Ice Cold in Alex

Ice Cold in Alex (1958) is a British film described as a true story in the film's opening credits, based on the novel of the same name by British author Christopher Landon. Directed by J. Lee Thompson and starring John Mills, the film was a prizewinner at the 8th Berlin International Film Festival.[4] Under the title Desert Attack, a shortened, 79-minute version of the film was released in the United States in 1961; Craig Butler later referred to related versions as "nonsensical pieces".[5][6][7]

Ice Cold in Alex
British film poster
Directed byJ. Lee Thompson
Produced byW. A. Whittaker
Screenplay byChristopher Landon
T. J. Morrison
Based onIce Cold in Alex
1957 novel
by Christopher Landon[1]
StarringJohn Mills
Sylvia Syms
Anthony Quayle
Harry Andrews
Music byLeighton Lucas
CinematographyGilbert Taylor
Edited byRichard Best
Distributed byAssociated British-Pathé (United Kingdom)
20th Century Fox
(United States)
Release date
24 June 1958 (UK)
22 March 1961 (US)
Running time
130 minutes (uncut),[2]
76 minutes (US 1961 Theatrical Version)[3]
CountryUnited Kingdom


Captain Anson (John Mills) is the officer commanding a British RASC Motor Ambulance Company. During the Western Desert Campaign of the Second World War when it is apparent that Tobruk is about to be besieged by the German Afrika Korps, Anson and most of his unit are ordered to evacuate to Alexandria. During the evacuation, Anson who is suffering from battle fatigue and alcoholism, MSM Tom Pugh (Harry Andrews), and two nurses, Diana Murdoch (Sylvia Syms) and Denise Norton (Diane Clare) become separated and in an Austin K2/Y ambulance, nicknamed 'Katy',[Note 1] decide to drive across the desert back to British lines.

As they depart they come across an Afrikaner South African officer, Captain van der Poel (Anthony Quayle), who carries a large pack, to which he seems very attached. After the South African shows Anson two bottles of gin in his backpack, van der Poel persuades Anson to let him join them in their drive to the safety of the British lines in Alexandria, Egypt.

En route, the group meets with various obstacles, including a minefield, a broken suspension spring (during its replacement, van der Poel's great strength saves the group when he supports "Katy" on his back when the jack collapses), and the dangerous terrain of the Qattara Depression. After Sister Denise Norton is killed by a German patrol, for which he blames himself and his drinking, Anson vows not to drink any alcohol until he can have an "ice cold lager in 'Alex'".

Twice the group encounters motorised elements of the advancing Afrika Korps; in one encounter they are fired upon, and Norton is fatally wounded. Van der Poel, who claims to have learned German while working in South West Africa, is able to talk the Germans into allowing them to go on their way. The second time however, the Germans seem reluctant, until Van der Poel shows them the contents of his backpack.

This pack becomes the focus of suspicion. Pugh, already troubled by Van der Poel's lack of knowledge of the South African Army's tea-brewing technique, follows him when he heads off into the desert with his pack and a spade (supposedly to dig a latrine). Pugh thinks he sees an antenna. Later, at night, they decide to use the ambulance headlights to see what Van de Poel is really up to. He panics, blunders into some quicksand, and submerges his pack, though not before Anson and Murdoch see that it contains a radio set. They drag him to safety. While he recovers, they realise he is probably a German spy but decide not to confront him about this. During the final leg of the journey Katy must be hand-cranked in reverse up a sand dune escarpment, and Van der Poel's strength is again crucial to achieving this.

Continuing their drive, the party discuss their conviction that "Van der Poel" is a spy, and decide that they do not want to see him shot. When they reach Alexandria, Anson delivers everyone's papers except "Van der Poel"'s to the Military Police check point and (off-screen) reports to the MP's senior officer that "Van der Poel" is a regular German soldier that they met lost in the desert and has surrendered to them under his parole (word of honour). Anson secures the MP's agreement to allow the party to enjoy a beer with their "captive" before taking him into custody as a prisoner of war. The party then make their way to a bar and Anson orders a cold beer, which he consumes with relish. But before they have drunk their first round, a Corps of Military Police officer arrives to arrest Van der Poel. Anson orders him to wait. Having become friends with Van der Poel and indebted to him for saving the group's lives, Anson tells him that if he gives his real name, he will be treated as a prisoner of war, rather than as a spy (which would mean execution by firing squad). Van der Poel admits to being Hauptmann Otto Lutz, an engineering officer with the 21st Panzer Division. Pugh notices that Lutz is still wearing fake South African dog tags and rips them off before the police see them. Lutz, after saying his farewells and concluding that they were "all against the desert, the greater enemy", is driven away, with a new respect for the British.



The film was based on the 1957 novel Ice Cold in Alex and its serialization (as Escape in the Desert) in the magazine Saturday Evening Post.[1] The script made a number of key changes from the novel.[9]

The producers had intended to shoot the location work for Ice Cold in Alex in Egypt, but the producers had to switch to Libya because of the Suez conflict. Sylvia Syms (Sister Murdoch) said in a 2011 interview about the film that conditions during the desert shoot were so difficult it felt like they were actually in the situation the film portrays. She said: "You may find this hard to believe, but there was very little acting. It was horrible. We became those people ... we were those people". She said that today people would probably call it method acting, but added: 'We didn't know what Method Acting was, we just called it 'getting on with it'." Syms said that during the scene where the ambulance rolls backwards down the hill narrowly avoiding her, the actors assumed there would be a hawser to stop the vehicle if anything went wrong, but there was not. The actress said she was "pretty sure" Mills, Quayle and Andrews angrily upbraided director J Lee Thompson for this risky approach. She added: "He liked to push actors a bit". The quicksand sequence was filmed in an ice cold artificial bog in an English studio (some scenes were shot at Elstree[10]) and was "very tough" on Quayle and Mills. Syms said the producers got a good deal out of her for "£30 a week", adding: "But I made a lot more when they turned it into an advert for Carlsberg". She said there are "no false heroics in it" and that she had been told by desert war veterans it is a good picture of soldiers in that theatre of war, adding: "I am proud of it".[11]


