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While it is now considered a Cold War classic Ice Station Zebra was a flop when it was first released. This week, I review Ice Station Zebra and analyse the development of the film, how it differs quite radically from the book, and why the DOD rejected an early version of the script, leading to a total rewrite. From the National Reconnaissance Office to the addition of suspicious Russians, this is a case study in how state-sponsored Cold War cinema truly operated.


Many of you will be familiar with the movie Network, written by three-time Academy Award-winning screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky, but how many of you know that he wrote the original screenplay for Ice Station Zebra? Behind this piece of movie history trivia lies a fascinating story, of how Alistair MacLean’s novel was adapted for the big screen. We’ll start with some background – the real events that inspired the novel, before looking at the story of the film.

For those of you who’ve never read or seen Ice Station Zebra – which included me until recently – it’s about a US Navy mission to an Arctic base to investigate why the base is sending out distress signals, and the sub-plot is that a spy needs to get there to recover a reel of film from a Soviet spy satellite. That is the essential plot of both the novel and the movie. In both the book and the film there is a British spy along for the ride, and in the film there is also a Russian defector working with the British spy, and a squad of Marines to help out. In the book the reel of film is recovered at the end but in the film there’s a confrontation on the ice between US and Soviet forces.

Two real-life events appear to have inspired the novel. In April 1959 the early American spy satellite program Corona (run by the Air Force and the CIA) ran into a bit of bother. The satellites were designed to regularly drop capsules containing film of whatever they were spying on, but one had gone missing after landing near Spitzbergen Island, in Norway. It is presumed to have been picked up by the Soviets, but it seems no one actually knows what happened to the capsule. Even a CIA-produced documentary on the Corona program drew no hard conclusions:

The parallels between this event and the plot of Ice Station Zebra were noted by the National Reconnaissance Office, who took over control of the spy satellites after being founded in the early 1960s. A report they published in 2006 on declassifying old information lists a number of facts that could now be made public, including:

“Fact that” the DISCOVER-II capsule might. have been recovered by the Soviets after re-entering and returning to earth on Spitzbergen Island, and “fact that” Norwegian authorities may have provided credible evidence of that possibility.

“Fact of” the resemblance of the loss of the Discover II capsule, and its probable recovery by the Soviets, to the book Ice Station Zebra and the movie of the same name.

“Fact that” an individual formerly possessing CORONA access was the technical advisor to the movie Ice Station Zebra.

It seems highly likely that the novel was based on this event, among other early Cold War controversies. It also bears comparison to the CIA’s Operation Coldfeet, where two CIA officers were dropped in the Arctic to explore and examine an abandoned Soviet spy station. They were picked up a couple of days later using a Fulton skyhook – as I’ve previously mentioned, the plane that was used is the same one we see at the end of Thunderball, rescuing Bond and Domino using a Fulton skyhook.

It appears that MacLean took details from these different stories and used them as inspiration to write his novel. It was published in 1963 to positive reviews and proved popular with readers, so a film adaptation was a logical next step. Producer Martin Ransohoff obtained the rights, having previously adapted MacLean’s novel The Guns of Navarone. His company, Filmways, struck a deal with MGM for production financing and distribution.

Ransohoff hired Paddy Chayefsky to write the screenplay, fresh from working together on The Americanization of Emily. I’ve mentioned this film before – it turns up the DOD’s database not because they asked the Pentagon for assistance, but because it ‘contained anti-war arguments as Vietnam was hotting up’. Chayefsky went to town on his adaptation of Ice Station Zebra, seemingly trying to make it one of the most anti-war movies Hollywood had ever made. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Pentagon were not happy.

In December 1964 a producer at Filmways wrote to Don Baruch at the DOD, enclosing two copies of the novel and asking if Chayefsky could spend a few hours with an expert for research purposes, as well as see inside a nuclear submarine. This was arranged, but then Baruch had a conversation with the producer, Ben Halpern, who said there was no guarantee they would submit the finished script for review. Halpern said he thought it wouldn’t matter because they only wanted research assistance – not production assistance – at that time. So Baruch suggested the DOD postpone the research assistance until they’d reviewed the novel.

Instead, they invited Halpern and Chayefsky to Baruch’s office to go over the policy on cooperation on films, and so Chayefsky could read his treatment to them. Baruch’s memo on this meeting comments that the treatment ‘suffered from insertion of political opinion, unnecessary added conflict between intelligence agent and skipper, unacceptable conflict between skipper and XO, and overwritten and unnecessary “message” which slows action.’ The memo says they made this clear to Halpern and Chayefsky, and that no further support would be forthcoming until an acceptable treatment or screenplay had passed review.

