A satellite reenters the atmosphere and ejects a capsule which parachutes to the Arctic, coordinates 85°N 21°W (approx 320 miles WNW of Nord, Greenland, in the Arctic Ocean ice pack). During an ice storm, a figure soon approaches, guided by a homing beacon, while a second person secretly watches from nearby.
The scene shifts to Commander James Ferraday (Rock Hudson), captain of the U.S. nuclear attack submarine USS Tigerfish (SSN-509), stationed at Holy Loch, Scotland. He is ordered by Admiral Garvey (Lloyd Nolan) to rescue the personnel of Drift Ice Station Zebra, a British civilian scientific weather station moving with the ice pack. However, the mission is actually a cover for a highly classified assignment.
Ferraday welcomes aboard British intelligence agent "Mr. Jones" (Patrick McGoohan) and a Marine platoon. While underway, a SH-2 Sea Sprite helicopter delivers USMC Captain Anders (Jim Brown), who takes command of the Marines, and Boris Vaslov (Ernest Borgnine), an amiable Russian defector and spy, who is a trusted colleague of Jones.
Tigerfish makes her way under the ice to Zebra’s last-known position. After several unsuccessful attempts to break through the ice with the conning tower, Ferraday decides to use a torpedo to blast an opening in the thick ice. When a crewman opens the inner torpedo hatch to load the torpedo, sea water rushes in, flooding the compartment - the outer hatch was open to the sea even though the indicators showed it was closed. Torpedo officer Lt. Mills is killed in the flood of water, and the weight from the flooding causes the submarine to nosedive, quickly descending beyond its crush depth. Jones helps to close the tube and stop the inflow of water, but even so, Ferraday and his crew are barely able to save ship. During the investigation of the torpedo tube, Ferraday states this incident should have been impossible because the indicators showed the outer hatch was closed. Jones then describes how someone could intentionally rig the tube to malfunction. Ferraday investigates and finds epoxy glue was used to interfere with the tube's operation, resulting in incorrect readings showing the tube was safe to open. Both Jones and Ferraday conclude that there is a saboteur aboard. Ferraday suspects Vaslov, while Jones suspects Anders, who is the least known member of the rescue team to Jones, Ferraday and Vaslov, and universally disliked for his strict demeanor. Jones demands Ferraday complete the mission regardless of the risk, and Ferraday refuses, unless he knows the purpose of the mission first. At that moment, an area of thin ice is located, and Ferraday surfaces Tigerfish.
Ferraday, Vaslov, Jones, and the Marine platoon set out for the weather station in zero visibility. They reach Zebra to find several of its buildings burned and the scientists nearly dead from hypothermia. Jones and Vaslov begin questioning the survivors. It becomes obvious that the two spies are looking for something.
Ferraday reveals to Jones that he knows more about the mission than he is supposed to, saying "We don't believe in going on a mission totally blindfolded". Jones reveals to Ferraday that an advanced experimental British camera was stolen by the Soviets, along with an enhanced film emulsion developed by the Americans. The Soviets sent it into orbit to photograph the locations of all the American missile silos. However, the camera malfunctioned and continued to record Soviet missile sites as well. A second malfunction forced re-entry in the Arctic, close to Ice Station Zebra. Soon after, undercover Soviet and British agents arrived to recover the film capsule, and the civilian scientists at Zebra were caught in the crossfire between them.
As the weather clears, Ferraday sets his crew to search for the capsule. Jones eventually finds a hidden tracking device. He is blind-sided and knocked unconscious by Vaslov, who is in reality a Soviet double-agent and the saboteur they have been looking for. But before Vaslov can make off with his prize, he is confronted by Anders. As the two men fight, a dazed Jones shoots and kills Captain Anders due to Vaslov's manipulation of the scenario.
Tigerfish's radar picks up Soviet aircraft heading toward Zebra. Ferraday remains suspicious of Vaslov, but allows him to use the tracker to locate the capsule, buried in the ice. As Ferraday's crew extracts the capsule, Soviet paratroopers land at the scene. Their commander, Colonel Ostrovsky (Alf Kjellin), demands the capsule. Believing that the Americans have already secured the canister, the Soviet commander threatens to activate the self-destruct mechanism with his radio-detonator. Ferraday stalls while Vaslov defuses the booby-trapped capsule and takes out the film. Ferraday hands over the empty container, but the deception is revealed and a brief firefight breaks out. In the confusion, Vaslov makes a break with the film canister. Jones stops Vaslov, mortally wounds him, and retrieves the film.
