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Film / Ice Station Zebra

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Ice Station Zebra is a 1968 American Cold War espionage thriller directed by John Sturges, adapted from the 1963 novel by Alistair MacLean (which, in turn, fictionalized a real event) with a soundtrack by Michel Legrand. The cast includes Rock Hudson, Ernest Borgnine, Patrick McGoohan, and Jim Brown.

Hudson plays a U.S. Navy submarine captain who is ordered to take his nuclear attack submarine from its base in Scotland up to the Arctic, ostensibly to rescue the crew of the eponymous weather station. On the way, he's ordered to pick up a platoon of Marines and a British Intelligence agent, and quickly learns the real purpose of his mission: to recover a capsule off a Soviet spy satellite.

At the time, the film was considered a workmanlike B-picture thriller and was received with indifference by critics. These days, history buffs are more likely to recognize it as the movie that the the aviator and billionaire tycoon Howard Hughes watched hundreds of times due to his obsessive-compulsive disorder. (As Hughes owned the Las Vegas TV station KLAS, which had Ice Station Zebra in its library, he would call in and force them to play the film on repeat all night.) It's also well-known among fans of The Prisoner (1967), as McGoohan took a break from filming his own series to work on this film, using his pay to keep The Prisoner afloat.

This film provides examples of:

  • Adaptation Distillation: Once the rescue takes place, the novel was more of a Whodunnit? detective story about which of the rescued survivors was The Mole. This aspect gets dropped with The Mole being revealed to the audience halfway through the movie.
  • Canon Foreigner: Marine Captain Leslie Anders does not appear in the novel.
  • Chromosome Casting: Only three women appear in the film: One is a barmaid at the far end of the bar when Ferraday receives a phone call; another is in one of the booths in the bar; the third is seen walking with a companion arm-in-arm outside the second pub Ferraday enters. Truth in Television, as in that era women were not posted to nuclear attack submarines or Arctic research stations.
  • Codename Title: An action-adventure film from 1968. The Place of the title refers to the destination an American submarine is ordered to visit, under a cover story of aiding Russians. The captain discovers his passengers have another agenda.
  • Eerie Arctic Research Station: The film centers on a lonely Arctic research station that happens to be the closest manned site to where a reconnaissance satellite fell to Earth. Both the Soviet Union and the United States desperately want that satellite, since it managed to photograph secret military sites worldwide before falling out of orbit. It comes down to a race between Soviet fighter jets versus an American nuclear submarine. It becomes even more eerie because a mole in the station set part of it on fire to try to take out witnesses of the salvaging of the satellite, and thus the Americans have to sift through the wreckage.
  • The Film of the Book: Book written by Alistair MacLean.
  • The Greatest Story Never Told: As expected of a story involving a shadow war, the real reason why Russians and Americans mobilized troops to the Arctic and the bloodier parts of what happened once they arrived are never made public. Instead, the international press releases a story about how a joint American/Russian operation helped save the poor scientists of Ice Station Zebra, who were in dire straits courtesy of an "accidental" fire...
  • Lampshade Hanging: In the novel, when the submarine dives for the first time, the British spy expects blaring klaxons and men yelling "Dive! Dive! Dive!" Instead, the commander just says "OK men, we're going down."
  • Made in Country X: Lampshaded by Mr. Jones, saying that the spy satellite was made in Russia with parts designed by German scientists employed by the Americans and British.
    Mr. Jones: The Russians put the camera made by our German scientists and the film made by your German scientists into the satellite made by their German scientists...
  • Mr. Smith: Patrick McGoohan's Intelligence operative calls himself "Mr. Jones" and never provides his real name.
  • Mutually Assured Destruction: Discussed ("M.A.D. — a wonderful acronym if I've ever heard of one!") in the Info Dump provided by Mr. Jones regarding why the satellite that landed near the station is such an important MacGuffin: the satellite went over (and thus filmed) the location of all the missile silos in both the United States and Russia, so whoever gets a hold of the film will (theoretically) be able to create a "survivable" strategy for an all-out nuclear assault.
  • Never the Obvious Suspect: Averted. The Soviet mole on the Tigerfish is the Russian "defector" Vaslov.
  • No MacGuffin, No Winner: At the end of the film, the Americans blow up the roll of film from the satellite's camera to prevent a Mexican Standoff between them and a Russian commando team from escalating to full-blown slaughter and possibly World War III.
  • "No Rules" Racing: Whole film is one big race to see which side of the Cold War gets this game-changing information first. There are no rules for a situation like this, and even if there were, with the stakes so high, no one would pay attention to them.
  • Race Against the Clock: If the Russians arrive before the Americans, the intelligence will be used probably to destroy the mainland.
  • Self-Defense Ruse: The Mole plans to invoke this trope, telling an American officer to beat him with a crowbar so he can be shot in "self defense". The officer is incredulous that he would go along with this plan, but the mole points out that he's the type to die fighting. Instead of reaching for the crowbar, the officer attacks him directly, eventually gaining the upper hand until he's shot dead by the hero under the assumption that he is The Mole.
  • Spy Satellites: The malfunction of one such satellite provides the impetus for the plot when it photographs both Soviet and American missile silos before ejecting its film capsule over the Arctic. Said film capsule serves as the movie's MacGuffin.
  • Sub Story: A large part of the movie involves the submarine journey to get to the titular station, which sees a few problems like almost crashing into an ice floe, some of which are apparently the work of a saboteur.
  • Very Loosely Based on a True Story: The movie - and the Alistair MacLean novel on which the film is based - was apparently inspired by two incidents at the height of the Cold War:
    • In 1959, the film capsule from an American Corona spy satellite landed near Spitsbergen and is thought to have been recovered by Soviet agents. (An individual with knowledge of the Corona program would later be a technical adviser on the film.)
    • 1962's Project COLDFEET, a CIA mission to recover equipment from an abandoned Soviet ice station. The Fulton Skyhook, a method similar to that used by the Soviet jets in the movie to attempt to recover the film capsule, was used to retrieve both the sought after Soviet equipment and the CIA agents involved.
  • Wounded Gazelle Gambit: Vaslov tells Captain Anders to beat him with a crowbar so he can be shot in 'self defense' as The Mole. Anders is incredulous that he would go along with this plan, but Vaslov points out that he's the type to die fighting. Instead of reaching for the crowbar, Anders attacks him directly, eventually gaining the upper hand until he's shot dead by Jones under the assumption that he is The Mole.