Reviewer: Freda Cooper
Director: Charles Frend
Stars: John Mills, Harold Warrender, James Robertson Justice, Kenneth More
Released 6th June 2016
Charles Frend’s “Scott Of The Antarctic” was released in 1948, in the days when the explorer was still regarded as a hero. It was over 20 years later when Scott’s reputation came into question in two biographies, which portrayed him as more of a heroic bungler than an out-and-out hero.
But this film was made at a time when his status was near-iconic, so what we see is a strong leader, determined and compassionate, but not without his occasional moment of doubt. When the motorised sleds he insisted upon fail half way into the expedition, he can’t help but remember that he was advised some time ago to use only dogs to haul their supplies. What we’re getting is a favourable version of the true story of Captain Scott, and his ill-fated expedition in 1912 to reach the South Pole. One in which he found himself competing against a team of Norwegian explorers and the truly deadly conditions.
The expedition may have been ill-fated – it’s often described as a heroic failure – but that doesn’t mean they didn’t reach the South Pole. They did. What tarnished their achievement was that another team from Norway got there first and, on the way back, all five members of Scott’s team perished from the combination of cold, fatigue and starvation.
And that makes it a film where everybody knows the ending, so there’s no need to create tension or anticipation of what’s going to happen. It’s more of a study of courage and comradeship in an extreme situation and, as such, the simple directness of its documentary style is a good fit. It’s also broken up into chapters, with each one having its own title, a basic but nonetheless good way of moving the story along. Adding to the authenticity are real artefacts recovered from the expedition’s final camp and, when we hear Scott (John Mills) voicing his thoughts as he writes them down in his journal, it’s his words we’re listening to. Because they’re based on his actual diary.
Shooting the film, and all the challenges that went with it, fell to legendary cinematographer Jack Cardiff. He already an Oscar for “Black Narcissus” (1947) under his belt and knew that filming in Antarctica itself wasn’t going to be an option. He gathered some stock footage of Antarctica, sent a cameraman to film in both Switzerland and Norway and then shot the rest on a studio set. The join is obvious at times when the actors are battling against the elements in the studio and, curiously, there’s never a glimpse of anybody’s breath, not even in that biting cold. Nonetheless, for its day, it’s serious technical achievement. And it says a lot for the cast’s shivering on set, either inside or outside their tent, that they convey the bitter cold so well that you genuinely do feel chilly watching them.
The cast is full of familiar British faces and they all deliver solid performances. Alongside Mills as the determined explorer, there’s James Robertson Justice, almost unrecognisable in earlier scenes without his customary beard. There’s John Gregson in his first credited film role, some time before starring in evergreen British comedy “Genevieve” (1953). And Kenneth More had to wait until 1956 for the role that everybody associates with him, World War II hero Douglas Bader in “Reach For The Sky. You’ll also spot a young Christopher Lee, who has just a few lines.
It’s a shame, however, that this newly restored version of the film has only been re-released on DVD and Blu-ray. The sweeping, icy landscapes of Antarctica deserve an outing in cinemas as well and would be more than at home there. As it is, we have to settle for watching it on the smaller screen and, while we admire the film’s achievements, we’re also more than conscious that it deserves more.