By Paul Risker.
Humanity shares a love-hate relationship with the planet. Our ongoing rape and exploitation of it has been reciprocated, in a way, by nature’s propensity for devastating violence, none of which has either been conscious or discriminatory. Rather deliberate cruelty is the preserve of humanity. The Antarctic continent and the celestial reaching Mount Everest are amongst the inhospitable stages upon which man has pitted himself against nature. It is a duel that has ended in both triumph and tragedy. The British Antarctic Expedition of 1910-13, led by Robert Falcon Scott, is an infamous occurrence of the latter. In spite of the darkness of such tales, such tragedy offers a visceral attraction for storytellers and audiences alike. And so it was always inevitable that Scott’s tragic expedition would find its way into the realm of storytelling.
Both in front of and behind the camera it is apt that Scott of the Antarctic (1949) should be defined by artistic forces of Scott’s homeland. It was produced by the historic Ealing Studios and the legendary British producer Michael Balcon. Meanwhile renowned cinematographer Jack Cardiff collaborated with director Charles Frend, an editor turned director, who honed his craft editing some of Alfred Hitchcock’s pre-Hollywood films. And in front of the camera was John Mills, a stalwart of the British acting establishment. In his long career Mills would encounter the extremes of spatial environments. First there was the inhospitable Antarctic that Scott himself called “an awful place” that was followed by the scorching heat of the desert of Ice Cold in Alex (1958). And a trivial yet nonetheless interesting point is that these two films were adaptations of differing natures – the former of both real life and Scott’s journal, and the latter of Christopher Landon’s 1957 novel of the same name.
To describe Scott of the Antarctic as a classic would be an act of elevating a film to a stature not becoming of its merit. However, an interesting aspect is how it offers a point of contrast to both documentary and narrative fiction films centring upon the inhospitable corners of our planet. Taking this early work as a case in point and comparing it to blockbusters such as Vertical Limit (2000) and Everest (2015), we can see how the set pieces have grown in grandeur as the technological barriers have been conquered. Beyond Cardiff’s cinematography that captures the Antarctic vistas with a sense of authentic majesty, Frend’s film remains a generically executed. Cardiff’s work provides the film with a sense of spectacle and spatial openness, an accomplishment of ingenuity considering it was shot on sets at Pinewood Studios. The expedition becomes like a leading character, while Scott and his team – to varying degrees of prominence – are the supporting players. It fails to become an incisive character study, the preference instead remaining on entertainment crafted through a tale of optimism succumbing to tragedy. Now, any assertion that spectacle has overtaken an emphasis on character in the blockbusters of recent decades is a vulnerable one. The change to the extent of the spectacle lies in the extension of technological boundaries, which sees contemporary films scale the perilous heights of mountains – men succumbing to the terrain on a survival trek lacking the excitement of the climb. Technological boundaries are expanded, while suspense and character are hardly. And yet Frend’s film, although not a rich character study, is nonetheless an attempt at character-based drama, while this emphasis does not equate to substance.
Scott of the Antarctic depicts a chapter within the history of exploration, specifically the competitive national aspirations of Scott versus Roald Amundsen’s Norwegian bids to be the first to reach the Poles. This perhaps addresses human propensity for division – national individualism over human collectivism. It therein offers a view on the past and how we defined ourselves in relation to our world at the turn of the twentieth century. Yet it also infers that a divided world is an enduring constant – the competitive instinct of the human spirit one to rival our most primitive. But these are themes that emerge organically from the material rather than through the precise orchestration of the inquiry of Frend and the film’s writers.
Narrative films centred upon man versus the inhospitable terrain have struggled to build a strong artistic reputation that merges character and spectacle with substance. Rather by maximising the potential of their respective format, it is the documentary films Touching the Void (2003), Encounters at the End Of The World (2007) and Sherpa (2015) that have surpassed narrative drama. What separates these two branches of filmmaking is how they will resonate in hindsight. While the narrative films will be cited within the conversation of Arctic exploration and mountaineering films, one cannot help but feel that Touching the Void, Encounters at the End Of The World and Sherpa will be cited in light of their noteworthy stature. They are examples of documentary rendezvousing with narrative film techniques with a genuine precision. Although what is striking within the narrative films is the movement away from the bravado of Scott of the Antarctic to a naturalism filtered through the heightened dramatics of latter films. This air of bravado was common in classic cinema – stars including John Mills alongside his American counterparts John Wayne and Humphrey Bogart exhibiting this air. But the passage of time has sought to transition to a more naturalised realism, with an intention to capture through writing and performance a more genuine likeness between cinema and reality. Yet this early style of acting on display in Scott of the Antarctic conveniently taps into the British stiffness – a restraint that perhaps exasperates the impression of the English as a repressed lot. It lends Scott of the Antarctic a monotone decorum in both lightness and tragedy. And perhaps it could be said that actors such as Mills offered a snapshot of the English identity that was distinct in its air, compared to the more self-assured American bravado.
In 2012 I attended a Scott of the Antarctic Centenary concert at Birmingham Symphony Hall. It was comprised of the reading of excerpts from Scott’s journal by actor Hugh Bonneville, set to the Ralph Vaughn Williams’ score. Frend’s film also incorporates lines from Scott’s journal and highlights the eloquence of the explorer. And yet the simple structure of the concert in contrast to the film made for a stronger impression. Not surprisingly it emphasised Scott’s eloquence in a way that the film could not. The hope and desperation of the expedition through his words and the composer’s music struck home with a more profound resonance. Neither Mills nor Bonneville present themselves as anything other than an essential incarnation of Scott for their respective performances. The words exist beyond them, the two men a means to channel the resilient explorer who was claimed by his obsession – his beloved continent of ice. Watching Frend’s construction of a narrative of the events in pictorial and verbal form struck me as a testament to the simple power of words and music – the film form counterproductive. Of course my own response to Scott of the Antarctic has been influenced by my experience of the live concert, and hence I see the film from perhaps a unique point of view. Yet I cannot help feel that the contrasting experience is a testament to how the combination of words and music are sometimes enough. Our imagination and capacity to feel and empathise – to picture the hope and desperation; joy and horror – can create an emotionally evocative experience that can be neutralised by narrative film. And Williams’ score has become the musical incarnation of not only the expedition, but of the continent itself. The memorial cross erected in Antarctica quotes Tennyson’s famous closing of “Ulysseus” with “To strive, to seek, to find, but not to yield,” and Williams’ score captures this sentimentality within the fabric of the melody. Yet without the film this striding musical footstep would not have come to be. In reflection the discussion of the film should look to the rendezvous of life and art – life as inspiration for art, and art as a means of emotional remembrance of the past, and mankind’s fallen comrades. If there is a reason for Scott of the Antarctic to endure then herein lies the reason: its interactions over its accomplishments.
Scott of the Antarctic was released June 6 2016 on Blu-ray, DVD & EST by StudioCanal.
Paul Risker is an independent scholar and film critic who contributes regularly to Film International. He is an Editor for Mise-en-scène: The Journal of Film and Visual Narration, which will launch in Fall 2016.