‘Food and fuel are needed.’
Another welcome release of an Ealing Studios film, restored in all its original glory like Pink String and Sealing Wax (1945) or Passport to Pimlico (1949), but on this occasion Scott of the Antarctic is presented in wonderful Technicolor which, considering much of the film is set in the snow, is no mean feat of cinematography. A dramatic recreation of an ill-fated expedition, it tells the story of Arctic explorer Captain Scott and his second mission to the Antarctic, his aim being to become the first person to set foot on the South Pole. This is a ‘boy’s own’ adventure writ large, where enthusiasm, perseverance and British spunk mix with danger and discovery, in a film that is wonderfully cast and shot.
‘I’m a very, very lucky man,’ declares Robert Falcon Scott (John Mills) to his wife Kathleen (Diana Churchill), although she is quick to remind him that she is fully aware that she is really the second love of his life, ‘You knew Antarctica even before you knew me,’ she observes. Scott had visited Antarctica some years previously on the ship Discovery, noting in his 1904 diary that it is a continent left ‘to all intents and purposes essentially unknown,’ and one that demanded further exploration, not least because no one had ever reached the southernmost part of the globe. It’s a feat he feels genuine enthusiasm for, enough to declare that, ‘I think an Englishman should get there first.’ Before any journey can begin, however, he needs to find a trustworthy team and significant funding, and convinces his old friend the biologist Dr. E.A. Wilson (Harold Warrender) to join him on a voyage of discovery and adventure. Scott plans the expedition with meticulous precision, deciding that ‘I will take dogs, ponies and motors.’ His team board the ship the Terra Nova, with 16 men who will all play some part in the expedition, although Scott informs the team that only 4 men will actually travel all the way to the South Pole, the others providing a supporting role, leaving depots of food and supplies for the team’s return. As expected, the journey is treacherous and lengthy and once landed in Antarctica, they learn that they are not alone in their quest and that Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen is also on his way to the pole; he is convinced that ponies and machines are no match for dogs. Whilst not wanting to scupper the mission by turning it into a race, Scott is aware that he ‘promised the greatest scientific expedition to leave England.’ Only time can tell whether the Brits can survive the torturous, dangerous and yet beautiful environment ahead of them.
Scott of the Antarctic is a great British film – an epic adventure where the underdog strives to achieve, despite all the odds being against him. Although the outcome for anyone who knows Scott’s story is, of course, inevitable, the process to get to that outcome makes for fascinating viewing. The film-makers approach the subject from a number of source materials, including Scott’s own diaries, which feature throughout the running time, and are particularly moving during the final moments of the film. This is also about friendships, personalities and process, noting the planning and preparation that went into the expedition. Great British gusto and determination are the qualities needed to achieve their aim and Scott’s choice about which of the crew will join the final part of the expedition clearly become a dilemma for him. Much jolly humour is also mixed into the narrative, even as events become more harrowing, as the team members seek brandy ‘for purely medicinal purposes’ and keep each others’ spirits up, despite the horrendous conditions they have to endure. The performances are uniformly superb, with an emphasis on characterisation that also extends the minor roles, particularly Taff (James Robertson Justice) and Teddy (Kenneth More), and also includes an early role for Christopher Lee. This is combined with exemplary and gruesome make-up as frostbite and gangrene impact the team and the final conclusion becomes apparent in its inevitability.
Extras on offer on the DVD are certainly worth your attention as well; they include interviews and recollections from Sir Ranulph Fiennes and Sir Andrew Davis as well as home movies from John Mills, and contemporary reflections and footage. The item looking at the stunning cinematography from Jack Cardiff features shots of the sound stage as well (it’s the Antarctic, in Ealing!) as discussing the issues with shooting Technicolour and their help in converting the internationally filmed second unit location shots into the format to match the studio and English location shooting. The work of the restoration team was essential and an enthusiastic documentary shows how three strip colour stock from the time converts to a splendid 2k restoration.