Ice Station Zebra

Ice Station Zebra is a 1968 Metrocolor Cold War era suspense and espionage film directed by John Sturges and starring Rock Hudson, Patrick McGoohan, Ernest Borgnine, and Jim Brown. The screenplay is by Alistair MacLean, Douglas Heyes, Harry Julian Fink, and W. R. Burnett, loosely based on MacLean's 1963 novel. Both have parallels to real-life events that took place in 1959. The film was photographed in Super Panavision 70 by Daniel L. Fapp and presented in 70 mm Cinerama in premiere engagements. The original music score is by Michel Legrand.

Ice Station Zebra
Ice Station Zebra (film) poster.jpg
Theatrical release poster by Howard Terpning
Directed byJohn Sturges
Produced byJames C. Pratt
Martin Ransohoff
John Calley
Screenplay byDouglas Heyes
Harry Julian Fink
W. R. Burnett
Based onIce Station Zebra
by Alistair MacLean
StarringRock Hudson
Ernest Borgnine
Patrick McGoohan
Jim Brown
Music byMichel Legrand
CinematographyDaniel L. Fapp
Edited byFerris Webster
Distributed byMetro-Goldwyn-Mayer
Release date
‹See TfM›
  • October 23, 1968 (1968-10-23)
Running time
148 minutes
Budget$8 million[2][3] or $10 million[4]
Box office$4.6 million (US/Canada rentals)[2][1] $15.7 million (net gross)


A satellite re-enters the atmosphere and ejects a capsule, which parachutes to the Arctic, approximately 320 miles northwest of Station Nord, Greenland in the Arctic Ocean ice pack. A person approaches, guided by a homing beacon, while a second person secretly watches from nearby.

Commander James Ferraday, captain of the American nuclear attack submarine USS Tigerfish stationed at Holy Loch, Scotland, is ordered by Admiral Garvey to rescue the personnel of a British scientific weather station moving with the ice pack named Drift Ice Station Zebra, however, this is a cover for the real mission.

British intelligence agent "Mr. Jones" and a U.S. Marine platoon join the Tigerfish while in dock. After setting sail, a Kaman SH-2 Seasprite helicopter delivers Captain Anders, a strict officer who takes command of the Marines, and Boris Vaslov, a Russian defector and spy, whom Jones trusts. The submarine sails beneath the thick Arctic pack ice but is unable to break through with its conning tower. Ferraday orders a torpedo launch to break a hole in the surface. However, when the inner torpedo hatch is opened, sea water rushes in flooding the compartment causing the submarine to nose dive. The boat is only saved shortly before reaching crush depth. After an investigation, Ferraday discovers that the torpedo tube was sabotaged. Ferraday suspects Vaslov, while Jones suspects Anders.

After an area of thin ice is detected, the Tigerfish breaks through to the surface. Ferraday, Vaslov, Jones, and the Marine platoon set out for the weather station in a blizzard. On arrival, they find the base almost burned to the ground and the scientists nearly dead from hypothermia. Jones and Vaslov start questioning the survivors about what happened.

Jones reveals to Ferraday that he's looking for an advanced experimental British camera which used an enhanced film developed by the Americans. The Soviets stole the technology and sent it into orbit to photograph locations of American missile silos. However, the satellite also recorded all the Soviet missile sites as well. After a malfunction, it crashed near Ice Station Zebra in the Arctic. When Soviet and British agents arrived to recover the film capsule, the scientists were caught in the crossfire. Ferraday sets his crew to search for the capsule. Jones finds another tracking device but is knocked out by Vaslov, a Soviet double-agent and the saboteur. Anders confronts Vaslov and the two men fight before the dazed Jones shoots and kills the American Captain.

Tigerfish detects approaching Soviet aircraft. Ferraday lets Vaslov use the tracker to locate the ice-buried capsule. A large force of Soviet paratroopers arrive and demand the film. After Ferraday hands over the empty container, the deception is discovered and a brief firefight occurs. In the confusion, Vaslov tries to take the film but is wounded by Jones. Ferraday orders him to give the film to the Soviets. The canister is sent aloft by weather balloon for recovery by aircraft. Moments before it is taken, Ferraday activates his own detonator, destroying the film and denying either side the locations of the other's missile silos. The Soviet colonel concedes that both his and Ferraday's missions are effectively accomplished and leaves.

Tigerfish completes the rescue of the civilians. A teletype machine reports the news that the "humanitarian mission" has been an example of better cooperation between the West and the Soviet Union.




