Classic cars on film: Ice Cold in Alex

From traversing a minefield with an Austin ambulance to that infamous Land Rover cameo, this war classic holds more for petrolheads than you’d think

There are three points to be made about Ice Cold in Alex. Firstly, the final reel does indeed feature a surprise appearance by a Land Rover in World War Two. This fact is often misconstrued as an urban legend, but keep your eyes peeled during the last few minutes.

Secondly, the strange attempt at a ‘South African’ accent by Sir Anthony Quayle is deliberate; the real identity of Captain van der Poel is largely inferred by the dying Sister Norton (Diane Clare) early in the narrative.

And, thirdly, it’s a keynote picture in the history of the British war film. Many scenes have entered the national consciousness: the crossing of the minefield and the Qattara Depression; the attempt to guide the Austin ambulance up an embankment via the starting handle; and, of course, that final moment.

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Ice Cold in Alex was adapted for Associated British Pictures from the novel by Christopher Landon, a former Major in the Royal Service Corps. He co-wrote the script, but in his original story the hero is Machinist Sergeant-Major Pugh. For the film version, the mentally disturbed alcoholic Captain Anson becomes the main protagonist.

By the late 1950s, John Mills was undergoing a change of screen image from clean-cut hero to a troubled authority figure. He relished the part of the commanding officer of a RASC ambulance making its way from Tobruk to the haven of Alexandria. A further change was the ice-cold glass of lager – in the novel, the prize is American Rheingold beer, but it did not photograph well in black and white, and its name was considered to still sound too Germanic for a British audience of 1958.

Accompanying Captain Anson are his senior NCO Pugh (Harry Andrews, he of the granite jaw) and two nurses, Sisters Norton and Murdoch (Sylvia Syms, one of the best film actresses of her generation):

Much of the picture was shot in Libya, with Tripoli doubling for Alexandria in the final scene, as making a picture in Egypt was very difficult for a UK film company in the aftermath of the Suez Crisis. The other star of Ice Cold in Alex was, of course, the Austin K2/Y. In the book, it is even one of the narrators: ‘My official name is A1079654, ambulance, Austin, K2. I have a six-cylinder overhead-valve 29.8 HP engine, four gears, and I weigh about two and a half tons. But I have always been called KATY.’

The K2/Y was made between 1939 and 1945, and could transport as many as four ‘stretcher cases’ or 10 ‘sitting casualties’. The 3462cc engine could propel the ambulance to 50mph; impressive for the time.

More than one Austin was used for the picture, and the film company employed a specially built model on a Canadian Military Pattern 4x4 chassis for the most demanding of the desert scenes. On location, the minefield sequence was largely improvised, while David Lodge shot his role as an RMP Captain on his day off from No Time to Die, another British war film that was also being made in Libya.

Ice Cold in Alex was released in June 1958, and won the International Critics’ Award at the Berlin Film Festival. It’s a war feature that treats the audience as adults – and that is why it abides in the public memory after six decades. Furthermore, it proves to be the vehicle for greatest product placement of all time:

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