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Scott of the Antarctic (1948)


Main image of Scott of the Antarctic (1948)
DirectorCharles Frend
Production CompanyEaling Studios
ProducerMichael Balcon
ScreenplayWalter Meade, Ivor Montagu
Additional DialogueMary Hayley Bell
Director of PhotographyJack Cardiff, Osmond Borradaile, Geoffrey Unsworth
MusicRalph Vaughan Williams

Cast: John Mills (Captain Robert Falcon Scott, RN); Harold Warrender (Dr William E.A. Wilson); Derek Bond (Captain L.E.G. Oates); Reginald Beckwith (Lieutenant H.R. Bowers, RIM); James Robertson Justice (Petty Officer 'Taff' Evans, RN); Kenneth More (Lieutenant E.G.R. 'Teddy' Evans)

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The story of polar explorer Robert Falcon Scott and his doomed attempt to be the first to reach the South Pole.

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One of Ealing Studios' most lavish productions, Scott of the Antarctic (d. Charles Frend, 1948) is the epitome of the well-made British film, a meticulous recreation of Captain Robert Falcon Scott's doomed 1910-12 expedition to the South Pole, with John Mills as the stiff-upper-lipped hero, and a memorably bleak, desolate score by Ralph Vaughan Williams (the latter, generally recognised as one of British film music's finest achievements, was reworked in 1952 as Sinfonia antartica, the composer's seventh symphony).

Adapted largely from Scott's diaries by Major Walter Meade and Ivor Montagu, with additional dialogue by the novelist Mary Hayley Bell (Mills' wife), the film was visually inspired by material shot by Herbert Ponting on the actual expedition. Footage of uninhabited Grahamland in the South Atlantic was blended with location work in Norway and Switzerland and Arne Ã…kermark's meticulous studio recreations, shot in Technicolor by Jack Cardiff, Osmond Borradaile and Geoffrey Unsworth and achieving a level of realism that looks remarkably convincing even six decades later.

Producer Michael Balcon also sent advance copies of the script to every survivor of the expedition - although this caused certain complications (Admiral Lord Mountevans, 'Teddy' Evans as was, demanded payment, and Apsley Cherry-Garrard refused permission for his portrayal on screen) it further strengthened the film's claim to authenticity.

But accuracy came at the expense of drama. Tension derives from the audience's prior knowledge of Scott's fate (despite the strictly chronological narrative, just about everyone would have known the ending well in advance), as the film makes it clear that the difficulties encountered were largely of Scott's own making: setting sail with inadequate funds, preferring unreliable motor sledges and ponies to tried-and-tested dogs, ultimately (and fatally) failing to gauge weather conditions and depot supplies.

But his men accept these decisions unquestioningly, their voices only ever raised against the howling wind, while their passive womenfolk wait stoically for their return. Amundsen himself is never seen, though despite a jocular reference to him being "damned unsporting" there's little doubt that his was a far more professional operation. The bitter disappointment of Scott's men is intensified by a clear (if unspoken) realisation that they could have won the prize themselves if they'd been more honest about their ambitions - Scott constantly emphasises the expedition's scientific aims and selfconsciously playing down the polar ones. The film celebrates British team spirit, but also implicitly criticises its limitations.

Michael Brooke

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Video Clips
1. The landing (3:18)
2. The crevasse (1:30)
3. At the pole (3:16)
4. Oates' sacrifice (3:56)
Production stills
Monthly Film Bulletin review
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Topical Budget 971-2: Aerial Antarctic Discoveries (1930)
Cardiff, Jack (1914-2009)
Cole, Sidney (1908-1998)
Frend, Charles (1909-1977)
Justice, James Robertson (1905-1975)
Kalmus, Natalie (1887-1965)
Letts, Barry (1925-2009)
Mills, John (1908-2005)
Montagu, Ivor (1904-1984)
More, Kenneth (1914-1982)
Nichols, Dandy (1907-1986)
Ponting, Herbert (1870-1935)
Tanner, Peter (1914-2002)
Unsworth, Geoffrey (1914-1978)
Vaughan Williams, Ralph (1872-1958)