ICE COLD IN ALEX refers to getting a cold glass of lager at a bar in Alexandria, Egypt. That is if the characters in this grade-A 1958 British WW2 story can make it, crossing the desert commanded by the Afrika Korps. Written by Christopher Landon (from his novel) and T.J. Morrison, skillfully directed by J. Lee Thompson, it was a major success in England at the time and has received renewed appreciation six decades later with excised footage restored for home viewing. *
Libya, 1941. A British ambulance unit is ordered to make a break from besieged Tobruk to safety in Egypt. ‘Captain Anson’ (John Mills) is already on the ragged edge from battle fatigue and a reliance on alcohol. With him are a dependable sergeant (Harry Andrews), two Catholic nurses (Sylvia Syms and Diane Clare) and a bluff Afrikaner officer, ‘Capt. van der Poel’ (Anthony Quayle), whose ability to speak German comes in handy when they encounter an enemy patrol. Yet something’s not quite right with this fellow. Additional stress factors during the 600-mile trip include breakdowns, navigating a mine field, quicksand and formidable dunes, plus the prospect of running out of water.
Tense and exciting, with top quality performances, particularly from Mills and Quayle. Shooting on location in Libya, Gilbert Taylor’s fine b&w camerawork captures the unforgiving landscape and searing heat, conditions the cast found appropriately taxing (along with constant unwanted company from flies)—all that sweat isn’t makeup. Thanks to the intense focus from the actors, intelligent scripting and Thompson’s taut direction, the expected physical challenges don’t cancel out the arresting human element that makes the travails a fresh, gripping and ultimately rewarding film experience.
With Liam Redmond, Richard Leech, Walter Gotell and Allan Cuthbertson. 130 minutes.
* Though it ranked 9th in England in 1958 (that year 7 of the top 12 there were war movies), when it was dumped into the U.S. three years later, it was re-titled Desert Attack, incomprehensibly cut down by nearly an hour to just 76 minutes. Extra foolish: had whoever ordered this waited a few months it could have profited off director Thompson’s big ’61 score with The Guns Of Navarone, plus Mill’s ’60 hit Swiss Family Robinson was still raking in money. No-one saw the mistitled and mutilated Desert Attack. Some berk at 20th-Century Fox blew it.
Christopher Landon based his novel and the script off some of his own WW2 experiences with Field Ambulance units in North Africa. Landon wrote seven novels before dying in 1961 from overuse of barbiturates and booze, an unwise mix he favored while writing. He was fifty years old.
Ace cinematographer Gilbert Taylor lived to be 99. Among his credits are Dr. Strangelove, A Hard Day’s Night, Repulsion, The Omen and Star Wars. His harrowing WW2 service included filming the air raid on Dresden and the liberation of Belsen concentration camp. After those assignments, working for demanding movie directors wasn’t all that intimidating.