One of the great British WWII films of the 1950s, J. Lee Thompson’s Ice Cold in Alex is a gripping thriller about Captain Anson (John Mills) – an ofﬁcer commanding a British Royal Army Service Corps (RASC) motor ambulance company – and his efforts to evacuate two nurses through treacherous, enemy-occupied North Africa after the fall of Tobruk to Rommel’s Afrika Korps in May 1942, not realising there’s a German spy in his midst.
Joining Anson – who is suffering from exhaustion, battle fatigue and alcoholism – are Sgt. Major Tom Pugh (Harry Andrews) and the two young nurses: Diana Murdoch (Sylvia Syms) and a very panicky Denise Norton (Diane Clare), who initially has to be restrained and sedated. The vehicle they drive across the desert back to British lines is a worn-out Austin K2/Y ambulance, nicknamed “Katy.”
When the group stops at a refuelling station, they are joined by Captain van der Poel (Anthony Quayle), a tall and muscular Afrikaner South African Army ofﬁcer.
Encountering an Afrika Korps detachment, Anson tries to outrun the Germans who open fire – mortally wounding nurse Norton – and soon catch up to Katy. Van der Poel, who claims to have learned German while working in Southwest Africa, parlays with the enemy, and they are allowed to go.
After a night’s stopover, they fashion a makeshift grave marker and bury Denise Norton in the desert before encountering a German tank loaded with infantry. The Germans disarm them, inform them that Tobruk has fallen, and let them go after their officer converses with van der Poel.
Pugh covertly follows van der Poel when he leaves the group and heads off into the desert. He reports back to the others that he saw a radio antenna, but Anson cautions them against confronting van der Poel just yet.
Arriving at Siwa Oasis, they meet a British Long Range Desert Group (LRDG) officer (Peter Arne) disguised as an Egyptian tribesman, who supplies them with water and petrol.
When van der Poel falls foul of some quicksand, his radio set is discovered – but although the others now realise that he is a Nazi spy, they decide not to confront him.
When they finally reach Alexandria (the “Alex” of the title), they repair to Anson’s favourite bar, where he orders his coveted cold beer. Before they finish their round, a Military Police lieutenant (Basil Hoskins) arrives to arrest van der Poel. Anson (which Anson had prearranged with an MP checkpoint officer (Michael Nightingale) as they entered the city.
Since van der Poel had, in effect, saved their lives during their desert crossing, Anson shows his gratitude by offering him a deal: provide his real name, and Anson will ensure he is classified as a prisoner of war rather than a spy (thus escaping execution).
Van der Poel admits that his name is Hauptmann Otto Lutz and reveals he is an engineering officer with the 21st Panzer Division and Pugh removes Lutz’s fake dog tags to keep him safe from the military police. Lutz finishes his beer, shakes hands with everyone, and bids his erstwhile comrades “Auf Wiedersehen” before being driven away into captivity.
Shot in Libyan parts of the Sahara, particularly memorable moments include the group’s nail-biting traversal of a minefield, peril by quicksand, and the iconic final scene of the survivors sharing a cold beer in Alexandria – possibly the most thirst-quenching drinks in cinema history.
Ice Cold in Alex was not released in the United States until 22 March 1961 – unfortunately, under the misleading title, Desert Attack, and in a radically truncated version (54 minutes shorter), leaving it an unwatchable travesty of the original film.
Sister Diana Murdoch
Captain van der Poel
Sister Denise Norton
J Lee Thompson