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?
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.