It’s set in 1942 in North Africa, during the fall of the Allied military base in Tobruk, northeastern Libya. As the base is evacuated, the crew of an Austin K2 military ambulance nicknamed “Katie” – Sergeant Major Tom Pugh (Andrews) and nurse Diana Murdoch (Syms) – become cut off from their unit and are forced to flee across the treacherous, inhospitable desert in a bid to reach safety in Alexandria (the Alex of the film’s title), across the border in neighbouring Egypt.
They are joined by burnt-out soldier Captain George Anson (Mills), who is suffering from severe battle fatigue and is a borderline alcoholic, and along the way they pick up a man claiming to be a Dutch officer called Captain van der Poel but who they soon begin to suspect may be a German spy.
As they face seemingly endless natural hurdles presented by the cruel and unforgiving desert terrain and a few close encounters with the enemy, only the thought of an ice-cold beer in Alexandria keeps the close-to-despair Anson going.
Eventually the quartet have Alexandria in sight – but the three Brits find themselves conflicted over what to do with van der Poel, who they are now certain is a spy but without whose strength and stamina they would have died in the desert.
This sets up a powerful and memorable final scene set in the bar in Alexandria:
Famously, the beer they were given to drink is Carlsberg and, in the days before product placement, John Mills comment after downing his glass in one – “Worth waiting for” – is really is the kind of advertising money can’t buy.
A couple of footnotes: Although, as I say, as far as I know there was no product placement in those days and Carlsberg did not pay to be featured in the film, in Landon’s novel, a different lager was named – Rheingold. This is a real beer, made in America, but the name was thought to sound too German-sounding for the film and so the Danish Carlsberg was used instead.
Secondly, in a series of spoof TV adverts in the UK in the 1980s, comedian Griff Rhys Jones was “inserted” into scenes from well-known classic films (such as The Great Escape and High Noon) in which extols the virtues of Holsten Pils lager. For one of the ads, Holsten paid for the rights to use scenes from Ice Cold In Alex so that Rhys Jones could “interact” with John Mills and tell him how much better Holsten Pils was.
To trump Holsten, Carlsberg created a TV advert in which they simply ran the scene of John Mills drinking their beer (the only alteration was to colourise the beer) and then uttering, “Worth waiting for”.
Worth waiting for, indeed – though that bartender could do with a lesson in how to pour a glass of beer properly!