Scott of the Antarctic (1948)

When it’s on: Sunday, 17 May (12.00 noon)
Channel: BBC2
IMDb Link

We didn’t do a lot of work in school on Robert Falcon Scott and his doomed expedition to reach the South Pole. By then, a reassessment of the explorer was underway, his status as a British hero – which had stuck since news of his valiant death was reported in 1912 – undermined by new research that asserted he failed because of his bungling. Should have relied more on dogs. Made fatal flaws during the march to the South Pole. Condemned both himself and his party because of his own mistakes. The charge sheet went on, damning Scott and ensuring we got to hear about other British legends and achievements from our teachers.

Since then, his reputation has been evaluated once again and more favourably, which is probably why Ealing’s Scott of the Antarctic has eased its way back onto the schedules, though it no longer rubs shoulders with other offerings of homegrown pluck and derring-do, such as The Dambusters. Possibly the main reason for this is that it was made (in 1948) at a time when Scott’s status was still secure and somewhat unimpeachable, leading to a work bordering on the reverential, telling the story as a straight one of adventurism and heroism with luck being the main conspirator against his effort. It’s also a strangely tension-free affair, in its narrative relying upon the natural dangers of extreme cold and blizzards rather than using storytelling to increase the sense of mounting odds. There’s little pressure amongst the actors, all blindly following John Mills’s Scott and largely accepting their fates as the likelihood of escaping with their lives diminishes to zero, long after the temperatures have dipped far below that point. Critics have argued that the job should have been given to one of the studio’s more capable directors, Alexander Mackendrick or Robert Hamer, than Charles Frend, who went for a linear approach, involving heavy emphasis on the pre-expedition fund-raising and preparations once they hit Ross Island.

But then there’s the fact that everyone who sees Scott of the Antarctic already knows how it ends. In failure, not just because they didn’t reach the South Pole first (they were beaten, by little more than a fortnight, by the Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen, who famously did depend on the power of snow resistant dogs) but the fact they paid for it with their lives. That knowledge works to create its own tension. Watching the film, you are fully aware that no matter how well Scott believes he’s preparing, all the efforts he makes, they will end up dying in a lonely tent just eleven miles short of reaching the supplies depot that could have preserved them.

And for me, the film does allude to the mistakes he made, or at least the decisions that ultimately led to the tragic events that ensued. I’m forced, watching it, to recall that the expedition took place early in the twentieth century, when Antarctica was still an unexplored land and scientific estimates of the best way to traverse it were based in part on guesswork. Easy for us now to heed the advice that it should be tackled using skis and dogs, that motorised vehicles would not work and ponies liable to struggle. No one knew for certain, though you imagine the Norwegians might have a better innate idea of how to tackle it. Scott, growing up in a Victorian era of engineering, would no doubt have felt justified in using snow vehicles fitted with revolutionary caterpillar tracks, at a time when no such things yet existed. The idea of taking ponies harked back to a previous attempt by Ernest Shackleton, which had nearly succeeded.

My impression of the cinematic Scott is that he thought he could succeed through the sheer will and determination to do so, a mindset evolved through notable British successes in conquering previously unreachable parts of the globe. Though the foreshadowing and worrying is done by the mens’ wives, notably Anne Firth as Wilson’s wife, Oriana, there’s little sense of impending danger from Scott, simply a stoical acceptance that the mission will involve hardship and risk. It’s a great examination of the British character and values, and it was prevalent in cinema at the time, that post-war mentality of rolling up one’s sleeves and carrying on.

The location shooting was a combination of stock footage taken at Graham Land, Antarctica, and the Swiss Alps, with much filming also done in the studio with fake snow and actors heavily made up to reflect the harsh conditions through which they travelled. Of the expedition members, James Robertson Justice makes for a memorable ‘Taff’ Evans, chosen to make the final push thanks to his strength yet suffering from a cut finger that leads to gangrene setting in and his death before the others met theirs. Captain Oates is played by Teddy Evans, and there’s an early role for Kenneth More as Teddy Evans, who joins the team but didn’t take part in the five-man push for the Pole.

Every effort was made to tell the story accurately, using Scott’s diaries (discovered in the tent that doubled as his grave), which Mills narrates from throughout, along with recreating the equipment and conditions that were experienced in real-life. The cinematography by Jack Cardiff is outstanding, presenting Antarctica as something close to a deathtrap, the relatively calm conditions on their way to the Pole contrasting harshly with the rising winds that follow them back. But the real star is Ralph Vaughan Williams, the British composer who rarely worked in film, but went on to produce a score that focused on the inhospitability and almost alien world the men encounter. I’m listening to it as I write this, those haunting female choirs accompanying the shots of endless icy vistas that are locked in my memory.

Is it a good film? It’s flawed, certainly. There’s too much focus on Scott’s preparations, which allows for portentous warnings of the difficulties that lie ahead, the decisions he makes that turn out to be his doom, but also makes the viewer wish they’ll reach Ross Island that bit quicker. Yet in telling the story in a style just short of documentary, it manages to say something about the flawed British spirit, men accepting their fate without getting too upset about it, all in the attempt for adventure and to attain some final frontier. Mills, all optimism and pluck before they reach the Pole, intones ‘great God, this is an awful place‘ when they reach it and are confronted with the Norwegian flag, the dog tracks surrounding it, hinting at the desolate emotion that is rarely on display elsewhere.

Scott of the Antarctic: ***

4 Replies to “Scott of the Antarctic (1948)”

  1. Thanks for this Mike – good to get a re-assessment of it as I have not watched this one in decades. it was Justice and his gangrene that made a huge impression on me as a kid – now I’m more likely to listen to the suite from the music score. Must watch it again.

    1. Thanks Sergio. The score really is terrific and captures the Antarctic incredibly well. Lovely haunting accompaniment to the action.

  2. I haven’t watched this for quite a while now but I do recall Mills, JRJ, the cinematography and score as highlights.
    I have a copy at hand but really feel the film is best seen in the winter months – it’s kind of relentlessly baking here these days, and I’m getting a bit browner all the time.

    1. Thanks Colin. Not quite the same experience here in England’s north-west, where it’s mainly just a bit wet, but I certainly agree it’s a winter film – felt a fair old shiver watching it, whether through the experiences told, those shots of the blizzards battering the tent, or that excellent score. I am jealous of the ‘baking’ and would be quite willing to swap…

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