Based on the novel by Christopher Landon
UK theatrical trailer: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CrnsbB9AjIk
A group of army personnel and nurses attempt a dangerous and arduous trek across the deserts of North Africa during the second world war. The leader of the team dreams of his ice cold beer when he reaches Alexandria, but the problems just won’t go away. Written by Rob Hartill
Ice Cold in Alex is a typical roadtrip film with a serious setting. The film is set in the Northern Africa with the ‘8th army’, aka ‘Pummel’s Africa corps’ and starts by charting a map and showing the various towns ‘turned to dust’ by warfare including Matruh, Berza, Saloum, Barram and Tobruk. It states that 2 million men were there. 2 million men, it points out, means 2 million stories, This is one. And it happens to be true. What a great start to a film. It slowly reveals the strength of joint experience, the bonding of a common enemy and the ability to feel kinship and understanding with those who you should hate.
This is definitely a film to recommend..
This is a vastly different film to Sarah’s Key. It’s set in the desert, not in the city, it involves combatants and people actively engaged in the conflict, rather than civilians entirely controlled by it, and it presents an entirely different viewpoint of the same conflict and for that I am grateful and wonder how many different perspectives I will see.
We follow the fate of Captain John Mills and his second in command, Tom, of the 8th army corps, ordered to pull out from Tobruk to go east to Salom and re-stock. During their retreat, they are joined by two nurses who failed to join the evacuation and the group become separated from the whole. Main routes bombed and key bridges blown, their journey in an Austin K2 ambulance takes them across bogs, minefieds, into German hands and out of them again as they try to drive back across the desert. Their final arrival for an ice cold (beer) in Alex brings their journey to and end with knowledge that life will never be the same for any of them again.
There is a definite comment during this film on what it means to be ‘British’ and certainly what it means to be British in battle. Pride, loyalty and fairness seem to be qualities perpetrated as inherent in the Brits. This accolade continues to this day perhaps because of the exemplary behaviour of the soldiers during the war. The upper class accents of all of the officers in this film are prominent and noticeable reminding me that predominantly only educated men were allowed to be officers. To work your way up the ranks was most unusual. However, while looking at these ‘English qualities’, the trusty sidekick Tom displays these characteristics much more often and more naturally than the Captain himself.
One element of life in the desert that is evident and well portrayed in the film is the overbearing heat and constant sweating. Water drips down the faces of the characters relentlessly. Water is in short supply and it is a struggle.
The men who had to stay behind to try and hold the line were clearly in the worst of the two positions, isolated and exposed the enemy. It was decided the unmarried men would be the ones to stay, presumably to minimise grief back at home when the inevitable happened. I can’t help thinking about our understanding of the institution of marriage now, and the strength of so many more relationships than just husband and wife, it seems such an unfair way of choosing who lives and who dies. But if you have to make a decision based on something, then what else? I can’t help wondering if men got married just to be one of the ‘chosen ones’ should this situation arise.
Women in this film are certainly presented as the weaker sex the majority of the time. Although doing their bit for the war effort, the two nurses are initially presented as rather foolish and nervous. Throughout the film, one of the nurses, Denise, is used as a tool to demonstrate what can happen if you allow yourself to be consumed by your fear or infatuated with your surroundings. She panics, she cannot separate herself from her reality and in the end she gets takes a fatal bullet as a clear demonstration of the end of the road for those who succumb to their base intuition of fear. The other characters manage to maintain a sturdy separateness from their world, a determination to keep to the task at hand and not relate their situation to the bigger picture. The other nurse, Diane Murdoch, grows in strength and capability throughout the film, and takes on more and more ‘manly’ roles as their journey progresses together, such as taking her turn on the night watch. All of this growth seems to disappear as they again use the woman to ‘fail’ at the end of the film. After hours of leveraging the broken truck up one of the final dunes in the desert, she is told to hold the truck. She is not paying enough attention and the truck slips all the way back down the hill. Mills comments early on, ‘dames and mines. A lovely party’. Women were definitely not seen as equals, and are clearly portrayed as an additional irritant to be handled.
I was relatively surprised when a relationship started to develop between Mills and Murdoch. The film seemed to show a greater tendency between her and Tom and Tom certainly seems like the character presented in a more appealing light. Her immediate subservience to Mills, and devotion, when his treatment of her is relatively dismissive, riled me. It was clear he was a troubled character and that he was a good man, but his behaviour did not warrant her affection.
Watching an older film than I am used to was a stimulating experience. It is easier to watch in a sense as the story feels simpler, and more coherent. It unashamedly makes good use of the theatrical concepts of dramatic pauses and the props and flaunts it’s ‘flawed hero’. Minimal special effects, great dialogue, and visually absolutely stunning to behold.
The film takes an interesting turn when the group come across a South African Sergeant Major who escaped from the enemy and is looking to join them to get back to the city. Aside from the fact that he is wearing the most extraordinarily short shorts, he is a relatively entertaining character who offers an alternative approach to the ‘British soldier’. He is much more relaxed, an arrogant so and so and somewhat bemused by The British way. It is an interesting insight into the difficulties each side must have faced, working together against a common enemy, each with their own priorities and approaches., as Segeant Pugh outlines, ‘I want to do what any bloody Englishmen can’. There is one great scene when he has thinks he has stepped on a mine. The dramatic pause comes in a classic, as he sweats and stands and waits while Mills dusts around his toes to try and decipher what it is.
Mills is certainly initially reluctant to encourage an extra member to join them. Only one thing made him relent. The offer of gin. His dependency on alcohol is focused on much through the film- his decisions been often swayed in an alcohol haze, his inability to cope with his situation without some kind of escapism and relaxant. I can only imagine how easy it would be to become dependant in that environment.
As the journey progresses, Pugh’s character becomes more and more suspicious as he seems able to talk his way though German blockades, acts overly protective of his suspiciously heavy knapsack and takes trip into the desert with a spade at the same time every day. The group are pretty sure he’s not doing what he should be doing in the desert with a spade. A defining moment for the group comes as I mentioned earlier, with the accidental slip of the ambulance down the dune. The group, although initially crushed, turn to each other, pull each other up and dust each other off, and start again. At this point they become their own unit. It is clear it has superseded any other obligation or denomination. This group is their primary. Men are just men. And men can get along and help each other, wherever they are from.
The climax is beautifully played out, as the four remaining in the group make their way for an ‘ice cold in Alex’, their reward they have focused on for much of the film. It is the pinnacle of their achievements as a group, celebrating their success together. It is at this point, a young British officer fresh from the boat and full of pomposity that comes with youth, reveals an uglier side to the British forces. Mills dismisses the man temporarily, and takes the opportunity to plead with Pugh to reveal his real identity. He knows Pugh is a German spy. Initially attempting to escape, Pugh relents and accepts a cover story to protect him from the firing squad, and to become a prisoner of war. The team were too strong to break. They relied on each other, and came through for each other. The heartfelt final scenes of the film as Otto, aka Pugh, drives away from his friends, colleagues, teammates, lifesavers, and now once again enemies, are gut wrenching. There is dignity in war, and friendship can prevail over obligation. And a greater enemy ‘the desert’ can unify even the most distant of soldiers.
Watch this space for further research on the 8th army corps of North Africa and my upcoming review of the next film on the list ‘Black Book’ a 2006 Dutch film set in the Nazi-occupied Netherlands during World War II, where a Jewish singer infiltrates the regional Gestapo headquarters for the Dutch resistance.