sovay: (Lord Peter Wimsey)
sovay ([personal profile] sovay) wrote2013-01-10 11:36 pm

And they serve the best beer in all the Middle East

This was going to be one of those five-things posts, but instead my day went in several different directions than I'd been hoping and I don't really feel like writing them all up. [livejournal.com profile] handful_ofdust sent me Peter Cushing as Winston Smith, which I appreciate. I helped move a dishwasher from Waltham to Somerville on Tuesday and I still have the bruises to prove it. I saw Emperor Norton's Stationary Marching Band at Johnny D's tonight; they were worth going out for (and losing my gloves).

And this is some of what I was thinking about Ice Cold in Alex (1958) in June 2011, when it was available for a few brief shining moments on YouTube. I tracked it down for John Mills, but the character I ended up thinking the most about was the one played by Sylvia Syms. These things happen.

"Two million men. Two million stories. This is one. It happens to be true." Ice Cold in Alex really isn't the Naked City of the Second World War, but a viewer might be forgiven the expectation, seeing how it opens documentary-style with newsreels of North Africa and title cards thanking the Royal Army Service Corps and the Government of the United Kingdom of Libya, setting the immediate scene with the caption "Tobruk—1942" and a stiff tattoo of brass and drums, so we know what kind of story we're in for. Except we aren't—I don't want to overplay its convention-breaking for a reason I'll talk about in a minute, but it is in many ways a war movie without a war, an adventure story where the physical explosions are less important than the emotional ones, and if it's ultimately a narrative of victory, it dips much closer to crack-up and complete failure than most movies of its generation would have allowed. The premise is straight from Xenophon: with Tobruk under siege from the Afrika Korps and soon to fall, two British officers are ordered to see a pair of nurses safe across the desert to Alexandria. Their transport is a battered Austin K2/Y nicknamed "Katy," about as dilapidated as the Bluesmobile and without any of its mission-from-God security; their route will take them either straight into Rommel or across a no-man's-land of last oases and quicksand-shifting salt flats, gaining a doubtful ally along the way, losing one of their own, and nearly coming to both the usual and slightly less common kinds of grief.

In most movies of this genre, John Mills would be a shoo-in for this kind of mission: the graceful, reliable, unostentatious hero. Not so much here. Nervy and wounded, trying his damnedest to keep it together and doing a fair-to-shit job at best, his battle-fatigued Captain Anson is recognizably an extension of The October Man's (1947) fractured Jim Ackland and a precursor of Colonel Barrow in the even more pessimistic Tunes of Glory (1960), but this isn't post-trauma, it's right in the middle of things, and Anson in any case comes with his own special flavor of fucked-up. He's our first introduced character, a skinny man sweating through his khakis: tanned darker than his rolled-up shirtsleeves, his hair a straw-spiked ghost-shock when he comes inside. (I can't tell whether the character is meant to be fair-haired or gone white, but it's an effective defamiliarization of Mills even before he opens his mouth. We're used to his boyish look, of which the heavy dark hair is a factor. Anson doesn't look quite as nearly fifty as the actor who plays him, but you'd certainly never mistake him for Pip.) He refers to himself with weary understatement as "pretty well pooped out," but he's also a midday drunk. The British are about to lose the Battle of Gazala, ammo dumps are going up like Roman candles, and Anson as he takes the bad news from his commanding officer (which he can't make himself relay to a fellow-captain, because it would mean telling a friend to stay behind) is drinking more, whisky-slurring, swaying on his feet, clumsily missing the line between comradely male banter and insulting his sergeant-major's girlfriend. So much for Lieutenant Taylor of We Dive at Dawn (1943) or Pat Reid of The Colditz Story (1955)—"Capt. G. Anson, RASC" is what happens to those graceful, reliable men when they've been at this job too long.1 He's out of spoons; the bottle opener is the only silverware left in the drawer. Six minutes of screen time and Mills' wartime persona has been definitely kicked in the teeth.

Of course he pulls himself together eventually, because we're not yet into the era of seriously revisionist war films, but I really am interested by the degree to which the story allows him to fuck up until then. From the start, Anson has neither the low-key reassurance of his long-suffering sergeant-major Tom Pugh (Harry Andrews) nor the casual physical poise of Van der Poel (Anthony Quayle), the Afrikaner captain who bribes his way to Alexandria with a backpack full of gin—Anson wouldn't have taken him otherwise—and he is frequently, physically minimized by his surroundings, so that he looks even less commanding than he is. Ostensibly the leader of the group, he navigates everyone through a minefield with no casualties, but he bristles counterproductively around the bigger, fitter Van der Poel and his panicked reactions to a German patrol almost certainly result in a death, for which he blames himself both accurately and in a uselessly guilt-piling kind of way. He's not a complete writeoff; his knowledge of the desert is real and invaluable, his sense of humor survives in unexpected flashes, and his painful self-awareness means it's not impossible to believe that someone as solid and practical as Pugh would still support him after all these years, covering for him in Tobruk, shoring him up in the desert, because there's still someone in there who might change. He's nonetheless capable of being unforgivably nasty when he feels threatened and at his lowest point he throws a temper tantrum that would impress a three-year-old, isolating himself afterward in the dunes like a self-hating Achilles. In the film's sole love scene (cut down by the censors, apparently—come on, BFI, you couldn't have recovered the rest of the footage that went with this still? That's like eighty percent more Sylvia Syms than I thought you could show in 1958), he's not the initiator, but the object of desire. You can believe he doesn't exactly view himself as the lady-killing type.