The film rights to the 1963 novel were acquired the following year by producer Martin Ransohoff, who hoped to capitalize on the success of the 1961 blockbuster The Guns of Navarone by adapting another Alistair MacLean novel for the silver screen as a follow-up.[5] He expected the film to cost around $5 million.[6]

"Our aim is to produce films that are both interesting and commercial," said Ransohoff. "We are looking for stories that have something unique to say."[7] Ransohoff's company, Filmways, had a deal with MGM who would provide finance.[8]

Paddy Chayefsky, who had just written The Americanization of Emily for Ransohoff, was hired to write the script.

Navarone stars Gregory Peck and David Niven were initially attached to this film, with Peck as the sub commander and Niven as the British spy, plus Edmond O'Brien and George Segal in the other key roles and John Sturges to direct. Sturges was borrowed from The Mirisch Company.[9]

Filming was set to begin in April 1965, but scheduling conflicts and United States Department of Defense objections over Paddy Chayefsky's screenplay, because they felt it showed "an unfair distortion of military life" that would "damage the reputation of the Navy and its personnel"[10] delayed the start. A new script was commissioned.

In January 1967 MGM announced the film would be one of 13 movies it would make during the next year. (The other films were Point Blank, The Phantom Tollbooth, Sol Madrid, Guns for San Sebastian, The Extraordinary Seaman, Cry Havoc with Robert Vaughn, The Impossible Years originally planned with Peter Sellers, but David Niven was to star, Very Special People with Natalie Wood, Potluck with Elvis Presley, The Power, The Most Dangerous Game with George Peppard, and The Shoes of the Fisherman. Not all of these were made).[11]


Due to scheduling conflicts, the original cast was no longer available when filming began in the spring of 1967.[12] Rock Hudson had replaced Gregory Peck by February.[13] After making four flop comedies in a row, Hudson was keen to change his image; he had just made Seconds and Tobruk and Ice Station Zebra was an attempt to continue this.[14] In June 1967, Laurence Harvey and Patrick McGoohan joined the cast as the Russian agent and British agent, respectively.[15] In July, Ernest Borgnine joined the cast, replacing Laurence Harvey.[16] Other key roles were played by Tony Bill, who signed a five-picture contract with Ransohoff, and Jim Brown.[17]

The cast also included Australian Olympic swimmer Murray Rose. There were no women in the cast. "It was the way Maclean wrote it," said Hudson.[18]


Filming began in June 1967. The film was budgeted at $8 million.[3] Principal photography lasted 19 weeks, ending in October 1967.[13] By the time it was finished the cost had risen to $10 million.[19]

Ice Station Zebra was photographed in Super Panavision 70 by Daniel L. Fapp. The fictional nuclear-powered submarine Tigerfish (SSN-509) was portrayed in the movie by the Diesel-electric Guppy IIA submarine USS Ronquil (SS-396) when seen on the surface. For submerging and surfacing scenes, the Diesel-electric Guppy IA USS Blackfin (SS-322) was used, near Pearl Harbor. The underwater scenes used a model of a Skate-class nuclear submarine. George Davis, head of the art department at MGM, spent two years researching the design for the submarine.[3]

Second unit cameraman John M. Stephens developed an innovative underwater camera system that successfully filmed the first continuous dive of a submarine, which became the subject of the documentary featurette, The Man Who Makes a Difference.[20]

During filming, Patrick McGoohan had to be rescued from a flooded chamber by a diver who freed his trapped foot, saving his life.[21] As he was making his television series The Prisoner during principal photography in Ice Station Zebra, McGoohan had the episode "Do Not Forsake Me Oh My Darling" re-written to have the mind of his character transferred into the body of another character.[22]


Ice Station Zebra was popular with audiences, but not on the scale of Sturges's early 1960s work.[23]

Ice Station Zebra premiered at the Cinerama Dome in Los Angeles on October 23, 1968 and opened to the public the following day.[1] The film earned theatrical rentals of $4.6 million domestically.[24]

The escalating production costs of this film, along with The Shoes of the Fisherman at the same time, led to the transfer of MGM President Robert O'Brien to Chairman of the Board, though he resigned that position in early 1969, after both films were released and failed to recoup their costs.[19]


Ice Station Zebra received mixed reviews from critics.

On December 21, 1968, Renata Adler reviewed the film for The New York Times: “a fairly tight, exciting, Saturday night adventure story that suddenly goes all muddy in its crises... It doesn't make much difference, though... The special effects, of deep water, submarine and ice, are convincing enough—a special Super Panavision, Metrocolor, Cinerama claustrophobia... (The cast) are all stock types, but the absolute end of the movie—when the press version of what happened at a Russian-American polar confrontation goes out to the world—has a solid, non-stock irony that makes this another good, man's action movie, (there are no women in it) to eat popcorn by.“[25]

