Skip to main content
BFI logo











Screenonline banner
Ice Cold in Alex (1958)

Courtesy of Canal+ Image UK ltd

Main image of Ice Cold in Alex (1958)
DirectorJ. Lee Thompson
Production CompanyAssociated British Picture Corporation
ProducerW.A. Whittaker
ScreenplayT.J Morrison
 Christopher Landon
From the novel byChristopher Landon
CinematographyGilbert Taylor
Music Leighton Lucas

Cast: John Mills (Captain Anson); Sylvia Syms (Sister Diana Murdoch); Anthony Quayle (Captain Van Der Poel); Harry Andrews (M.S.M. Tom Pugh); Diane Clare (Sister Denise Norton)

Show full cast and credits

Two British officers in North Africa are assigned to escort an ambulance to Alexandria. En route, they pick up a South African officer, who proves invaluable on their perilous journey through enemy territory. But their new colleague is not all he seems.

Show full synopsis

Although recently described on Channel 4 as the "the ultimate British war film", Ice Cold in Alex (d. J. Lee Thompson, 1958) was, in fact, attempting to break the mould of the genre in several ways. First, a German is sympathetically characterised: Van der Poel (Anthony Quayle) may be arrogant, but he is also very brave. Second, a female character, nurse Diana (Sylvia Syms), is given a prominent role, in sharp contrast to most other 1950s war films. Finally, John Mills' performance as Captain Anson is worlds apart (and deliberately so) from his usual star persona, defined by film historian Brian McFarlane as epitomising "reliability under stress".

In Ice Cold in Alex, Anson is anything but graceful under pressure. He is on the verge of cracking up due to exhaustion and incipient alcoholism and frequently lashes out at his fellow travellers. At times, he seems the least competent member of the group, and physically puny compared to big, robust men like Van der Poel and Tom Pugh (Harry Andrews). Add the fact that the film depicts one of the Allies' most difficult periods of the Second World War, as the Germans made apparently unstoppable advances in the North African desert, and it seems that the film is deliberately testing notions of English masculinity and heroism. Ice Cold in Alex shows the archetypal English hero at his lowest ebb, but it also shows his gradual recovery: not only does he succeed in his mission to get all four of them safely to 'Alex' (Alexandria), but he also wins the admiration of his enemy.

Although the film was closely based on Christopher Landon's best-selling account of his wartime experiences, director J. Lee Thompson added some flourishes of his own, like the tense sequence in which the ambulance crosses the minefield. According to Mills, this was just a few notes in the screenplay and was largely improvised by Lee Thompson on location in Libya. The director's sure handling of suspense is also evident in the nail-biting sequence in which Van der Poel is almost dragged under by quicksand. However, the film's most iconic sequence is undoubtedly the scene at the end in the bar, in which the four travellers drink their ice-cold beers together and affirm their solidarity despite the differences of national loyalty, class and gender. As Van der Poel says, they were "all against the desert, the greater enemy".

Melanie Williams

Click titles to see or read more

Video Clips
1. Crossing the mine field (3:04)
2. Anson's Tantrum (3:40)
3. Drinks all round (4:38)
Production stills
Monthly Film Bulletin review
Andrews, Harry (1911-1989)
Best, Richard (1916-2004)
Lee Thompson, J. (1914-2002)
Mills, John (1908-2005)
Quayle, Anthony (1913-1989)
Syms, Sylvia (1934-)
Taylor, Gilbert (1914-)