A few months later in March 1965 they forwarded six copies of the draft script to the Pentagon, and again asked for access to a nuclear sub so they could get the details right. They also asked for a military technical advisor to be appointed to help out. So the Navy reviewed the script and wrote back to Baruch with their comments.

They hated Chayefsky’s script. The memo outlining the Navy’s problems says, ‘The story attempts to not only entertain, but to proselytise. To be specific, there are rather raw characterisations of the American commanding officer as dumb, but good, and the British agent as clever but bad. There are many recitations of the arguments for and against secrecy in military and political operations, speeches on the evil of intelligence operations and intelligence-gathering persons. There is an enormous amount of lewd talk and toothy leering. There are flat declarations of homosexuality among the weather station personnel and hints of it among the American crew. The “fact” that pornographic movies are regularly carried aboard the American submarine, and regularly shown, is a central element in the plot.’

The memo goes on to note some of the more positive character traits, before returning to the British spy, saying, ‘The British agent, however, demonstrates no good qualities. He kills without a thought but with apparent sexual satisfaction, conspires, lies, promises to pimp. His language is often gross and vulgar, sometimes profane and licentious.’

So the DOD rejected the script, and wrote back to Halpern explaining all of this and more. There’s even a bit they didn’t like where the Captain of the sub is ‘preoccupied with the love life of his daughters’ which the DOD felt reflected poorly on them. Another issue is that the submarine is sabotaged twice in the course in the film, first by flooding and then by a fire. The Navy didn’t like this because it suggested it was easy to sabotage and disable a nuclear sub. They sent all these objections in a letter to Halpern, and the same to Howard Horton, the military liaison at MGM.

Is it just me, or does this sound like a great movie? A spy story in which there’s a British spy who is a murderous, licentious prick. A submarine movie where the captain of the sub is incompetent, and there’s a flood and a fire on board. A military movie that actually discusses some of the morality of the military way of life. A Cold War plot that exposes the Cold War for what it really is (or was). Plus the stuff about porn and homosexuality and coarse language, all of which would make for some high entertainment.

But due to the fun police at the Pentagon, this film was never made. Chayefsky rewrote the script to try to make it acceptable to the DOD, but all the fundamental problems remained, as a later memo records. In particular the references to homosexuality were a stumbling block, once again showing how the entertainment liaison offices are quite conservative in their outlook.

The Rewriting of Ice Station Zebra

Though Horton pointed out that the film would get made regardless of the DOD’s objection, they steadfastly refused to support Chayefsky’s version of the script. Strangely, the DOD file on Ice Station Zebra includes an internal MGM letter from Howard Horton to Orville Crouch, who appears to have been MGM’s Washington liaison. It says ‘if cooperation is afforded to us the Navy and DOD will then have control over what we do with the story. Without any assistance from the military, then naturally, anything can happen.’

Orville followed up with the DOD, who again rejected MGM and Filmways advances. So the studio caved, junked the original script and hired a new writing team to try to adapt the novel into a screenplay that would be acceptable to the military.

In May 1967, fully two years after the DOD’s initial rejection, MGM and Filmways were back. They submitted their new script, which contained no porn, no swearing, no homosexuality, and very little dialogue about military secrecy and the immorality of spies. Nonetheless, both the DOD and the State Department had some objections.

The script notes they provided to Filmways are mostly concerned with technical dialogue and with the depiction of the competence of military personnel and respect for the chain of command. But one note is especially interesting – the script included dialogue between the captain and a sailor saying that the submarine could explode with a blast ‘bigger than all the bombs in WW2 put together’. The DOD said that this explosive estimate only applies to the missiles in a Polaris submarine ‘and should not be considered as an inherent danger of a nuclear powered submarine’. This downplaying of the dangers of nuclear power and nuclear weapons is consistent with changes made to other films and TV, and was clearly an ongoing issue for the military.

Don Baruch discussed the project with William Blair, head of Media Services at the State Department. State’s feeling was that they shouldn’t support the film, ‘because it shows the Russians hijacking our material and there is a confrontation between the two nations.’ However, he also said that because the story is clearly fictional it probably wouldn’t be detrimental to US interests. Blair also recommended that if the DOD did support the film they should ‘avoid possible international displeasures’ by foregoing a credit on the movie. The DOD’s script notes reflect this, explicitly telling Filmways not to include a DOD credit.

The same memo shows that they also discussed the film with ISA – which must be the Army’s Intelligence Support Activity. Assistant XO Commander Robert Pace said they saw no reason to get involved in the film themselves, and echoed the State Department’s position.

So the diluted, neutered version of the film was approved for military support, and was allowed to film at the submarine pier in San Diego, as well as AFB Thule, the northernmost Air Force Base which is way up in the arctic circle in Greenland. Other support in the form of vehicles and so on was also provided, though the file from the National Archives doesn’t make clear how much the producers paid for all this. In June 1968 there was an official review of the rough cut of the movie and the military’s memo to Filmways says they were satisfied with the end result.

