Captain Anson (John Mills) is tired of war, but in 1942 Libya, with him part of the British Army there, war is not tired of Captain Anson. His stress is leading him to drown his sorrows in drink, something that has not gone unnoticed by his fellow officers, and he pines for home and the woman there who may or may not be waiting for him. When he receives orders from his superior that he must take a fleet of ambulances to Alexandria, he is less than enthused, but as it turns out he sets off in just the one, accompanied by his Sergeant Tom Pugh (Harry Andrews) and two nurses left behind...
When it comes to depicting British grit and determination, there were few war movies to capture that better than Ice Cold in Alex, a film that could well exhaust you as you watched the characters endure their hardships with every sinew straining and skin dripping with sweat. Based on Christopher Landon's novel, which he said was a true story, it grew in stature over the years from yet another British adventure harking back to World War II to becoming one of the best-loved of its kind, and still turns up regularly on its native country's television channels, as popular as ever. And no wonder, as after a shaky start it transformed into an engrossing yarn.
It must have helped that most of the cast and crew would have been all too familiar with what was expected of them, as making this type of film was an industry all its own at this stage. The fifties was the heyday of such works for the United Kingdom, with the war fresh in many minds, and wishing to see those sacrifices and achievements glorified in cinematic form was only to be expected. However, Ice Cold in Alex was one of those which did not go the obvious us versus them route that their American counterparts tended to take at the time, as underneath all the grime and grunting was a far subtler acknowledgement that it was possible to move on from the conflict.
This was summed up in Anthony Quayle's character, the South African Captain Van Der Poel, who Anson and Pugh pick up along their journey and start to wonder if he is all he seems, or claims to be. Surely a man who supposedly worked so closely with the British Army should know how they brew a cup of tea? How very quaint that this detail should be what raises their suspicions, but otherwise this is not a quaint movie. The title alludes to the most famous glass of lager in cinema that awaits the four survivors if they can make it through the desert, but here it's as much the journey that's important as the destination, not least because Anson promises to stave off his hard-drinking until he gets there.
So they learn a lot about themselves, and what they are capable of, as they undergo their own battle against the scorching elements in that harsh landscape, and as this is a substantial film as far as the running time went, you did feel every mile of that trek. Mills was the flawed hero, and never better, gradually losing it but sorting himself out just when it counted; was there ever a more dependable actor than Harry Andrews in his role? And nurse Sylvia Syms does her bit for female emancipation by pulling her weight amongst all that masculinity. Quayle plays his superman role as the kind of man you'd be happy to call friend no matter whose side he was on, and while some view the film as an example of how the Brits were losing their way now that their Empire-building days were over, it's better, and more satisfying, to view Ice Cold in Alex as a tale of derring-do first, and secondly recognition that the past would have to be put behind us if we wanted to make any kind of progress into the future. An inspiring, hopeful film was what was intended, and that's where it succeeded. Music by Leighton Lucas.