In a break with previous films by Associated British Pictures, the producer and editor used a minimum of incidental music.[12] Leighton Lucas wrote a stirring military march called "The Road to Alex", which was the main theme, and a "Romance".[13]


The film was one of the most popular at the British box office in 1959.[14]


The film was nominated for several awards:[4]

Home media

A Region B/2 Blu-ray restoration of Ice Cold in Alex was released in the United Kingdom on 18 February 2018.[15] A restored region B/2 version was previously released on 11 September 2011.[16] The film has apparently not been released to home media in region A/1 (North America).

Lager advertisement

The final scene, in which Mills' character finally gets his glass of lager, was used in the 1980s in beer advertisements on television. The scene was reportedly filmed some weeks after the rest of the film, at Elstree. Real lager had to be used to "look right", and Mills had to drink numerous glasses full until the shots were finished, and was "a little 'heady'" by the end.[17]

Sylvia Syms has said that the Danish beer Carlsberg was chosen because they could never have been seen to be drinking a German lager, since the United Kingdom and Germany are at war during the film. The beer referred to in the original novel is Rheingold, which, despite its German name, is American.[11]

Scenes from the film were used in a late-1980s television advertising campaign for the German Holsten Pils lager. Each advertisement mixed original footage from a different old film (another example was The Great Escape (1963)) with new humorous material starring British comedian Griff Rhys Jones and finishing with the slogan: "A Holsten Pils Production".[18] In retaliation, rival Carlsberg simply lifted the segment in which Mills contemplates the freshly poured lager in the clearly Carlsberg-branded glass, before downing it in one go and declaring, "Worth waiting for!" This was followed by a variation in the usual Carlsberg tagline: "Still probably the best lager in the world."[17]


  1. These vehicles were commonly known as "Katys" or "Katies" during their wartime service.[8]


  1. Landon, Christoper Guy (1957). Ice Cold in Alex. London: William Heinemann. OCLC 561816348.
  2. Running times for "Ice Cold in Alex" Retrieved 24 May 2015
  3. "Running times for 'Ice Cold in Alex'". Internet Movie Database. Retrieved 4 May 2019.
  4. "Awards for 'Ice Cold in Alex'". IMDb. Retrieved 4 May 2019.
  5. Archer, Eugene (23 March 1961). "Shortened 'Desert Attack' From Britain". The New York Times. This review states the length of Desert Attack as 64 minutes. Later reviews indicate a length of 79 minutes.
  6. "Release dates for 'Ice Cold in Alex'". IMDb. Retrieved 30 December 2011.
  7. Butler, Craig. "Ice Cold in Alex". AllMovie.
  8. Wilkins, Tony (14 May 2016). "Austin K2/Y Heavy Ambulance". Defence of the Realm. Retrieved 11 August 2018.
  9. Harper, Sue; Porter, Vincent (2007). British Cinema of the 1950s: The Decline of Deference. Oxford University Press. p. 88. ISBN 9780198159353. OCLC 144596062. Originally published in 2003.
  10. Warren, Patricia (2001). British Film Studios: An Illustrated History. London: B. T. Batsford. p. 73.
  11. A 22-minute interview with Sylvia Syms was first published in the 2015 DVD release. See Ice Cold in Alex (Blu-Ray DVD (region B/2)). United Kingdom: Studio Canal. 2015. OCLC 988601487. .
  12. Ashby, Justine & Higson, Andrew (Editors) (2000). British Cinema Past and Present. Routledge. pp. 162–3. ISBN 978-0-415-22061-3.CS1 maint: uses authors parameter (link)
  13. Scowcroft, Philip L. "A MUSICAL ALL-ROUNDER: LEIGHTON LUCAS (1903–1982)". The Robert Farnon Society. Archived from the original on 15 October 2010.
  14. Thumim, Janet. "The popular cash and culture in the postwar British cinema industry". Screen. Vol. 32 no. 3. p. 259.
  15. Atanasov, Svet (6 March 2018). "'Ice Cold in Alex' Blu-ray".
  16. Atanasov, Svet (25 March 2011). "'Ice Cold in Alex' Blu-ray". I cannot recommend J. Lee Thompson's Ice Cold in Alex highly enough. It is a very entertaining, beautiful film, which has been recently restored and now released on Blu-ray. ... VERY HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.
  17. Newark, Tim (2016). Fifty Great War Films. Bloomsbury Publishing. p. 67. ISBN 9781472820013.
  18. Watson, Robert (1990). Film And Television In Education: An Aesthetic Approach To The Moving Image. Psychology Press. p. 56. ISBN 9781850007159.

Further reading

  • Maltin, Leonard. "Ice Cold in Alex (1958)". Turner Classic Movies (TCM). Well-handled psychological drama of British ambulance officer, two nurses, and a German soldier brought together in African desert. 3 of 4 stars.
  • Nathan, Ian (1 January 2011). "Ice Cold In Alex Review". Empire. A moving account of a group of strangers surviving the odds brings out one of John Mills' best performances. 3 of 5 stars.
  • Williams, Melanie (2013–2014). "BFI Screenonline: Ice Cold in Alex". British Film Institute. Retrieved 17 June 2019.CS1 maint: date format (link)
  • Williams, Melanie (2009). "A Girl Alone in a man's World: Ice Cold in Alex (1958) and the place of women in the 1950s British war film cycle". Feminist Media Studies. 9: 95–108. doi:10.1080/14680770802619524.
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