen to them. 🙂 ) A real British classic.

My favourite scenes are the following. All of the group trying to push the ambulance up a steep sand hill. The final conversation between Diana and Anson in the ambulance, where so much is said in what is unsaid. The minefield sequence. The group burying a fallen comrade in the middle of the desert and taking a moment to quietly remember them.

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A beer worth waiting for. Screenshot by me.

I own this one on Blu-ray and the picture quality is first rate. It’s so sharp and clear, and it looks very impressive visually I’d say that’s the best version of this film to get your hands on if you want to watch it.

Fun fact about the film. Real alcohol had to be drunk in the bar sequence. None of the alcohol substitutes could get the look and froth of a real freshly poured pint. Several takes had to be done, and in each one Mills had to down a full pint. He ended up getting very drunk and had to go to his trailer to sleep it off! There are worse days to be had at work I suppose. 😉

Any other fans of this one?

 

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6 thoughts on “Ice Cold In Alex (1958)”

  1. I need to see this as your review has brought back memories of this film that I never knew the name of. Had seen it as a youth but all I remembered was the drinking and later it got used in a beer advert I’m sure. It was Ice Cold In Alex, well I never knew until now. Thank you. I look forward to seeing the whole movie. I recently watched John Mills in Dunkirk which was released in the same year along with “I Was Monty’s Double”. 3 war movies in one year, he was a busy boy 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Well done, as usual. I’ve not been able to catch this one yet, though I’ve heard about through the years. Can’t miss with John Mills, plus Andrews and Quayle. I see it also features Allan Cuthbertson, one of my favorite disdainful-chap types. Director Thompson was on a roll until he began stumbling in the mid 60s and the ended up doing lousy junk later on. But he certainly did well at his early best by “Northwest Frontier” (“Flame Over India” we call it across the pond), “The Guns Of Navarone”, and “Cape Fear”. Plus, “Taras Bulba”and “KIngs Of The Sun” are entertaining epics. Oh, yes, and “Tiger Bay”.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Ah, what a film. I actually wanted to re-enact the beer scene when I went to Alexandria many years ago but my in-laws took me on a tortuous two hour tour of a museum instead. They’d never heard of Ice Cold In Alex. Philistines!

    Liked by 1 person

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