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Category Archives: J Lee Thompson

Ice Cold in Alex

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What makes a good war film? At its best, the war movie goes beyond mere action, heroism and patriotism. It provides the opportunity to show real human drama and real human frailty under the most extreme circumstances. The small, everyday, mundane struggles between individuals, and within individuals, play against the backdrop of the larger conflict. There is also the matter of character and how its strength or weakness can shape the course of events and the direction of men’s lives. The British film industry has succeeded in producing some fine war movies, and Ice Cold in Alex (1958) is no exception. This is no epic production; it really only deals with the experiences of four people yet it touches on some very big themes, not the least of which are honour and decency.

It’s 1942, Rommel’s Afrika Korps are racing across North Africa, and Tobruk is about to be besieged. Captain Anson (John Mills) is a man nearing the end of his tether, both physically and mentally. The unrelenting hardship of the desert war has driven him to drink, and his dependency on the bottle, while superficially steadying his nerves, threatens to undermine his judgment. Having been ordered to take his ambulance out of Tobruk before the siege begins, he finds himself faced with an overland trek to Alexandria accompanied by the phlegmatic Sergeant Major Pugh (Harry Andrews) and two nurses (Sylvia Sims & Diane Clare). Along the way they pick up an Afrikaaner, Van Der Poel (Anthony Quayle) who proves to be an asset in a number of situations. It’s Van Der Poel’s ability to speak German which gets them out of a tricky spot when Anson panics and tries to outrun an enemy patrol. However, the incident leads to the death of one of the nurses and Anson’s subsequent pledge to lay off the liquor until they reach Alex, where he’ll buy them all an ice cold beer. 

Reaching their destination will be no easy task though. Rommel’s troops are advancing faster than expected and, as town after town falls, they must race to keep one step ahead. From this point on Anson’s war is no longer against an army; he must instead battle the hostile environment, suspicion and his own weakness. With the ambulance damaged, the water supply diminishing and the temperatures rising, he is forced into taking a route across The Depression, a vast desert quagmire, where one false step would spell disaster. Even as the little group pulls together to overcome each challenge nature throws at them, the seeds of suspicion are growing. Is Van Der Poel all that he claims to be?

John Mills - a man on the edge

Although the fate of the group ultimately depends on the calm resourcefulness of Pugh and the brute strength of Van Der Poel, it is Anson that you find yourself rooting for. It is a tribute to the skill of John Mills that the viewer feels such sympathy for what should be an unsympathetic character. After all, the man’s a drunk and his early recklessness causes the death of one of his charges. Yet, for all that, Mills manages to bring out the finer points of the man. There is a sense of real pain when he sees how his actions have led to tragedy for the unfortunate nurse. Throughout the film he’s all twitches and nerves and doubts and regrets and hopes – in short, a human being. Harry Andrews is all square-jawed grit and resolve; if you found yourself in a tight spot you’d love to have this guy by your side. Anthony Quayle also fits his role perfectly as the ebullient Afrikaaner who relishes every opportunity to show off his physical powers. Yet, all the while, those piggy little eyes dart around and you wonder what’s going on behind them. Sylvia Sims is the epitome of sweetness and practicality as she falls for Mills and, more importantly, believes in him and encourages him to believe in himself. J. Lee Thompson does his usual professional job in the director’s chair and makes good use of the North African locations. He manages to generate real suspense in some set piece scenes such as the navigation of the minefield and the nightmarish struggle in the quicksand. He also gets across the sense of dry, dusty heat and you feel the same relief as the characters do when John Mills sits on the bar stool in Alexandria and eyes that famous glass of Carlsberg.

Ice Cold in Alex is available on DVD in R2 from Optimum as part of their War Collection line. It’s a very nice anamorphic transfer in the correct 1.66:1 ratio. It’s a barebones affair as usual from Optimum but the quality of the film itself is enough to sell it, and it can normally be picked up cheaply. This is no action packed affair, it’s more of a character study and an excellent example of the British war film at its best. It succeeds in delivering a deeply satisfying ending and one that serves to reinforce the basic decency of man. And who better to portray that decency than John Mills.

 
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Posted by on June 29, 2008 in 1950s, J Lee Thompson, John Mills, War

 

Mackenna’s Gold

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Well, time to roll out one of my guilty pleasures. Mackenna’s Gold (1969) is one of those movies I saw as a youngster and which has entertained me ever since. Everyone knows that the age at which you first see a film is a major factor influencing how much you appreciate it. When I was a little boy this film seemed like the best western I’d ever seen. It had everything you could ask for: a strong hero, a roguish villain, cavalry, Mexican bandits, menacing Apaches, and lots of action. I’m a good deal older and more jaded now and I no longer think it’s a great western, but it is a great fun western. Sure, I can see all it’s shortcomings now and, if I wanted to be coldly objective, I could probably savage it. But I  don’t feel like being objective; this movie was a genuine childhood pleasure and I intend to hang on to the memory.

There’s a great opening sequence with Joe MacDonald’s camera swooping and soaring over a primal western landscape to the accompaniment of Victor Jory’s narration and Jose Feliciano’s theme song. Ancient buttes and mesas rise up from the parched desert floor before the circling camera locks onto a lone figure and zooms in on an equally ancient Indian on horseback. This old man, Prairie Dog (Eduardo Ciannelli), is carrying a map that reveals the location of a mythical canyon of gold. Before dying he passes on the map to Marshal MacKenna (Gregory Peck), but the marshal has little faith in such tall tales and promptly burns the document. When he is subsequently captured by an outlaw band led by Omar Sharif, he is forced to lead them to the canyon whose whereabouts he has memorized. As the treasure hunt progresses more people are drawn in, notably a number of the leading citizens of the nearest town. There are ambushes, Indian attacks, betrayals and more before the whole thing wraps up with a psychedelic sunrise and a massive earthquake. And let’s not forget there’s the very welcome sight of Julie (Catwoman) Newmar stripping off for a swim in among all that.

Omar Sharif, Keenan Wynn, Gregory Peck, and some other guy.

The acting tends to come second in a piece of fluff like this, and that’s pretty much the case here. Gregory Peck is as stoic (those who wish to be unkind might say wooden) as usual in a part that doesn’t call for much more than that. Leaving aside the Egyptian cowboy and the Italian Indian, the best bits come from the starry citizenry of the town (Lee J. Cobb, Edward G. Robinson, Anthony Quayle, Burgess Meredith, Raymond Massey and Eli Wallach) although they have little more than cameo roles and don’t last too long before being massacred. Telly Savalas was generally worth watching when he got to play a villainous part and he’s not bad as a greed fuelled cavalry sergeant.

The direction of J. Lee Thompson, and Carl Foreman’s script keep things moving along fast enough to paper over many of the plot holes and gaps in logic. The action scenes are well filmed, but then you would expect that from Thompson. There’s also some fantastic location photography from veteran cinematographer Joe MacDonald but, despite that, there’s too much reliance on obvious back projection. The only real complaint I have is one shockingly bad effects shot which involves a rope bridge and what looks like an Action Man tied to a toy horse. 

OK, this is no masterpiece of cinema but, as I said, it is a movie that I have fond memories of and I’m willing to overlook or forgive many of its faults. Perhaps others who came to it later in life would not be so generous. Sony’s DVD of Mackenna’s Gold is a reasonable transfer. I have the R2 which is anamorphic scope (I have heard that the R1 may be a pan and scan effort – if I’m wrong, feel free to correct me) and it is generally clear but the process shots do stick out like a sore thumb.

 
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Posted by on June 13, 2008 in 1960s, Gregory Peck, J Lee Thompson, Westerns

 
 
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