Scott of the Antarctic
It wouldn’t be misplaced to nurse grave suspicions over the official story of Captain Scott’s South Pole expedition’s authenticity, given the official story of Antarctica is balderdash. Or indeed, the stories of Ernest Shackleton and Roald Amundsen’s expeditions, forming as they do a compelling saga of national competition that gives way to analysis of method and assertions of incompetence vs skill. Thus, the only surprise regarding the recent AI photos of “undiscovered ruins” from the expedition is why no one thought of such a prank sooner (fact checks occasionally have to be right, just on law of averages). Scott of the Antarctic, like any biopic, receives attention for the degree to which it differs from the true (again, official) account, so neatly emphasising that the facts are indeed facts, and the fiction is simply any necessary divergence through dramatisation.
Captain Scott: I leave behind a white continent. Vast, mysterious, inhospitable, and still, to all intents and purposes, unknown.
Also helping to underline the essential “truth” of the story is that there have been various attempts since to malign tragic hero Captain Robert Falcon Scott in terms of his decision making (largely arising from the 1970s onwards, it seems) and counter claims that this is grossly unfair: “a revision of the revisionist view”.
Of course, this “continent” comes replete with tales of Admiral Byrd being attacked by Nazi UFOs and discovering the Inner Earth, of Corey Goode reporting on a large city buried beneath the ice, storing hundreds of thousands of Draco in stasis (this may be a revised account of what’s there, given an earlier report of “pre-Adamite” cities cannibalised from “ancient builder race” spacecraft), of mainstream reports of trips to Antarctica circa 2016/7 (that tie in with the Goode reports), including by John Kerry and Buzz Aldrin, and most fundamental of all, the presence of a dirty great Ice Wall, ensuring as it does that access to the chilly wilderness is verboten. If any of those stories are true, it’s suggestive of a place that, even 120 years ago, would in no way be a free-for-all for anyone who could muster funds to explore it. If (government-backed) expeditions were being sent, you can bet it was with the concord of the ultimate overlords/elite, either within strict parameters (perhaps contingent on where the official South Pole is in relation to the Ice Wall) or with strict orders to keep key information under their icy polar caps.
There certainly seems to have been a hive of activity during the early years of the 20th century, starting with the 1904 Discovery Expedition (which made Scott’s name and included Shackleton and Wilson); this is referenced in a slightly awkward montage at the beginning of the film. Shackleton and Scott appeared to have some disagreements, the former then taking his own trip in 1907 and copping flack for using Scott’s area (McMurdo Sound). Territoriality of location and goal would only increase in the wake of eventual winner Amundsen; he arrived at the South Pole in December 1911, with approximately a month’s lead on Scott. Amundsen was considered unsporting in his stratagem of keeping quiet about his decision to abandon his planned North Pole expedition (overtaken as it was by dual claims of first dibs) and head for the South one instead. All he gave Scott was a vexing and non-specific telegram that he was “proceeding south”.
Amundsen being something of an opportunistic bounder was the gist of opinion at the time. This lasted, pretty much, until the reinvention of Scott as a heroic bungler (Roland Huntford’s 1979 Scott and Amundsen), pitched in contrast to Amundsen’s all-round superior planner. What you have here is, in some key facets, the equivalent of ’60s space race, complete with opposing countries’ against-the-odds vying to reach an impossible goal and convenient difficulty in proving claims first-hand to the rapt audience marvelling at the valour and derring-do of those involved. Why, there’s even all-important evidence in both cases. What, Edward Wilson just scouted around in the blizzard for a few minutes and managed to dig up some handy fossils (at least, if you’re watching the film version, that’s what you’ll conclude)?
Scott of the Antarctic, then, came out at a time when Scott’s rep was still untarnished. It was rewarded with a Royal Command Performance, a Best British Film BAFTA nomination and was one of the most popular films of 1949 at the British box office (Wiki cites it as third, but their link seems to suggest it was fourth). And with Mills and all concerned – including James Robertson Justice and an early Kenneth More, along with Christopher Lee and future Doctor Who producer Barry Letts in small roles – displaying a commendably stiff upper lip, it stands as a testament to stalwart Empire spirit (an Ealing production, it also landed the year before the studio would redefine itself with its comedies).
