You may ask JPFmovies “Why Ice Station Zebra” as a choice for one of the cold war trilogies? Our interest in the film stems more from the movies biggest fan that the film itself: the one time wealthiest man in the world Howard Hughes. The Reclusive billionaire (and this is in the 1970’s) Hughes, had experience both as a movie producer and a defense contractor for the United States, watched a private print of Ice Station Zebra 150 times on a continuous loop in his private hotel suite during the years prior to his death. The film is the epitome of cold-war era espionage films it stared Rock Hudson, Patrick McGoohan, Ernest Borgnine, and NFL legend Jim Brown. The films screenplay is loosely based upon 1963 novel of the same name that has roots to in real events that apparently took place in 1959.
As was typical in the cold war, NATO and the Warsaw Pact nations were in a race for something: a satellite and ejected a capsule which parachuted to the Arctic Ocean ice pack.
Leading the race for the U.S. was Commander James Ferraday (Rock Hudson), captain of the U.S. nuclear attack submarine USS Tigerfish (SSN-509), stationed at Holy Loch, Scotland. He is ordered to rescue the personnel at Ice Station Zebra, a British civilian scientific weather station moving with the ice pack. However, the mission is actually a cover for a highly classified assignment. As he soon discovers a secretive Mr. “Jones” (Patrick McGoohan) and a platoon of U.S. Marines are aboard his boat. While underway, a helicopter delivers combat Commander Captain Anders (Jim Brown), who takes over the Marines, and Boris Vaslov (Ernest Borgnine), an amiable Russian defector and spy, who is a trusted colleague of Jones.
The Tigerfish makes its way under the ice to Zebra’s last-known position. But the ice is too thick so they decide to use a torpedo to blast an opening. It really doesn’t work out too well as the crewmen suddenly find the torpedo tube is open at both ends, killing one crewman and sending the sub sinking until its breaking point. While the sub recovers, and investigation determines that this malfunction should be impossible but Jones describes how someone could intentionally rig the tube to malfunction. The Capitan and his mysterious passenger Jones each conclude there is a saboteur aboard. Then the sub finds a patch of ice that is thin enough to break through and boat surfaces.
The team approaches the camp to look for survivors, but it is clear the Jones and his fellow spy are not too concerned with the people but are desperately looking for something. Ferraday is nobody’s fool and demands that he give him the full story. So Jones fesses up that Britain’s, America’s and the Russian German scientists stolen after the war created a an advanced experimental British camera was stolen by the Soviets, along with an enhanced film emulsion developed by the Americans. The Soviets combined the two and sent it into orbit to photograph the locations of the all the American missile bases. However, the camera malfunctioned and continued to record Soviet missile sites as well and then a second malfunction forced re-entry in the Arctic, close to Ice Station Zebra. Soon after, undercover Soviet and British agents arrived to recover the film capsule, and the civilian scientists at Zebra were caught in the crossfire between them.
As the weather clears, Ferraday sets his crew to searching for the capsule. Jones eventually finds a hidden tracking device. He is blind-sided and knocked unconscious by Vaslov, who is a Soviet agent and the saboteur they have been looking for. But before Vaslov can make off with his prize, he is confronted by Anders. As the two men fight, a dazed Jones shoots and kills Captain Anders due to Vaslov’s manipulation of the scenario.
Hot on their heels are Soviet aircraft heading toward Zebra. Ferraday and his men find the capsule buried in the ice. While Ferraday’s crew extracts the capsule, Russian paratroopers land at the scene and their commander, Colonel Ostrovsky, demands the capsule. Believing that the Americans have already secured the canister, the Russian commander threatens to activate the self-destruct mechanism with his radio-detonator. Ferraday stalls while Vaslov defuses the booby-trapped capsule and takes out the film. Ferraday hands over the empty container, but the deception is revealed and a brief firefight breaks out. In the confusion, Vaslov makes a break with the film canister. Jones stops Vaslov, mortally wounds him, and retrieves the film.
Ferraday orders Jones to hand the film over to the Soviets. However, Ferraday had earlier found a radio-detonator identical to Ostrovsky’s. The Russians send the canister aloft by balloon for recovery by an approaching jet fighter. Marine lieutenant Walker makes a desperate attempt to get Ostrovsky’s detonator, but fails and is killed. Commander Ferraday then activates his detonator, destroying the film. Both sides leave the area under the pretense that everyone was there to rescue the civilians.
Ice Station Zebra was released on October 23, 1968. The film became a major hit, which gave a much-needed boost to Rock Hudson’s flagging career.
Why does it provide an example of the cold war era? Simple, once again the two sides are stuck in a stalemate as they both wanted the film that revealed secrets about the other but while on the brink of war, each side actually ends up with nothing. This was the reality of the cold war: two sides teetering on the brink of conflict but neither one getting the better of the other. Those of you too young to experience the cold war will never know the feeling of always having to look over your shoulder to see if the enemy was there.