In Ice Cold in Alex (1958) a group of British soldiers and nurses, journey across the desert, to Alexandria. In Play Dirty (1969), Captain Douglas, a BP employee seconded to the British Army, leads a mission to sabotage a fuel depot. These stories are set in North Africa, during the Second World War.
Deception is integral to both plots. Captain Van Der Poel, the Afrikaner South African in Ice Cold in Alex is really Hauptmann Otto Lutz, a German spy. In Play Dirty their mission is a decoy; they’re cannon fodder, designed to attract enemy fire (the real mission has been allocated the best equipment and men). The decoy team is composed of a ragtag band of criminals and misfits; all loyal to Leech (with Captain Douglas struggling to be taken seriously). When their target turns out to be a dummy fuel depot, they realise they’ve been tricked. Captain Douglas persuades his team to attack a second target, and win their spurs as real soldiers. The protagonists rely on deception to increase their survival chances: Captain Anson and his crew hide their awareness of Captain Van Der Poel’s subterfuge. They need his help to survive the desert trek, and it would be dangerous to confront him. And, the ragtag band in Play Dirty hides in plain sight by donning enemy uniforms.
These two films were released 13 and 24 years after the Second World War ended. They reveal a change in how the War was perceived. Ice Cold in Alex shows a softening of attitude towards Germany — although the British are still ‘the good guys’. Captain Anson exhibits a gentleman-like common decency, which is apparent in his merciful treatment of Captain van der Poel (the German spy).
Play Dirty has an anti-war theme; the message is that all war is immoral, it makes both sides do terrible things. Members of the team are shown breaking the Geneva Convention throughout the film, wearing enemy uniforms, robbing the dead, and attempting rape. The ragtag band are morally dubious characters, their criminal behaviour extends to the way they fight; as the title suggests, they survive by using dirty tricks. The two Arabs in the team are gay. For a mainstream war film, released in 1969, it’s striking how open minded the rest of the team are about their sexuality. Captain Douglas is the only one who comments about it.
Both teams are put through a series of tests and challenges. These include: encounters with the enemy, minefields, sandstorms, bogged down vehicles, and prominent scenes with vehicles being coaxed up a steep incline.
The leaders cope with the stress of war, and being undermined from within their own teams. The combat fatigued Captain Anson is an alcoholic being offered gin by Captain van der Poel (hoping to put him out of action, so he can take command). Captain Douglas, the man officially in charge, is being undermined by Leech. He views Captain Douglas as a clueless ‘toff’, someone he must babysit to get his money.
To maintain effective teams, the leaders must keep their people working together, and to develop their trust. Captain Anson is falling apart mentally; he must retain their confidence in his judgement. Captain Douglas has to ensure they view him as a credible leader who knows what he’s doing.
The protagonist’s real test is not the enemy, or the desert, but stepping up to the mark — being the man they need to be to lead their teams.
Having successfully beaten the desert, overcome his vulnerabilities, and dealt with the spy in their midst, Captain Anson is rewarded by winning the heart of the nurse Diana Murdoch, and having his cold beer in Alexandria.
At the end of Play Dirty, having destroyed the real German fuel depot, the British sweep in to take the city. Although Captain Douglas becomes the man he needs to be to lead his team to destroy their target, it’s a Pyrrhic victory. The British are denied the option of capturing the fuel depot intact. Captain Douglas and Leech — dressed in German uniforms and surrendering with a white flag — are accidentally gunned down by an advancing British soldier. This makes the film a tragedy, a warning about the futility of war.