Thirst finally quenched by HD streaming version of 'Ice Cold in Alex'

by Jim Lundstrom

Have you ever had a deep thirst for a movie, something you’ve only heard about or read about, or something you saw once long ago and would love to see again, but in this age when you can see almost any movie your heart desires, this one has been unavailable until only very recently outside of DVD Region 2 or Blu-ray Region B, neither of which is anywhere near here.

My first such movie to thirst for was the original 1933 King Kong, which I Desperately wanted to see as a kid, and even tried staying up for it on the midnight movie one wintery Friday night, but I spent the early evening in endless sledding and wore myself out. I fell sound asleep in the living room and woke up early Saturday morning with the TV still on – but nothing airing – Saturday morning broadcasting hadn’t started yet on the three available stations.

It was more than a decade when I finally saw it one wintry night living in a converted horse stable on a family farm in Tingrith, England. The BBC was airing just a week or so in advance of the December 1976 release of Dino DeLaurentis’ remake of King Kong, Starring Charles Grodin as the Robert Armstrong character, Jeff Bridges in the Bruce Cabot hero role, and lovely young woman from Cloquet, Minn., Jessica Lange in the role of the blonde beauty played so beautifully by Fay Wray in the original.

King Kong lived up to everything I had heard, read or imagined about it. I was blown away by it hat snowy night in England. And I liked the remake, too, but I hate Peter Jackson’s endless remake. Awful!

England was a great place to see American movies on the BBC. I finally saw Singing in the Rain there and Mary Poppins, and John Ford’s The Searchers and many other John Wayne westerns – the English loved them and the BBC aired them Saturday evenings.

But I also had the opportunity to see some great British films, especially war pictures. And most of this British war films are available to audiences the world over – Dam Busters, In Which We Serve, The Cruel Sea, Lawrence of Arabia. You can find all of those somewhere.

One war film I saw there I’ve been thirsting to see again, but it was only available in foreign countries. Until now. I regularly searched for the release of this movie in North America, but it was not available.

Sad thing is, all I could remember about it was the punchline, which is also the title – Ice Cold in Alex – which refers to the main character, Capt. Anson (John Mills bleached blond to make him look younger than his 50 years when this was made in 1958), and his thirst for an ice cold lager in Alexandria, Egypt, at the end of an ordeal through Nazi-occupied desert.

Bit it’s more than that. During the ordeal the alcoholic Captain and his crew of fellow travelers (two Catholic sister nurses – one doomed and the other – the excellent Sylvia Syms – to be among the quartet that finally gets to tip an ice cold in Alex), the stalwart Sergeant Major Pugh (Harry Andrews) and a chap (Anthony Quayle) they pick up along the way who says he is Dutch Afrikaner, but is he?

It’s a tough, sweaty little movie with plenty of harrowing circumstances as Anson, the Sgt. Major and the suspicious Afrikaner attempt to bring the two nurses out of the war zone in Tobruk to the relative safety of Alexandria. Each harrowing encounter with Nazis, the elements and their own existential problems as human beings makes Anson even thirstier for a drink, which the Afrikaner is all-too happy to provide from his stash of gin, while Nurse Murdoch and Sgt. Major Pugh work to stop Anson from drinking.

Then there is the subplot of whether a Nazi spy is among them. Pugh makes his decision early on when he learns the Afrikaner doesn’t know how to make desert tea, which, he believed impossible if the Boer had been fighting alongside British troops, as he said he had.

The others are made suspicious when the Afrikaner goes for his evening “shovel” walk carrying his big, heavy, Army radio-shaped sack.

After pulling a stunt that gives the doomed nurse a fatal Nazi machine gun gut wound, Capt. Anson is pulling on a bottle of gin to get himself right, when Sylvia berates him for being a drunk. That’s when he tells her about the place in “Alex”  that has the best beer in the Middle East, and cold, too. And he’d lay off the hard stuff.

Ice Cold in Alex was made in 1958, directed by J. Lee Thompson. Being more familiar with Thompson’s later American movies such as Guns of Navarone (for which he was nominated for an Academy Award), Cape Fear (the original with Robert Mitchum and Gregory Peck) and Mackenna’s Gold,  and a whole bunch of Charles Bronson movies, I was surprised to learn he was in fact a British director with a raft of Brit flicks dating back to 1950 (Murder Without Crime was his first one, starring the always entertaining Dennis Price. Thompson also wrote the script, based on his own West End play titled Double Error).

Whether Quayle’s character is really a Nazi spy doesn’t matter in the end  because we are, after all, the same. Even Nazis can have some good in them, it seems.

But that is not the moral of the story. This is, ultimately, an uplifting tale of perseverance and thirst.

So does it hold up to the years of memories?

Yes, it most certainly does.

It looks great, all black and white in a Technicolor world.

John Mills’ bleached blond hair is weird.  

Sylvia Syms is lovely.

Lots of sand and sweat and flies.

The payoff is perfect. Capt. Anson quickly disposes of his ice cold in Alex.
And Anthony Quayle is quickly dispatched for being a Nazi spy (whoops, should have warned you about that spoiler, but, honestly, if you don’t know by then that he’s been carting around a radio all this time, well, then, you’ve not been paying attention).

I’ve always liked John Mills, from his appearance as Pip in David Lean’s 1946 adaptation of Great Expectations (opposite Alec Guinness) to his 1954 turn as bootmaker Will Mossopp, who becomes son-in-law to his employer, Mr. Hobson (Charles Laughton) in Hobson’s Choice, also by David Lean. This is another British classic I saw on the BBC back in the day.   

Two years after making Ice Cold in Alex, Mills was again playing opposite Alex Guinness in the tremendous tale of jealousy and pride, Tunes of Glory. It seems by then – and after Ice Cold in Alex – Mills was typecast as a nervous man. He’s great with the forehead crinkle of a man with deep currents.

It’s a beautiful thing when Capt. Anson finally gets his lager. The story goes that the scene required multiple takes and real lager was used, so the actors were well lubricated at the end of the day. The story is also told that it was a grueling film to make, so their enjoyment over a beer carries the heavy cultural weight of just how good it is to drink beer with friends.

As soon as I learned you can now rent Ice Cold in Alex for $2.99 on Amazon Prime or purchase an HD version for $6.99, I did the latter.

Now I’ll have to get the digital version of Zoltan Korda’s 1943 Sahara (starring Humphrey Bogart as battle-scarred tank Sgt. Joe Gunn) so I have a double feature of desert war movies.