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Ice-Cold in Alex
Directed by J. Lee Thompson
Produced by W.A. Whittaker
Written by Christopher Landon (novel & screenplay)
T.J. Morrison
Starring John Mills
Sylvia Syms
Anthony Quayle
Harry Andrews
Music by Leighton Lucas
Cinematography Gilbert Taylor
Editing by Richard Best
Distributed by Pathé
Release date(s) 24 June 1958
Running time 124 minutes
Country United Kingdom
Language English

Ice-Cold in Alex (1958) is a British film 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.[1] It is frequently shown on television, and is also available on video and DVD.

A recut version of the film — 48 minutes shorter than the original — was released as "Desert Attack" in 1961 in the US.



Tobruk, a British base, is attacked by the German Afrika Korps in the Western Desert Campaign of World War II. During the resulting evacuation, MSM Tom Pugh (Harry Andrews) and nurses Diana Murdoch (Sylvia Syms) and Denise Norton (Diane Clare) — the crew of an Austin K2 ambulance, which was named 'Katy' by its original driver — become separated from their unit and are forced to flee cross-country. With them are Captain Anson (John Mills), suffering from battle fatigue and almost an alcoholic, and an Afrikaans-speaking South African officer Captain van der Poel (Anthony Quayle), who carries a large pack he seems very attached to.

Anson motivates himself by thinking of the ice cold lager he will order when they finally reach the safety of Alexandria, Egypt — the 'Alex' of the title. 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' when the jack collapses), and the dangerous terrain of the Qattara Depression. Twice the group encounters parties of Afrika Korps soldiers; in one encounter they are fired upon, and Norton is fatally wounded. Van der Poel, who speaks German, is able to talk the Germans into allowing them to go on their way. The second time, however, they seem reluctant, until he shows them the contents of his pack.

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 buries his pack, though not before Anson and Murdoch see that it contains a radio set. They drag him to safety and, while he recovers, decide not to tell him of their knowledge. During the final leg of the journey, Katy must be hand-cranked in reverse up an escarpment, and van der Poel's strength is again crucial to achieving this.

When they reach Alexandria, they make their way to a bar, where Anson orders a beer. But before they have drunk their first round, a Royal Military Police officer arrives to arrest van der Poel. Anson, who had prearranged this at a checkpoint as they entered the city, 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 he would be executed by firing squad). Van der Poel admits to being 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 "the desert was the greater enemy", is driven away.

Continuity errors

It is at this point that the clear continuity errors begin. As they drink their lagers, the size of the head in their glasses keeps changing; as they drive into the square, the location of which is in fact Cathedral Square in Tripoli, Libya, a 1956 Morris Minor can be seen; and as van der Poel/Lutz leaves, a Series 2 Land Rover and a Renault Fregate are in the frame.



  • The final scene, in which Mills' character finally gets his glass of lager, was reportedly filmed some weeks after the rest of the film, at Elstree Studios. Real lager had to be used to 'look right', and Mills had to drink numerous glassfuls until the shots were finished, and was "a little 'heady'" by the end.
  • It was said by Sylvia Syms that (Danish) Carlsberg was chosen because they could never have been seen to be drinking a German lager. In fact the beer referred to in the original novel is "Rhinegold", which although not German, certainly has German connotations.
  • Scenes from the film were used in one example of a wider 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) with new humorous material starring British comedian Griff Rhys Jones and finishing with the slogan "A Holsten Pils Production". 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 tag-line: "Still probably the best lager in the world."


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