1p Review: Ice Cold in Alex by Christopher Landon

This highly entertaining 1p review comes from guest Mike Petty…

Unlike other Saturday-afternoon staples like The Dam Busters and Reach for the Sky, the film of Ice Cold in Alex is based on a novel. I simply can’t remember if I’ve read it before, so comprehensively has it been elbowed out of my consciousness by the film. I know I owned it, though; it formed part of my collection of Pan war books along with forgotten efforts like Two Eggs on My Plate and The White Rabbit.

The reason I know I owned it is that I used to gaze for hours at the photograph on the back cover (above), which featured Sylvia Syms spilling tremendously out of her khaki shirt, untrammelled it would seem by brassiere (nursing officers for the use of), gazing wantonly down at a rather corpse-like (and spookily peroxided) John Mills for all the world as if she’s planning to suckle him. The image had a powerful effect on an impressionable 12-year-old; in fact I’m not sure I’ve ever got over it. If I had read the book I would have searched in vain for the scene it portrayed, because it’s nowhere to be found. In fact, the unsettling thing about reading (or rereading) this book now is that the John Mills character isn’t even the love interest. The relationship that develops (the highs of which are related in a manner that is coy in the extreme) is between Diana the nurse and RSM Pugh, the stolid, dependable non-com whose wife was killed in the blitz on Plymouth. That, I hardly need remind anybody, is Harry Andrews, who as far as I can remember was never a love interest either before or since.

Anyway, the current edition (available for a penny here) features a glass of lager on the front and a sand dune on the back, nowhere near as exciting. The lager, of course, is what Captain Anson promises himself when he and his unlikely crew have flogged their ambulance across the desert to Alexandria, having overcome oil leaks, water leaks, quicksands, stray German patrols, hostile Arabs, sand dunes  – and his own alcoholism. And that, ultimately, is what the novel is about: Anson and his demons.  

He just about keeps going in Tobruk, as Jerry gets closer and the shells fall, on nerves and whisky. So the order to transport two stranded nurses to safety in Alex (where ‘they serve it ice-cold’) is a blessing, not even much disguised. The other nurse is rather quickly killed by a stray bullet in an encounter with a German patrol (something of a relief all round since she has been in a permanent  state of hysterics ever since the trip began), but her still-warm body serves to convince a kindly German that she needs to be got to hospital without delay. The business of hoodwinking Germans is helped immeasurably by Zimmerman (renamed Van der Poel in the film for some reason), who hitches a ride early on. He claims to be South African but is soon enough revealed to be a German. One of his packs contains gin; Diana and Pugh gang up to make sure Anson never gets a sniff of it. The other, which he never lets out of his sight, contains a radio, and his nightly trips into the dunes with a shovel, ostensibly to take a dump, are really for the purpose of reporting in. (Whether his information is any use to anybody, or indeed whether he ever manages to empty his bowels, is never revealed.)

It’s an effective set-up: Anson, flawed though he may be, is unquestionably the leader of this motley crew, and it’s the job of the other three to forget their differences and their suspicions (not to mention their unresolved sexual tension) and keep him in a state where he is still capable of leading them to safety. As well as getting them out of sticky spots with Germans (although it’s made clear that he doesn’t want to be diverted from whatever his mission is), Zimmerman, despite his alarmingly tight shorts (sorry, movie only), saves them by holding the ambulance up on his back when it slips off the jack. Pugh performs miracles of improvisation with the ambulance’s mechanicals; Diana, rather tellingly, learns to brew up tea the Desert Rat way.

In the end, of course, they all get their lager. ‘Worth waiting for,’ says Anson, thereby handing Carlsberg an absolute gift of a tagline for their ads forty years later, and Zimmerman gets popped in the bag.

It’s obvious that Landon knew what he was writing about – he served in the 51st Field Ambulance in the Western Desert, and that brings the novel considerable authenticity. In the end, Ice Cold in Alex is of its timea brisk, efficient and workmanlike novel that never quite manages to erase the indelible images of the film. Landon wrote several other novels, which I shall pick up if I ever stumble across them, before he died (in an eerie Anson moment) of an accidental overdose of barbiturates and alcohol in 1961. It would seem, though, that he has achieved a kind of immortality, even if not many people actually read the book.

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3 thoughts on “1p Review: Ice Cold in Alex by Christopher Landon

  1. Worm
    September 30, 2011 at 13:15

    never realised it was a book! Always found the film slightly hard going – much like From Here to Eternity, the one iconic image was 100% more exciting than the rest of the film put together.

    Look forward to reading more of your 1p finds Mike!

  2. Gaw
    September 30, 2011 at 14:56

    I read it recently and enjoyed it. I was struck by the pot-boiling preoccupation with sex – everything else often seems quite incidental. Nothing explicit, mind – that photo choice was spot-on.

  3. johngjobling@googlemail.com'
    September 30, 2011 at 17:19

    Borrowed it from my father, from memory I think I ploughed on as far as the halfway mark, war, nothing but war memories then. The movie is like Top Gear, with sand. Mills (and More) must be the only actors to make a decent living, repeatedly playing themselves.

    Any Germans seeing the movie must have wondered how on earth Rommel lost.

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