Reviewers and audiences weren’t so happy. The movie failed to recoup its costs, which had ballooned from five to eight million dollars and Roger Ebert called it, ‘so flat and conventional that its three moments of interest are an embarrassment.’ This is the same man who gave positive reviews to Executive Decision and the Star Wars prequel trilogy, so we shouldn’t take his word as gospel, but he’s not wrong. I like the film, but I have to admit it’s a little stilted and stiff, it lacks spark in what is a story full of potential. So while I’m not saying the DOD ruined it, they certainly bear a lot of the blame for a somewhat turgid movie that never realises the drama of its plot.

What remains of Chayefsky’s radical script?

Despite this there are a few elements from Chayefsky’s script that made it into the final cut. Obviously there’s no pornography, no gay sailors singing In the Navy, but there are a couple of moments of interesting dialogue when it comes to the British spy character. He is by far the most enjoyable and interesting character in the film, because he’s posh but fairly ruthless and doesn’t apologise for it – how James Bond would be if that whole film franchise wasn’t propaganda and sex appeal.

The first scene I’d like to draw your attention to is just after the submarine has suffered a problem with one of the torpedo tubes and the entire torpedo bay is flooded.

In this scene you can see a glimpse of what Chayefsky had in mind for this film – a fairly raw examination of the Cold War intelligence world, where everyone suspects everyone. I do wonder if this is where the question of homosexuality comes in, because the Pentagon’s documents say it was mostly the employees of the British weather station but that there were hints among the US crew members too. I bring this up because in 1962 Britain had been rocked by the Vassall affair, where a civil servant in Naval Intelligence turned out to be a Soviet spy, who’d been blackmailed by the Soviets because he was gay.

Alongside the Cambridge spy ring, which also involved homosexuality, some people were wondering if there were any straight people in British intelligence. I can only guess that this is what Chayefsky was getting at with his original script, but I don’t know.

The other particularly interesting scene is once the submarine has reached the arctic circle, and the captain, the British spy, the Russian defector and a squad of Marines have set out and found Ice Station Zebra. The British spy is searching around for something, and the captain reveals that he knows more than he’s been letting on.

This is clearly a reference to Project Paperclip (and its equivalents in Britain and the Soviet Union) whereby Nazi scientists and intelligence personnel were snuck out of Nazi Germany at the end of the war. This was fairly widely known, the case of Wernher Von Braun was particularly well publicised. Nonetheless, it’s a lovely, sarcastic reflection on the post-war world.

So while the Pentagon did object to most of the interesting, controversial, raucous elements of the original script, the rewritten script still contains a few hints and moments in that vein. However, the rest of the film is rather lacking in drama and pathos, and the characters don’t so much have arcs as straight lines. So like the 2014 Godzilla, Ice Station Zebra is a film that suffered in terms of entertainment value and political radicalism due to the studio deciding they couldn’t make it without the DOD.

From what I can tell, it was MGM rather than Filmways who made this decision. For one thing, they had the money so they had most of the power. For another, the producer Martin Ransohoff is mentioned as not caring what the DOD thought of the script, he was going to make the movie with or without them. Likewise, after the initial negotiations were largely conducted by MGM’s military liaison Howard Horton, once the original script had been jettisoned Filmways hired John Horton to deal with the military on their behalf. I’m guessing there was some friction between Filmways and MGM over scrapping the script, and Filmways insisted on having their own guy liaise with the government for round two.

So it seems MGM scuppered their own film by giving in to the government’s demands. Perhaps not all that surprising, but somewhat disappointing. This is a story of what might have been – Ice Station Zebra could have been the defining spy movie of the 1960s, a big budget blockbuster that criticised the Cold War and lampooned the military-intelligence establishment. But between MGM’s cowardice and the Pentagon being packed with snowflakes (pun intended) the original script was thrown out, and the replacement was a second-rate James Bond story. So while I do like the film, I can see why it didn’t go down well with audiences.

Before we go, there is one final chapter to this story that’s downright weird, and it involves that loveable crazy billionaire Howard Hughes. In his later years, Hughes became obsessed with Ice Station Zebra, according to some reports he watched it over 150 times, many times on a continuous loop. He also owned a local TV station in Las Vegas and according to the singer Paul Anka, you could tell when Hughes was in town because you’d turn on the TV and Ice Station Zebra would be playing at 2 a.m., then at 5 a.m. it would start all over again. Some reports even say that when Hughes wanted to replay a specific scene from the film, he’d phone up the TV station and tell them to rewind the tape, mid-broadcast. I’m not sure why Hughes loved the film so much, but this seems to be a good way to wrap up this show.