Ferraday orders Jones to hand the film over to the Soviets. However, Ferraday had earlier found a radio-detonator identical to Ostrovsky's. The Russians send the canister aloft by balloon for recovery by an approaching jet fighter. Lieutenant Walker (Tony Bill) makes a desperate attempt to get Ostrovsky's detonator, but fails and is severely injured. Commander Ferraday activates his detonator, destroying the film. Ostrovsky realises the situation is futile and allows Ferraday to send a medic to Walker. With the conflict between the two parties now having effectively ended in stalemate, Ostrovsky concedes that both his and Ferraday's missions are accomplished, at least in part, and leaves, allowing Tigerfish to complete the rescue of the civilians. A dissolving segue shows a teletype machine churning out a news story hailing the success of the "humanitarian" mission as an example of cooperation between the West and the Soviet Union, as Tigerfish sails for home.Rock Hudson as Commander James Ferraday, USN
Ernest Borgnine as Boris Vaslov
Patrick McGoohan as David Jones of MI6
Jim Brown as Captain Leslie Anders, USMC
Tony Bill as 1st Lieutenant Russell Walker, USMC
Lloyd Nolan as Admiral Garvey, USN
Alf Kjellin as Colonel Ostrovsky, the Soviet commander
Gerald S. O'Loughlin as Lieutenant Commander Bob Raeburn, USN
Ted Hartley as Lieutenant Jonathan Hansen, USN
Michael Mikler as Lt Courtney Cartwright, USN (navigator)
Ron Masak as radioman Paul Zabrinczski, USN
Murray Rose as torpedoman officer Lt George Mills, USN
Jed Allan as Peter Costigan USN
While based on Alistair MacLean's 1963 Cold War thriller, the film version diverges from its source material.
The most obvious changes involved the names of the novel's characters:The submarine Dolphin became Tigerfish as the real USS Dolphin, launched between the publication of the novel and the making of the film, was a diesel submarine.
British spy Dr. Carpenter was renamed David Jones.
Commander Swanson was changed to Commander Ferraday.
Beyond the name change, the film's submarine has a more traditionally conventional design similar to the first nuclear-powered submarine, the Nautilus, rather than the more streamlined, teardrop-shaped vessel (the contemporaneous Skipjack or Permit designs) described in the novel—simply because the production used the World War II diesel-electric submarine USS Ronquil (SS-396) to represent the fictitious Tigerfish. The Tigerfish hull number 509 has never been used for an actual U.S. Navy submarine, although it would appear again in fiction in the 1971 television movie Assault on the Wayne and the 1989 Mission: Impossible episode "Submarine".
Additional characters were added, such as Soviet defector Boris Vaslov, Marine Captain Leslie Anders, 1st Lt Russell Walker, and a United States Marine Corps platoon trained for Arctic warfare. Much of the characterization involving the submarine's crew found in the novel was jettisoned in favor of these new cinematic creations. Unlike the film, the novel describes little overt Soviet interest in recovering the film capsule other than a spy ship disguised as a fishing trawler waiting outside Holy Loch when the Tigerfish sets sail.
In the novel, there are no Soviets on the ice and no confrontation of any kind on the ice with the Soviets.
The novel's fire on board the submarine does not occur in the film, whereas the nearly fatal flooding of the forward torpedo room is common to the film and the novel.
The sabotage of the torpedo tubes is committed by a suspected intelligence agent (actually Vaslov) in the film. In the novel, a port maintenance worker is suspected.
The film's new climax involves a confrontation between Soviet paratroopers and the American Marines, but concludes on a more ambiguous note than the novel, reflecting the perceived thaw in the Cold War following the Cuban Missile Crisis.
The film rights to the 1963 novel were acquired the following year by producer Martin Ransohoff, who hoped to capitalize on the success of the 1961 blockbuster The Guns of Navarone by adapting another Alistair MacLean novel for the silver screen as a follow-up. He expected the film to cost around $5 million. Paddy Chayefsky, who had just written The Americanization of Emily for Ransohoff, was hired to write the script.
Navarone stars Gregory Peck and David Niven were initially attached to this film, with Peck as the sub commander and Niven as the British spy, plus Edmond O'Brien and George Segal in the other key roles and John Sturges to direct. Filming was set to begin in April 1965, but scheduling conflicts and U.S. Department of Defense objections over Paddy Chayefsky's screenplay because they felt it showed "an unfair distortion of military life" that would "damage the reputation of the navy and its personnel" delayed the start.
A new script was commissioned, but due to scheduling conflicts, the original cast was no longer available when filming began in Spring 1967. Principal photography lasted nineteen weeks, ending in October 1967.
Ice Station Zebra was photographed in Super Panavision 70 by Daniel L. Fapp. The nuclear-powered Tigerfish (SSN-509) was portrayed in the movie by the diesel-electric Guppy IIA submarine USS Ronquil (SS-396) when seen on the surface. For submerging and surfacing scenes, the diesel-electric Guppy IA USS Blackfin (SS-322) was used, near Pearl Harbor. The underwater scenes used a model of a Skate class nuclear submarine.
