And because it’s better to travel than to arrive. The journey’s the thing.
What unfolds is a war time road movie, five unlikely characters together in their knackered old charabanc. But this is no formulaic voyage, no hackneyed retread of dulce et decorum. There’s not much fighting; no raus, no schnell. The Germans are the baddies – natch, but it’s more difficult to spot the heroes. Because there’s not much by way of heroics, other than from the least expected of quarters.
Even the (typically superb) Mills – as establishment a figure as ever existed – plays against type as a hero left flawed by the grimness of battle – and driven by a raging thirst for Danish lager. For a black and white film, this isn’t black and white – Germans can be good, the British can be cowardly drunks, a female lead can be more than lovely-looking. Everyone has their flaws, everyone is tested. And they all (well, almost all) get a beer at the end (an aside – Mills got a bit tooty during endless retakes – the long-awaited lager he knocks back was the real thing).
In the WWII canon, this is a subtle standout, proper shaded storytelling of dawning realisation and human frailty, showing that in conflict, personal stories will always trump the simplistic grand narrative. In doing so, Ice-Cold stands alongside, say, Bridge On The River Kwai and is in almost all respects its superior. If you want a war film which doesn’t feel dated, don’t watch The Dambusters.
Don’t watch Reach for the Skies, no matter how enjoyable and Boy’s Own-ish they both are. They’re low-alcohol, they’re Kaliber – fizzy, forgettable, close to the real thing, but a thousand miles away. If you want all the hit of Tenant’s Super with none of the social ruin, try Ice-Cold; enigmatic, intelligent war movie-making in utero, an outlier from a time when the average WWII movie a gung-ho take that Jerry donner and blitzen-fest. And even if that doesn’t sound great – it’s still a cracking yarn.
On the newly-released, tidied up and lovingly cleaned BluRay edition, Ice-Cold’s better than anyone will have ever seen it before. Despite the occasional scratch and bump (you can forgive a 53 year-old film that), every drop of Libyan sweat that rolls down every nose is visible. The sensation of heat and the tension – when they reach the minefield or are uncovered by the onrushing Germans or when you discover what’s inside that backpack – will have you prickling with the cast.
The leading five – who work as a unit with perfect chemistry – are all superb; complex, ambiguous, bonded and resilient. The desert scenes are magnificent, every bit as good as anything David Lean managed. And that final beer? You can almost taste it.