Very sad to hear that the brilliant Sylvia Syms died this week. She made her name as the lead actress with two giants of the acting world, Sir John Mills and Sir Anthony Quayle, in one of the most iconic war films, Ice Cold In Alex.
The film was due to be made in Egypt, but the Suez Crisis in 1956 resulted in a location switch to Libya. Filming began close to the Sahara on 10 September 1957. During an interview when she was 77 years old, Sylvia Syms said that conditions during the desert shoot were difficult and that: “You may find this hard to believe, but there was very little acting. It was horrible. We became those people…we were those people”. She suggested the crew “didn’t know what Method Acting was, we just called it ‘getting on with it’.” However, I believe she is playing this down because she was at RADA in the same era as Albert Finney, Alan Bates, Siân Phillips and Glenda Jackson, while Marlon Brando and James Dean were trailblazing the technique in Hollywood.
Although the film was a great success in Britain, it did not break into the Hollywood award scene in the manner of The Bridge On The River Kwai. Its legacy, however, is greater than many movies of that era thanks to its use in a number of lager advertisements. It was also one of several films that were assisted by the British Army in Libya. The tanks of the Queen’s Bays, which had earned six Libyan Battle Honours in 1942, appeared in one of Cubby Broccoli’s early films, No Time To Die with Victor Mature and Anthony Newly. Many of the extras in the wartime adventure Sea of Sand, in which Michael Craig was nominated for the Best Actor prize at the BAFTAs, were British Army personnel serving in Libya and their autograph books filled up when Richard Burton, Nigel Green and Christopher Lee featured in Bitter Victory, a war film typical of the genre that portrayed the clash of classes and ranks. However, the most famous cast appeared in the Legend of the Lost, filmed at Leptis Magna and Ghadames, which starred John Wayne and Sophia Loren.
There are more stories about filming in Libya and intrepid women in the desert in Chapter 14 of Liberating Libya.
Sylvia Syms – Ice Cold In Alex