French critics had to invent the auteur theory, a way of re-examining filmmaking artists who “pounded the same nail, over and over again” revealing themes, tropes and concepts that their cinema could reliably be counted on to deliver, for the label “action auteur” to take hold. These were and are directors whose lightly regarded films of violent combat, crime or what have you who might be passed over in discussions of “serious cinema.”
That’s how Howard Hawks was elevated to the same status as John Ford in the Western world, and how the prolific J. Lee Thompson came to merit a second look.
The British Thompson enjoyed a four decade long career that produced “The Guns of Navarone,” “Kings of the Sun” and the original “Cape Fear.” He may have made Gregory Peck’s least-favorite movie (“Mackenna’s Gold”) and become the go-to guy for Charles Bronson during his run in B-movie “Death Wish” sequels and imitations, but the consistent themes, and always well-handled action beats of his films stood him in good stead, even if they never lifted him into the “pantheon” of auteur critic Andrew Sarris’s famed “pantheon” of directors.
One of Thompson’s earliest triumphs is the newly-restored World War II North African thriller “Ice Cold in Alex,” released by Film Movement streaming or BluRay.
The stark, sunbaked desert setting makes a great crucible for a story of men (and women) tested by the elements, the enemy, each other and their sometimes flawed selves as they scramble to get an ambulance, and two nurses, through German lines, a minefield, sand dunes and the Qattara Depression salt marsh as they escape from encircled Libya to “Alex,” Alexandria in British-held Egypt.
It’s a film with melodrama, tragedy, treachery and romance, an old fashioned combat actioner with little combat, something of a new wrinkle in Britain’s decades of wallowing in “their finest hour.”
John Mills had become a big star in the decade since his David Lean “Great Expectations” breakout, and plays grizzled and soused Captain Anson, an alcoholic officer ordered to take two nurses in the battered ambulance called “Katy” out of the repeatedly-besieged Tobruk and back to Alexandria. Sylvia Syms and Diane Crane plays the nurses.
The reliable character actor Harry Andrews is Pugh, the venerable sergeant assigned to join him, with both men reluctant to leave the garrison there behind, with hints of hard feelings or outright bad blood between Anson and at least one man trapped there.
“You right bastard!”
Just a couple of blokes in British battle shorts, sharing a bottle and a little drive across hundreds of miles of contested desert. Well, Sgt. Pugh figures he needs to keep the old man off the sauce.
“You’ve had just about enough, sir,” is never what Anson wants to hear. But Pugh enlists Sister Murdoch (Syms) in a “keep the old man sober” scheme, something which becomes trickier as they face tragedy and face unforeseen obstacles and detours, hunting for petrol and water in a moonscape where both are scarce.
They reluctantly pick up a passenger, a thick-accented South African (Anthony Quayle, in one of his finest action performances), start having run-ins with the Germans.
As the journey progresses, Anson faces and shrinks in the presence of his demons (he was briefly a POW, and isn’t having any more of that, come what way), blood is spilled and suspicions about their passenger arise as Katy breaks down and threatens to leave them stranded more than once.
But Thompson, whose best films were often ensemble pieces just like this, reliably finds room for humor, camaraderie and even romance amid the sand, sweat and string of severe tests the crew faces in their quest to get Anson to his favorite bar, where the beer is “Ice Cold in Alex.”
It’s a good looking film (Gilbert Taylor was DP, he did “Flash Gordon” and British TV’s “Avengers”) that sets up nicely, integrates actual combat photography without undue clumsiness and immerses us in a baking Hell where there was no sunscreen and only the Sgt. had the good sense to bring a hat.
The melodramatic touches remind us to ignore the opening voice over, which notes that this story “happens to be true.” It’s based on a novel by Christopher Landon, who co-wrote the script.
Mills lived to be a grand old man of the cinema, appearing in the Branagh “Hamlet” and the Rowan Atkinson “Bean” before dying at 97.
Andrews spent decades making World War II movies in WWII-obsessed Britain, and was even in Christopher Reeve’s “Superman.”
Quayle would go on to “Guns of Navarone” and “Lawrence of Arabia,” Syms is still living and still working, turning up as royalty in Amanda Bynes’ “What a Girl Wants” and as the Queen Mum in the Helen Mirren Oscar-winner, “The Queen.”
And alert viewers will spot, in Walter Gotell, playing a German officer our intrepid crew encounters, a future Bond “Russian,” a semi-villain in several later Roger Moore 007 pictures.
Thompson? He picked up one Oscar nomination, for his most famous film (“Navarone”), got to make a serviceable “Huckleberry Finn” with Paul Winfield, a lightly-amusing “King Solomon’s Mines” with Richard Chamberlain and a very young Sharon Stone, and too many damned Bronson films (and a Chuck Norris one) before hanging it up and retiring. He died at 88 in 2002, and with the seeming collapse of the “star director” as a studio-accepted concept, probably came along at the perfect time to earn the plaudits he did, even as his reputation recedes into the salons of BluRay aficionados.
MPA Rating: “Approved,” violence
Cast: John Mills, Harry Andrews, Sylvia Syms, Anthony Quayle and Diane Clare
Credits: Directed by J. Lee Thompson, script by T.J. Morrison and Christopher Landon, based on Landon’s novel. A Film Movement release.
Running time: 2:10