Ice Cold in Alex
According to some, Ice Cold In Alex is one of the most beloved British war films of the 1950s. StudioCanal seem to think so; they’ve released a new 4k restoration to mark the 60th anniversary of its release. Count me among those for whom, up until now, that title may as well have described a frosty piece of pornography. Of course, it’s partly a generational thing— the film’s most famous scene had a memorable second wind in the late ‘80s as a Carlsberg advert. To wit— a bedraggled-looking British officer eyes up a tall, frosty pint glass of sparkling lager, brand name visible, downs it in one gulp as his comrades spectate gamely, gasps. ‘Worth waiting for’, he declares. Yes, I’ve given away the ending— but it’s more or less impossible not to once understanding of the title dawns (‘Alex’ turns out to be a limey nickname for ‘Alexandria’), and I promise I’m withholding all the narrative surprises that actually surprise.
Because an ice cold lager is more or less Captain Ansom’s (John Mills) entire motivation from the start, or at least a symbolic summation of it. He’s made it out of Tobruk just ahead of a Nazi attack, and he’s trying to ferry his fellow stragglers to Alexandria through the desert in a rickety old ambulance called Katy. A practiced alcoholic thanks to the corrosive insomnia of a proliferation of wartime traumas, he soon realises that he must promise his fellow officers not to touch another drop of whisky or gin if he’s going to be of any use to them. To fixate on the promise of a relatively weak yet refreshing beverage, given the daily risk of dehydration and exhaustion, is the kind of modest, sensible version of addiction that British audiences at the time probably identified with as part of their imagined national character.
Along for the ride is Sylvia Sims’ nurse, an unusually practical and prominent woman for the genre in that decade; Harry Andrews’ Sergeant Pugh, the rude mechanical who the other characters treat like a kindly ox, but who deserves so much more; and, eventually, Anthony Quayle with a teasingly dodgy South African accent as their suspicious, arrogant, physically intimidating hitchhiker Captain van der Poel. The bulk of the action is heavily indebted to The Wages of Fear, but it has its own character dynamics to explore. After all, there’s room for more than one black and white film about trucks navigating through barren and dangerous terrain, and the set pieces are tight and well-executed. Director J. Lee Thompson is particularly adept at prolonging the characters’ main sources of frustration, finding new ways to expose their vulnerabilities and goad them into suffering psychologically as well as physically, coming to a head in two consecutive sequences, one where van der Poel is drowning in quicksand, and the other in which the team attempt, like lesser Fitzcarraldos, to hand-crank the ambulance up a sand dune.
That said, like a lot of the more modest, straightforward productions of the ‘50s, it occupies a strange transitional place in film history— as a studio movie from a time when productions were becoming increasingly confident in venturing out of the studio to shoot on location, it feels somewhat liberated in form, content, composition and character (Anson is a much more flawed leader than a wartime filmmaker would have dared to depict). But it’s also a desert film predating Lawrence of Arabia, one that does little to evoke the specifics of the terrain, leading to a slightly flat conclusion when one character sums up the adventure as ‘all against the desert- the real enemy.’
It rings somewhat true, because Nazis are few and far between, we’re following a group of (eventually) un-armed non-combatants who have special dispensation as an ambulance crew, and we are spared the details of the larger conflict going on around the main characters. It’s not much of a war film, in that sense, and maybe it’s all the better for it. There’s something extremely thorny going on, though, to do with the relationship between the British characters and van der Poel, who they suspect might be a Nazi spy, and who doesn’t allay their suspicions very well— he talks them out of trouble with the Germans numerous times, his pack obviously conceals a radio, and he sneaks away like clockwork every day to use it. Quayle may not have the accent down, but he’s the most interesting person to watch in every group scene: a hint of a hangdog expression, rueful, yet calculating, assured, and somewhere between flippant and diffident with his comrades. This gets squirmy when you start to consider that he might actually be a Nazi spy. Thompson, who after a string of hits would go on to direct numerous Charles Bronson action films (including replacing fellow plummy-voiced Tory-leaning Brit Michael Winner for the fourth Death Wish), treats him with a problematic degree of sympathy— a source of contention at the time, although audiences seem to have ultimately come around to the character as an acceptable anomaly amidst the era’s otherwise irredeemable movie Nazis.
There are lots of ways to process this creeping feeling. Past critics have seen the film as a pessimistic expression of post-war Britain’s inferiority complex, van der Poel standing in for their defeated enemy’s physical, mental and potentially moral superiority, the man ultimately responsible, given Anson’s exhaustion and instability, for leading the rest of them through the desert. In which case the ‘real enemy’ line is an indication of the film’s rabidly colonial, far-right leanings, or, more charitably, a subversive identification of the moral equivalence of Britain and Germany’s imperialist attitudes at the time. At its simplest, the film makes a somewhat tone-deaf appeal to brotherly love and co-operation against adversity, celebrating what unlikely allies can accomplish without thinking too hard about who is allied with whom.
But Quayle’s performance deserves closer engagement than this. For one thing, van der Poel is Anson’s problem child, his proximity in rank and unwarranted self-confidence landing him repeatedly in trouble from which he needs rescuing. He’s hapless, too, lumbering and obvious in all his attempts at subterfuge, and all in service to unclear goals that might genuinely include shepherding his new friends to safety. Even the quicksand sequence, which begins with him evading the ambulance’s suddenly switched-on headlamps as he begins to unpack his radio, verges on slapstick. When the British characters share cheery sing-alongs and exchange other cultural and military shibboleths, Quayle’s put-upon arrogance evaporates, and he looks like he could cry. What strikes me most about the moment when he must declare himself a German in order to save his own life is his reluctance. He takes a lot of convincing, and as he’s led away, and pronounces that ‘real enemy’ line, his strained delivery suggests he’s trying to convince himself, more than anything. If he’s at all sympathetic, it’s not because he’s a reluctant Nazi, but because he might be a remorseful one, gradually realising that there is no straightforward, safe avenue to renouncing his allegiance and repenting, yet doggedly opting to help his enemies, even if it is likely to result in his own execution.
Then again, did I mention that J. Lee Thompson directed a lot of vigilante Charles Bronson movies? Nevertheless, while it’s not as much of a landmark as this new release suggests, and I can’t see much in the special features that improves the experience, Ice Cold in Alex is a sober, unassuming, worthwhile series of suspense sequences. And that beer moment deserves to be iconic, Carlsberg advert or no. How strange that a glass of lager, an unpopular, exotic drink in ‘50s Britain that could only be found occasionally in dinky bottles, would be recorded for posterity and subsequently reclaimed as an icon of stoic, masculine British patience and fortitude.
Lager is Anson’s ad-hoc drink of choice because he’s trying not to succumb to his addiction to the harder stuff; it’s practically an inoculation. It’s also a temporary fling with a bubbly foreigner, a romance to indulge in while on leave, something to lust after then leave behind at the border; a silly drink for the occasion and the era, one that the film glances at with a wry, burlesque perspective somewhat distant from Anson’s more lascivious one. Ice Cold In Alex’s dewy glass of Carlsberg was never intended nor expected to function as product placement, because British audiences were not receptive to the product at that time. For those who sought to profit from the misplaced and misguided nostalgia of a generation who never experienced the war yet yearned perversely for the perceived societal stability reflected in the countless ersatz evocations of it, the 1980s was ‘worth waiting for’ indeed.