In the March 1969 issue of Harper's Magazine, Robert Kotlowitz wrote: “... a huge production, one of those massive jobs that swallow us alive... For action it has crash dives, paratroopers, Russian spies, off-course satellites, and a troop of Marines, the average age of whom seems to be fourteen. It also has Rock Hudson...Patrick McGoohan...Ernest Borgnine, Jim Brown, and enough others to field maybe three football teams. And best of all there is also some nice suspense and pacing for at least two-thirds of the movie's three-hour length. It comes apart a bit only when the mystery starts to unravel; but that is the nature of mysteries...” Kotlowitz's review suggests that seeing the film in theaters equipped for Super Panavision 70 played a significant role in a viewer's experience:

“What really got me was the kind of details that the immense, curving Cinerama screen was able to offer... Every single glistening drop of bow spray can be seen as it comes pouring over the submarine's surface, caught by a camera strapped to the conning tower. There are beautiful abstract patterns made by the sub as it cuts its way through the North Sea, all the gleaming, meticulous, finely wrought, intricate machinery inside the sub, and huge chunks of mountainous ice hanging down from the roof of the ice cap like molars. Nothing could distract me from that screen, not even several minutes of confused story-telling at the end of the film... Buy some popcorn and see the movie.“[26]

At the time of the film's release Variety's brief review praised it, highlighting the performances: “ Film’s biggest acting asset is McGoohan, who gives his scenes that elusive ‘star’ magnetism. He is a most accomplished actor with a three-dimensional presence all his own. Hudson comes across quite well as a man of muted strength. Borgnine's characterization is a nicely restrained one. Brown, isolated by script to a suspicious personality, makes the most of it.”[27]

In April 1969, Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times described it as "so flat and conventional that its three moments of interest are an embarrassment" and called it "a dull, stupid movie". He expressed disappointment that the special effects did not, in his opinion, live up to advance claims, comparing them unfavorably to the effects in 2001: A Space Odyssey.[28] (MGM pulled the hugely successful 2001: A Space Odyssey from Cinerama venues in order to make way for Ice Station Zebra.[29])

Writing for TCM, Lang Thompson calls the film “a nifty thriller of spies, submarines and saboteurs that captivated no less a personage than Howard Hughes, who reportedly watched it hundreds of times. You certainly won't regret watching it once.”[30] Thompson is referring to the fact that “In the era before VCRs, Howard Hughes would call the Las Vegas TV station he owned and order them to run a particular movie. Hughes so loved Ice Station Zebra that it aired in Las Vegas over 100 times.”[31]

In the September/October 1996 issue of Film Comment, Director John Carpenter contributed to the magazine's long-running Guilty Pleasures feature.[32] He included Ice Station Zebra on his list, asking "Why do I love this movie so much?"[33]

On December 28, 2006, Dennis Schwartz gave the film a C+, concluding: “The film surprisingly turned out to be a commercial hit.“ [34]

As of August 2020, Ice Station Zebra holds a 47% “Rotten" rating on the review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes.[35]

Awards and nominationsEdit

Ice Station Zebra was nominated in two categories at the 41st Academy Awards, for Best Special Visual Effects (won by 2001: A Space Odyssey) and Best Cinematography (won by Romeo and Juliet).

Similar historical eventsEdit

The plot has parallels to events from April 1959 concerning a missing experimental Corona satellite capsule (Discoverer II) that inadvertently landed near Spitsbergen, Norway, in the Arctic Ocean on April 13, which was believed to have been recovered by Soviet agents. In 2006, the United States National Reconnaissance Office declassified information stating that "an individual formerly possessing Corona access was the technical adviser to the movie" and admitted "the resemblance of the loss of the Discoverer II capsule, and its probable recovery by the Soviets" on Spitsbergen Island.[36] The story has parallels with the CIA's Project COLDFEET, which took place in May–June 1962. In this operation, two American officers parachuted from a CIA-operated Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress to an abandoned Soviet ice station. They were picked up three days later by the B-17 using the Fulton surface-to-air recovery system.

The attempted sinking of the submarine is based on the loss of the Royal Navy submarine HMS Thetis in Liverpool Bay in 1939.[37] The drip cock was blocked on the newly built Thetis by fresh paint, which led to the rear cap being opened while the bow cap was already open to the sea. Water entered at the rate of one ton per second and Thetis sank with the loss of 98 lives. In the movie, the drip cock was blocked with epoxy glue.