Which brings me to the character of Sister Diana Murdoch, who is intriguing and problematic enough that I'm sure entire articles have been written on the scenes I'm about to discuss and I could probably read them if my Yale proxy still worked. Introduced as an unwelcome passenger along with her foil, the more stereotypically feminine and therefore shorter-lived Sister Denise, Diana is quickly demonstrated to be the steadiest member of the group, capable, unsentimental, and humane; she's a cooler head in a crisis than the volatile Anson (and she does not feel, like Pugh, obliged to shield the captain from the consequences of his own fuck-ups), she can lie straight-faced when she needs to, and she's adamant about being counted as part of the team, not sidelined as cargo or helpless protectee. She disengages from Van der Poel's attempts at flirtation with such companionable disinterest that he never actually tries again, but once she decides that Anson interests her, she goes after him with a casual directness that both unsettles and attracts him: he calls her analysis of his supposed love triangle in Alexandria (that it's a non-triangle: if the girl really preferred him, he'd have heard about it by now) "sound—logical—cold as hell" and then "probably right." She kisses him. The next morning, she's not blushing or clinging or any of the modes women are so often relegated to after they've slept with the hero; she's ready for the next adventure.

. . . all of which makes it hard to feel that she hasn't been betrayed by plot convenience when it's Diana's fumble with the ambulance's hand-crank that undoes all the group's hard work on the dunes—painstakingly reversing Katy up a Sisyphean hill—and sets them back at a point of such high-strung exhaustion that even a momentary failure feels insurmountable. Fine, she's the character who has plausibly the least mechanical expertise of the four, and it might be in keeping with the film's insistence on flawed realism that she shouldn't be any more infallible than the male characters around her, but especially coming on the heels of the love scene, it really felt like a straight-up reassertion of her femininity in all its negative senses. Everyone knows a real, heterosexually functional woman doesn't know thing one about gears and transmissions. Anson's heroism (reclaiming his self-possession, facing a difficult situation for the first time in years without blowing a gasket or collapsing hopelessly; he has a tense moment of silence and then turns to encourage the others, with the brisk, cheerful understatement of the graceful/reliable Englishman, to try again) is made possible at the expense of her own. And it feels especially inexcusable when the script seemed aware just a scene ago that Anson was both factually wrong and way out of line when he accused Diana of "grinning about [her] love life" and wasting time with her makeup—she was only preening over her sexual conquest if he was2 and her lipstick was sacrificed days ago, without a second thought, to write Sister Denise's name on her meager, desert-cairn cross. At least the film does not demote her automatically to the "girl" of the group, mere admiring decoration; she is still allowed to walk into the bar with the boys and drink her ice-cold lager in a single shot, a victorious comrade over the desert's "greater enemy." But for a film that was taking such pains to demonstrate the irrelevance of traditional boundaries—class, nationality, gender—against the elemental world, it's a bizarre misstep and I don't know how I'd have gotten the script around it, but seriously, there must have been something.

1. Interestingly, although we later find out that Anson was briefly a German POW—and successfully escaped—it's not identified as the cause of his present state so much as the grinding, exhausting years in North Africa themselves. Pugh speaks of having been "up and down the desert with him five times."

2. I do like that the film does not end with them automatically paired for life, nor does it end with Anson moving on, Shane into the sunset as she calls after him. "No," he tells Diana shortly, when she touches on the question of their future. "Wouldn't work out. I'd like to think it could, but it wouldn't. I'd only make you unhappy." She's visibly distressed; he tries to turn it into a point-proving joke—"See? Started already." But she doesn't dissolve into the tears of the one-man woman whose man's about to get away. She looks him over, as coolly as she did in the desert: "You said you don't understand women. You certainly don't understand me. If you did, you'd realize I don't give up so easily." His mouth wries a little; he reaches over and grips her hand, briefly and tightly. They could go anywhere from there. Mostly they go into the bar.

I will have to rewatch Hobson's Choice (1954) if I'm going to write it up after four years, but I bet I can make that happen.

[identity profile] ap-aelfwine.livejournal.com 2013-01-11 05:43 am (UTC)(link)
Fascinating write-up. I'm finding myself regretting it's not on Youtube anymore.

I'm sorry for the bruises and the loss of your gloves, but glad to hear that the Emperor Norton's Stationary Marching Band show was worth it.

I hope this next one will be a day going in more the directions you'd wish it to go.

[identity profile] nineweaving.livejournal.com 2013-01-11 07:39 am (UTC)(link)
It just goes on being good.

Nine

[identity profile] ashlyme.livejournal.com 2013-01-11 06:37 pm (UTC)(link)
Good write-up, and I need to rewatch Hobson's Choice.

handful_ofdust is right; my God, Cushing has huge hands.

coraline: (Default)

[personal profile] coraline 2013-01-11 08:16 pm (UTC)(link)
sorry i missed you in the crowd! but glad it was a good time :)
coraline: (Default)

[personal profile] coraline 2013-01-12 10:50 pm (UTC)(link)
yay! i'm glad both that it was audible and that you liked it :)

[identity profile] farwing.livejournal.com 2013-01-12 02:46 pm (UTC)(link)
Hah! I was at the ENSMB show as well. Also that movie does sound interesting.