Second unit cameraman John M. Stephens developed an innovative underwater camera system that successfully filmed the first continuous dive of a submarine, which became the subject of the documentary featurette The Man Who Makes a Difference.
During filming, McGoohan had to be rescued from a flooded chamber by a diver who freed his trapped foot, saving his life.
Because his TV series The Prisoner was in production during principal photography in Ice Station Zebra, Patrick McGoohan had the episode "Do Not Forsake Me Oh My Darling" re-written to have the mind of his character Number Six transferred into the body of another character.
The plot has parallels to events reported in news stories from April 1959, concerning a missing experimental Corona satellite capsule (Discoverer II) that inadvertently landed near Spitsbergen, situated in the Arctic Ocean, on April 13, which was believed to have been recovered by Soviet agents. In 2006, the United States National Reconnaissance Office declassified information stating that "an individual formerly possessing Corona access was the technical adviser to the movie" and admitted "the resemblance of the loss of the Discoverer II capsule, and its probable recovery by the Soviets" on Spitsbergen Island, to the book by Alistair MacLean.
The story has parallels with the Central Intelligence Agency's Project COLDFEET, which took place in May–June 1962. In this operation, two American officers parachuted from a CIA-operated B‑17 Flying Fortress to an abandoned Soviet ice station. After searching the station, they were picked up three days later by the B-17 using the Fulton surface-to-air recovery system.
The attempted sinking of the US submarine is almost certainly based on the loss of the Royal Navy submarine HMS Thetis in Liverpool Bay in 1939. As in the film the drip cock was blocked on the newly built Thetis (by dockyard-applied fresh paint) which led to the rear cap being opened while the bow cap was already open to the ocean. Water entered at the rate of one ton per second and Thetis sank with the loss of 98 lives. In the movie the drip cock has been blocked with epoxy adhesive.
Reclusive billionaire Howard Hughes, who had experience both as a movie producer and a defense contractor for the United States, is said to have watched a private print of Ice Station Zebra 150 times on a continuous loop in his private hotel suite during the years prior to his death. In his 2013 autobiography My Way, singer Paul Anka writes that Hughes kept a permanent penthouse at the Desert Inn hotel in Las Vegas and owned a local TV station. "We knew when Hughes was in town," Anka wrote. "You'd get back to your room, turn on the TV at 2 a.m. and the movie 'Ice Station Zebra' would be playing. At 5 a.m., it would start all over again. It was on almost every night. Hughes loved that movie."
The sets and miniature footage from the film were re-used for the 1971 ABC made-for-television movie Assault on the Wayne, starring Leonard Nimoy, Joseph Cotten, Keenan Wynn, William Windom, Sam Elliott, and Dewey Martin, which also featured Zebra cast members Lloyd Haynes and Ron Masak.
The name Zebra comes from the representation of the letter Z in the Joint Army/Navy phonetic alphabet. In the modern NATO phonetic alphabet later adopted by aviation and navigation, Zulu is being used instead of Zebra. In actuality, there was an Ice Station Alpha (phonetic for the letter "A") established by the US Air Force in 1957 as part of the International Geophysical Year (IGY.).
Footage from Ice Station Zebra (and the model of the Tigerfish) was also re-used in The Six Million Dollar Man two-part episode "Wine, Women, and War," the 1978 disaster film Gray Lady Down, the 1983 James Bond film Never Say Never Again, and the 1982 Cold War thriller Firefox.
Sportscaster Chris Berman, known for his whimsical nicknames for athletes, referred to major league pitcher Bob Sebra as "Ice Station Sebra".
In Breaking Bad, Saul Goodman has a holding company called Ice Station Zebra Associates, which he uses to dodge taxes. It is revealed in the spinoff series Better Call Saul that his love interest earlier in life listed this as her favorite movie.
Ice Station Zebra was released on October 23, 1968. The film became a major hit, which gave a much-needed boost to Rock Hudson's flagging career.
Ice Station Zebra received mixed reviews from critics. It currently holds a 36% "Rotten" rating on the review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes. Critic Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times described the film as "so flat and conventional that its three moments of interest are an embarrassment" and called it "a dull, stupid movie", expressing disappointment that the special effects did not, in his opinion, live up to advance claims.
Director John Carpenter asked, "Why do I love this movie so much?", saying it was a guilty pleasure.
Ice Station Zebra was nominated for two Academy Awards, in the special effects category (2001: A Space Odyssey won instead) and Best Cinematography (won by Romeo and Juliet).
On May 6, 2013, The Hollywood Reporter reported that Warner Bros. will undertake a remake of Ice Station Zebra, with Christopher McQuarrie signed to direct and write the screenplay for the film.