Ice Cold In Alex by Christopher Landon (1957)

An alcoholic British officer, Anson, and his faithful NCO and mechanic, Tom Pugh, work in the ambulance corps in Tobruk, during the North Africa campaign. As the Afrika Corps advances to seal off the city and capture it, Ansom is ordered to flee with two nurses, trying and escape eastwards to the safety of Alexandria (‘Alex’). To avoid the advancing Germans they take the risky decision to head south and cross the hostile desert in their leaky old ambulance. On this off-road trip they pick up a ‘South African’ officer they slowly come to suspect is a German spy and go on to face danger, privation, enemy attack but, worst of all, the challenge of the most inhospitable environment on earth, the Sahara Desert.

The title refers to Captain Ansom’s vow that he won’t drink until they reach a particular bar in Alex, where he will buy his motley crew a round of ice-cold lager. Having read the book I realise this isn’t just the opportunity for a Carlsberg ad, Anson is a genuine alcoholic and the first part of the book details his attempts to stop drinking hard liquor: the vow isn’t that he will have a beer when he reaches Alex; it is that he won’t drink any alcohol until he drinks that ice cold beer in Alex.

The novel Ice Cold in Alex was 12 years in the making and the struggle shows. Laondon’s style is very uneven: For the most part it’s a kind of mid-20th century British English like, maybe, Graham Greene; but then there are sudden spells of tough guy Hemingwayesque simplicity – simplicity of adjectives, no contractions – should not, had not, would not – which come in whenever Landon is conveying an atmosphere of manliness, the unspoken bonds between real men in a tight spot etc, for example describing the very masculine theme of the alcoholism which Captian Ansom is battling:

He threw the whiskey back in the locker and they did not speak again until they had been challenged at the tank screen. So thin, so pitifully few. (Page 13).

The Hemingway simplicity alternates with Landon’s default style which is often clotted and unclear, often surprisingly badly written. (Compare & contrast W. Stanley Moss from Eton, the author of Ill Met By Moonlight, schooled in Latin and Greek, whose thoughts and prose have a wonderful clarity and crispness, a sublime confidence that he and his plight can be viewed from above, detached, olympian, ironic, amused.)

Landon’s story, by contrast, is of ordinary men right at the end of their tether, of nervous exhaustion, alcoholism barely held in check, men at snapping point. Whereas the posh Billy Moss and Paddy Leigh-Fermor aristocratically don’t even know the Morse Code for the vital signal they have to send, in Ice Cold it is inly Anson’s detailed knowledge of the desert and Pugh’s mechanical know-how which save them. Two utterly different worlds.

Experimental To my surprise in the middle of what had seemed a workaday if thrilling story, there appeared some experimental stream-of-consciousness sections – We get the direct stream-of-consciousness of the dying nurse – we see the point of view of the struggling Anson and then of Zimmerman the German spy. But then, to my absolute amazement, there is a delirious section seen from the point of view of the ambulance, Katy! This delirious flight of fancy passingly reminded me of William Faulkner’s more baroque hallucinations.

But then I realised the notion of making an ambulance talk about itself, its pistons and cam shafts and horse power etc, reminds me of the 1895 Kipling short story, The Ship That Found Herself, which is little more than a description of how all the parts of a newly made ship hold it together and grow into their roles on her maiden voyage across the Atlantic. Making me also realise how Kipling – the man who celebrated work and the work ethic and especially the work of the unsung mechanics and engineers who built the Empire, the man who wrote McAndrew’s Hymn, the love song of a Scottish steamer engineer for his engines – would have liked this story and the character of Pugh, the bluff, unflappable mechanic, in love with his engines, solid and reliable.

The appearance of James Joyce and Rudyard Kipling in the novel, along with Ernest Hemingway, confirm my sense of Landon’s effort to find a voice of his own. In this respect, the novel not only tells its gripping and highly moral story, but its style enacts the author’s battle with the English language of the early 1950s, tired from the War, tired of its stiff-upper-lipness, but struggling to find its own voice, a voice to adequately describe the modern world, all the time assailed by the powerful influence of America on one side, and the siren call of fashionable Modernism on the other.

Love As well as a war story ICIA is a love story but from a far-distant time: we learn early on that stolid dependable Pugh’s wife was killed in an air-raid and then, very slowly and very plausibly, he and Murdoch the nurse fall in love. However, even this tender love story jolts the modern reader because they suddenly progress from common kindness to holding hands and then – bang! – proposing and being accepted. Autres temps… The whole bitter-sweet universe of sex, the subject of so much modern fiction, is simply skipped. You can feel and taste the sweetness and innocence, gone forever from our knowing world…

The movie The book had such impact that it was made into a film the very next year, 1958. The film is remembered and marketed as a classic war movie but it is a travesty of the book. John Mills plays Captain Anson and is a slight, weedy, unmanly, unthreatening figure, not in the slightest authoritative or scarey. When he faints Harry Andrews’ Tom Pugh picks him up as if he was a girl. In the book he is a man’s man driven by nervous exhaustion to make some bad judgements but whose deep knowledge of the desert ultimately saves them; in the film John Mills is a weedy berk who makes one bad decision after another, whose stubbornness is directly responsible for the nurse dying, whose mad overdriving breaks the springs, who nearly locks the engine by overheating it, and so on.

It is therefore inexplicable that the ravishingly beautiful Sylvia Sims should fall for such a loser. Only the need to pander to the lowest common denominator of the sentimental movie-going public mars the film with such an unbelievable and and crass gesture.

Meanwhile, the quiet, shy Tom Pugh, deeply damaged by the death of his wife, who pours his soul into the loving tender care for the ambulance and its failing motor is played by the badly miscast bluff, brawny bruiser Harry Andrews. He plays it with restraint and sensitivity but he isn’t the character from the novel and so it’s not surprising the scriptwriters (who included the original author) are forced to make Sylvia Sims fall for the weedy John Mills. It would have had more integrity if the woman, for once in a movie, didn’t fall in love with someone.

And Pugh’s tender loving, knowledgeable care for Katy, the ambulance, a central thread which holds the novel together and gives it such a special flavour – is almost completely absent from the movie.

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