Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Scott of the Antarctic (Ealing Studios, 1948)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

When Charles got home he and I joined each other for a movie that turned out to be as perfect an antidote to the pretensions of The Private Lives of Pippa Lee as I could have hoped for: Scott of the Antarctic, a 1947 (released 1948) production of Ealing Studios in London based on the ill-fated 1911-12 expedition led by Robert Falcon Scott to the South Pole. Scott attempted to be the first person to reach the South Pole but was beaten by the Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen — who had originally planned an expedition to the North Pole but, when American Robert Peary beat him there (at least so Peary claimed; scientists and explorer buffs are still arguing over whether Peary actually got to the North Pole on April 6, 1909 as he said), Amundsen switched to an expedition to the South Pole and beat Scott there sometime between 1910 and 1912. (According to Amundsen’s Wikipedia page, “On December 14, 1911, the team of six, with 16 dogs, arrived at the Pole [90°00'S]. They arrived 35 days before Scott’s group.”)

Though its historical accuracy has been questioned (despite the presence of survivors of Scott’s expedition as technical advisers and the use of some of the actual objects carried by Scott’s crew as props), Scott of the Antarctic emerged as an awesome film. Yes, there’s a certain air of machismo about it (particularly in the relationship of Scott to his scientist friend and fellow expeditioner Dr. E. A. Wilson, played by Harold Warrenden; Scott is obsessed with being the first to get to the South Pole whereas Wilson is interested in the scientific knowledge to be gained from the expedition and couldn’t care less whether someone else reaches the geographic pole before they do), but it was also a breath of fresh air after The Private Lives of Pippa Lee. Robert Flaherty said he intended Nanook of the North at least in part as a deliberate contrast to most of the movie fare of its time — he wanted his stark tale of survival and potential starvation in an Arctic environment to make the romantic drivel of most movies then (and now) seem stupid and trivial by comparison — and likewise the makers of Scott of the Antarctic, screenwriters Walter Meade and Ivor Montagu and director Charles Frend, seemed in their dramatic film to want to present a set of conflicts so basic, so elemental, that compared to it other movies would look trivial and stupid.

Scott of the Antarctic had both the advantage and disadvantage of telling a story that was already well known (especially to the audiences in Britain), and though most people who saw the movie on its first release — especially in its home country — already knew the ending (Scott and three of his men actually made it to the South Pole, albeit after Amundsen — who left them a marker to let them know they’d lost the race to the Pole — but never made it back to base camp; they died of starvation and frostbite just 11 miles away from one of the caches where they’d buried food and fuel to retrieve on the way back to base), Scott of the Antarctic remains a gripping tale, told with a stiff-upper-lip understatement that might well have been the attitude of Scott and his actual crew and certainly avoided the melodramatic excesses of earlier U.S. movies like The Lost Zeppelin and Frank Capra’s Dirigible that had also dealt with polar exploration and the tragic deaths of at least some of the men who attempted it.

The film was uniformly well acted by one of those fine ensemble casts of great British actors — John Mills played Scott (and his wife, Mary Hayley Bell — now we know where their daughter, Hayley Mills, got that first name! — was an uncredited additional dialogue writer on the project) and was the only person billed over the title; some of the actors became better known later, notably Kenneth More and Christopher Lee (whose presence puts the cast of Scott of the Antarctic one degree of separation from the cast of The Lord of the Rings!); but it’s the sort of film where the actors really lose themselves in the characters and relate to each other in a cool, matter-of-fact way that to my mind makes them far more credible as real people than all the heavings and strainings of the Method crowd that has dominated acting in the U.S. for the last 50 years or so.

We were watching Scott of the Antarctic on a public-domain DVD that was in fine shape visually — one remarkable thing about this movie is that it’s in color, and Technicolor at that (with Natalie “Make it brighter!” Kalmus herself as the Technicolor consultant), at a time when color was considered a distraction and almost never used for a downbeat story like this; but the remarkable trio of cinematographers (Jack Cardiff, documentarian Osmond Borradaile and future 2001 D.P,. Geoffrey Unsworth) manage to use color to make the piece just seem colder (literally and figuratively) and more forbidding (the contrast between the relative realism of the establishing scenes in England, the warm brown-toned interiors of the explorers’ camp and the cool whites and blues of the Antarctic landscapes themselves — actually filmed, ironically enough, in Norway) — but had a nasty low-level distortion in the soundtrack, a real pity because one of the film’s most famous aspects is its awesome musical score by Ralph Vaughan Williams, rivaling Prokofieff’s scores for Eisenstein’s Alexander Nevsky and Ivan the Terrible as major works by classical composers for the film medium.

Vaughan Williams was inspired by the assignment even though director Frend used his music surprisingly sparingly — less than 500 of the 1,000 bars composed for the film were used — so Vaughan Williams recycled and expanded on his themes for the film to create a concert work, his Sinfonia Antarctica, which premiered in Britain in 1952. (Hearing the Sinfonia Antarctica after seeing the film, it’s evident why he wanted to keep working on these themes and expand their development and musical context.) Also there’s a marvelous confrontation scene between Scott and Norwegian explorer Frijtof Nansen — whom they visit before they go and who tries to talk Scott out of his decision to use motorized sleds, ponies and sled dogs to pull their cargo sleds across the Antarctic ice. “I would use dogs, dogs and dogs,” Nansen tells Scott — and as the motorized sleds break down and the ponies prove a drag on the expedition and have to be slaughtered (with no evidence that Scott and his crew thought of using them for meat — even though it would have been easy enough to preserve their flesh in the subzero Antarctic ice; let’s face it, virtually the entire continent is a giant outdoor refrigerator!), it’s obvious that Meade and Montagu mean that as their film’s “Rosebud” moment and accept that Scott’s expedition failed because he ignored the good advice of people who lived their entire lives around snow and thought he could do it differently; as it was, he had to resort to “manhauling,” which is simply explorer-speak for pulling your sleds yourselves, which wore out his men and contributed to the deaths of Scott and his team.