Every English schoolboy is taught the story of Captain Scott’s failed expedition in the Antarctic. How he and a small band of companions spent almost two years battling against impossible odds to reach the South Pole, only to find that they’d been beaten to it, and their rival Amundsen had already planted a Norwegian flag there. And how they fought to get back after such bitter disappointment, fighting a losing battle against the wind and the onset of winter, the last of them eventually perishing a stone’s throw away from the depot of food that would have saved their lives. Scott’s diary account is presented as the epitome of gentlemanly heroism: quiet reserve and keeping a stiff upper lip in the most impossible of circumstances. It was the ideal subject for a patriotic film from Ealing Studios for a Britain still recovering from World War II.
It’s inevitable then that this film is full of patriotic guff, pipe smoking and lines like: "I think an Englishman should get there first." All the same, although the tone is often cloying and romantic, it’s to director Frend’s credit that this is not just a one-sided account of the great Edwardian. John Mills’ Scott is every inch the English hero: square-jawed, steely-eyed, resolute and unflinching in the face of danger. Mills also manages to make the cold man a sympathetic character, full of compassion for his companions, and happily joining in the terrible entertainment in the base camp. However, we’re also given plenty of opportunity to question Scott’s decisions: testing snow ploughs in the relatively mild Norwegian spring, failing to take dogs all the way with him, taking too many companions with him for the last push. We’re left wondering whether to admire Scott’s resolve – or whether it was just bloody minded stupidity that ultimately cost the lives of himself and his friends.
Many of the special effects are unforgivably duff: particularly some terrible painted backdrops in the early English section, and a bad sequence when a man falls through some plastic sheeting that’s supposed to look like ice. More often though, the cinematography is very impressive, with some fantastic footage gathered in Switzerland and Antarctica itself. But it’s the studio-based shots of the exhausted men huddled together in their tent, cooking their meagre rations as the wind howls outside, that are most effective. Combined with Vaughan Williams’ emotive score, they make for harrowing viewing.
The plight of the men is made all the more immediate, because we’re constantly reminded that these events really happened, thanks to the skilful interweaving of Scott’s diary entries. His plain eloquence is frequently heartrending: "Great God this is an awful place." "Among ourselves we are unendingly cheerful, what each men feels in his heart I can only guess." Scott really should have a scriptwriting credit.
John Mills as Captain R.F. Scott R.N.
Derek Bond as Captain L.E.G. Oates
Kenneth More as Lt. E.G.R. ‘Teddy’ Evans R.N.
James Robertson Justice as P.O.’Taff’ Evans R.N.
Christopher Lee as Bernard Day
Diana Churchill as Kathleen Scott
Harold Warrender as Dr. E.A. Wilson
John Gregson as P.O. T. Crean, R.N.
Reginald Beckwith as Lt. H.R. Bowers
Norman Williams as Chief Stoker W. Lashly R.N.
James McKechnie as Surgeon Lieutenant E.L. Atkinson R.N.
Barry Letts as Apsley Cherry-Garrard
Dennis Vance as Charles S Wright
Sam Kydd as Leading Stoker E. McKenzie R.N.
Melville Crawford as Cecil Meares
Bruce Seton as Lieutenant H. Pennell R.N.
Clive Morton as Herbert Ponting
Percy Walsh as Chairman
Noel Howlett as First Questioner
Philip Stainton as Second Questioner
Director: Charles Frend
Producer: Michael Balcon
Music: Ralph Vaughan Williams
Writers: Walter T. Meade, Ivor Montagu, Mary Hayley Bell
UK | Ealing | 111 minutes | 1948