Dimitri: Well, I would take dogs, dogs and dogs.
What room Charles Frend’s film has for criticising its chief protagonist is guarded, with Scott ignoring the advice of Dimitri (Edward Lisak, essentially Fridtjof Nansen) that he should go for dogs all the way; he instead relies mostly on a combination of mechanical sleds and ponies (resorting to man-handling after they’re dispensed with). As predicted, the sleds break down (“Just a heap of metal in the snow”). Amundsen’s tactics are also disdained (“Not very sporting”) without going overboard – that wouldn’t be British – while Scott’s push-pull impulse that it’s chiefly a scientific expedition, which was the carrot that attracted Wilson, is noted (“In fact, I’m not going to race… I wonder what route the blighter’s taking”).
The picture is all a bit flat at first, formal and linear without much visual persuasion. The joins between location (the Antarctic’s Hope Bay, the Orkneys, Switzerland and Norway) and Ealing studio work are very obvious. There are three credited DPs: Osmond Borradaile, who shot the Hope Bay footage, and generally acclaimed maestros Jack Cardiff (Powell and Pressburger) and Geoffrey Unsworth (2001: A Space Odyssey).
Nevertheless, if the picture doesn’t quite surmount its essential limitations in style and approach once the expedition embarks upon the arduous and hazardous terrain proper, and the team stages filter down from 12 to 8 to 5 men, , it commands attention through its depiction of intrinsically dramatic material. Rather than the dogs Amundsen would be culling, for Scott it becomes a “They shoot ponies, don’t they?” Luckily, the ship’s cat deigned not to come along with them (the actual puss had the same name as the dog in The Dambusters; sensitivity prevailed in this instance). The cat was a reluctant and uncooperative actor, as you can see when he’s presented to Mills.
Captain Scott: (Describing Oates) A brave man, and a gallant gentleman.
The sense of grim inevitability sets in with Justice’s Taff cutting his thumb (having just declared a portent with a cut-thumb rhyme); the cut fails to heal and his health dwindles despite his stoicism (“I’m alright, sir. Quite well”). Oates (Derek Bond) is succumbing to frostbite (his foot) and entreats “I hope I don’t wake tomorrow, Bill” before he does, eliciting his famous “I’m just going outside. I may be some time”.
By the time the remaining trio are called to a halt, about 11 miles from a supply depot, Scott’s foot is frostbitten and Wilson (Harold Warrender) and Bowers (Reginald Beckwith) are resigned to their fates. Notably, the “bitter disappointment” of discovering Amundsen’s flag yields an almost immediate change in Scott’s assessment of their locale (“Great God. This is an awful place”), but he is otherwise unapologetic (“I do not regret this journey”). Generally, his status as a legend is, to a significant degree, based on his penmanship, so the picture lives up to the mythos in that regard.
Captain Scott: Had we lived, I should have had a tale to tell of the hardihood, endurance and courage of my companions which would have stirred the heart of every Englishman.
The opening informs us the film could never have been made without the generous co-operation of survivors and relatives of late members of Scott’s Last Expedition (albeit several, Edward Evans and Cherry-Garrard – who was critical of Scott’s funding and rationing – did not). Wiki will tell you the differences to the actual events are minor. Scott of the Antarctic is thus a dependable picture of the sort you’d expect from a certain era of biopics, perhaps boasting more verisimilitude than one might expect. But as to whether it’s only really detailing the tip of the iceberg, or wall, well… It seems that Scott’s fate is accurate enough, borne as it was of miscalculation and mishap. However, he was well aware there was an Ice Wall where Antarctica should be. And the much-vaunted race against Amundsen was, like the space race, no more than an elaborate psyop.