Notes Edit

  1. ^ a b c Ice Station Zebra at the American Film Institute Catalog
  2. ^ a b Lovell, Glenn (2008). Escape Artist: The Life and Films of John Sturges. University of Wisconsin Press. pp. 264–269.
  3. ^ a b c Thomas, K. (Jul 17, 1967). "North pole finds a place in the sun for 'Ice Station'". Los Angeles Times. p. C1. ProQuest 155701551.
  4. ^ Welles, Chris (3 Aug 1969). "Bo Polk and B School Moviemaking". Los Angeles Times. p. l6.
  5. ^ Scheuer, P. K. (April 10, 1964). "'Tom jones' steals poll of U.S. critics". Los Angeles Times. ProQuest 168563381.
  6. ^ "Filmways expects sharp rise in fiscal '64 profit". Wall Street Journal. April 22, 1964. ProQuest 132971479.
  7. ^ "TV STUDIOS TURN TO THEATER FILMS‐Reply to Movie Competition With Bid for New Market". The New York Times. 1964-07-24. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 2020-08-07.
  8. ^ "Message Merchant On The Run". Retrieved 2020-08-07.
  9. ^ Martin, B (August 6, 1965). "Movie Call Sheet". Los Angeles Times. ProQuest 155269498.
  10. ^ Suid, Lawrence H. (2002). Guts and Glory: The Making of the American Military Image in Film. Kentucky: The University Press of Kentucky. p. 402. ISBN 0-8131-9018-5.
  11. ^ "MGM Plans 14 Films on 1967 Budget". Los Angeles Times. 25 January 1967. p. d10.
  12. ^ Martin, B (June 20, 1967). "McLaglen to direct 'mace'". Los Angeles Times. ProQuest 155674517.
  13. ^ a b Martin, Betty (6 February 1967). "Hudson Joins 'Ice Station'". Los Angeles Times. p. d25.
  14. ^ Thomas, Kevin (21 September 1967). "A Change of Pace for Rock Hudson: Variety of Roles for Rock Hudson". Los Angeles Times. p. e1.
  15. ^ "Harvey and Hudson to Co-Star". Retrieved 2020-08-07.
  16. ^ Martin, Betty (6 July 1967). "Cassavetes Leaves 'Madrid'". Los Angeles Times. p. e14.
  17. ^ Martin, Betty (28 June 1967). "Eva Renzie in 'Pink Jungle'". Los Angeles Times. p. e11.
  18. ^ Browning, Norma Lee (25 August 1967). "Dramatic Roles Lure Rock Hudson". Chicago Tribune. p. b20.
  19. ^ a b "Metro-Goldwyn Omits Dividend; O'Brien Resigns: Board Cites Possible Loss Of Up to $19 Million in The Current Fiscal Year; Bronfman Named Chairman". Wall Street Journal. 27 May 1969. p. 2.
  20. ^ The Man Who Makes The Difference (1968) on YouTube
  21. ^ "Obituary: Patrick McGoohan". The Telegraph. 15 January 2009. Retrieved 20 September 2019.
  22. ^ Lois Dickert Armstrong (5 November 1967). "Actor McGoohan Sees Films, TV as Blessing and Threat". Los Angeles Times. p. D12.
  23. ^ "John Sturges - Rotten Tomatoes". Retrieved 2020-08-07.
  24. ^ "Ice Station Zebra". Retrieved 2020-08-07.
  25. ^ Adler, Renata; Canby, Vincent; Thompson, Howard (1968-12-21). "The Screen: 'Ice Station Zebra' at the Cinerama". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 2020-08-07.
  26. ^ "Harper's magazine : Alden, Henry Mills, 1836-1919 : Free Download, Borrow, and Streaming". Internet Archive. Retrieved 2020-08-07.
  27. ^ "Ice Station Zebra". Variety. 1968-01-01. Retrieved 2020-08-07.
  28. ^ Ebert, Roger (April 21, 1969). "Ice Station Zebra". Chicago Sun-Times. Retrieved September 30, 2015.
  29. ^ "Ice Station Zebra (1968) - Trivia -". Turner Classic Movies. Retrieved 2020-08-07.
  30. ^ "Ice Station Zebra". Turner Classic Movies. Retrieved 2020-08-07.
  31. ^ "Ice Station Zebra (1968) - Trivia -". Turner Classic Movies. Retrieved 2020-08-07.
  32. ^ "The guilty pleasures of great directors". News. Retrieved 2020-08-07.
  33. ^ "John Carpenter Interview". Retrieved 2020-08-07.
  34. ^ "ICE STATION ZEBRA – Dennis Schwartz Reviews". Retrieved 2020-08-07.
  35. ^ Ice Station Zebra at Rotten Tomatoes
  36. ^ "National Reconnaissance Office Review and Redaction Guide, Appendix F" (PDF). 2006. p. 155. Retrieved 2016-07-12.
  37. ^ Williams, Kelly (17 April 2013). "Moments that shocked North Wales: The sinking of HMS Thetis in 1939". Daily Post. Retrieved 20 September 2019.
  • Suid, Lawrence H. (1996). Sailing the Silver Screen: Hollywood and the U.S. Navy. Annapolis, MD, USA: Naval Institute Press. ISBN 1-55750-787-2.

See alsoEdit

External linksEdit