Scott of the Antarctic (1948)
Directed by Charles Frend
I was a very small boy when I first read the story of Captain Robert Falcon Scott’s doomed expedition to the South Pole. Five years old, no more; my mother and father had just bought the World Book Encyclopedia, which I ran through, and I still have it, because there was nothing like its maps and its intelligent but child-friendly descriptions of everything you could name that a kid might want to know about. Along with the World Book came a full set of the Childcraft books, and in one of those, I believe in People to Know, was that account of the brave British men who failed to be first to the pole — the Norseman, Roald Amundsen, got there before them — and who did not return alive from their terrible retreat. Scott made several crucial mistakes, one or two of them highlighted with admirable frankness by our film this week. He took Orkney ponies and combustion engines along with the mush dogs. In a scene of acute dramatic irony, the Norwegian who taught Amundsen how to trek in the Arctic refuses to go along with Scott. “I am bringing ponies, engines, and dogs,” says Scott. “I like dogs, dogs, and dogs,” says the dour older man. That is, he has no English sentimental affection for dogs. When they are no longer good to pull, they are good for the other dogs, he says — “or for men.”
Scott had planned to reach the pole in a team of four men, but when he was about to separate from the last of his expeditionary team that had crossed the 400-mile long ice barrier, the glacier, and the mountains, he took an extra man along, Bowers, who had been the last man to join the force, a volunteer who had to do some persuading to get himself taken on board the ship when it set out. It was an act of gallantry toward that young man, perhaps, but as Scott later wrote, it turned out to be harder to cook for five men than for four. He hadn’t supposed it would make much difference, but it did.
Much about this film feels to me as if it came from a moral and cultural universe more alien to us than even Antarctica is. John Mills (Capt. Scott) is the perfect choice for the leader: English, from the tip of his receding hair to the toe of his boots. When he travels to enlist his friend, the scientist Edward Adrian Wilson (Harold Warrender), it’s as if a chill breeze has entered a warm, idyllic life between husband and wife, and we are painfully aware that Mrs. Wilson will soon see the last of the man she loves. But it is English, as I say; Wilson wants no part of a race to the pole for the sake of the race, but science, a journey of discovery, is another matter. It is like that always among the men, throughout. Cheerfulness, the charity of not burdening other people with your pain, a willingness to lend a hand to a fellow in a rough state, and a manly submission to reality when it brings disappointment and loss. When they reach the pole and see Amundsen’s tent before them, the Norwegian flag flapping in the wind, you can see the dreadful disappointment on their faces. But they do not permit it to last. They’ve gotten to the pole, after all, says Scott, and that’s something. And they take a photograph — which has been preserved.
Watch for the small things in this film: for example, the book of Tennyson’s poetry that Wilson reads from; that will provide the inscription on the cross erected to mark the place where the last three of Scott’s five (Scott himself, Wilson, and Edgar Evans) died. It is the final line of “Ulysses”": “To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.” Note also the last words of each of the three, writing to wife or mother back home. “We shall meet again,” writes Wilson to his wife, “in that world where every tear shall be wiped away,” for they have loved God with all their hearts.
Ralph Vaughn Williams scored the film — haunting music, and not at all overdone; nothing like the noise and bombast we get from composers who want to be John Williams and aren’t; the score later was the basis for his Antarctic Symphony. Dear God, what a dreadful place; what terrible misjudgments; and what courage.
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Valor, courage, and risk taking as well as manliness--- Great combination. This film should inspire those who have difficulty with the tech world and wish for outdoor adventure.
I too was raised on World Book Encyclopedia and Childcraft. It did not take much pressure from me for my mom to allow me to stay home from school and read all day. She knew my education was in those books, and for that I am grateful.