Scott of the Antarctic
Ealing proving once again that didn’t just deal in black comedies concerned with a brand of pure Britannia that has since been consigned to history, evidenced by Studio Canal’s release of Scott of the Antarctic. As winning as Ealing can be and as good as they are, variation is the spice of life as the adage states – making titles like this, Dead of Night, It Always Rains on Sunday and Went the Day well all the more significant. Sometimes Hitchcock editor, Charles Frend directs the now fabled story of Robert Falcon Scott’s ill-fated South Pole expedition. However unlike other films concerned with the extremes of nature, Frend spends most of his time setting the scene back in Britain; selecting crew and preparing for potential eventualities, before heading into the unforgiving tundra.
The camaraderie early on is exactly the kind that would be expected, the collective effort to succeed or even be part of this trip is ripping with the sort of Ealing dialogue and characterisation that makes these films so effortless. Cheekier and more openly upper class than the traditional Ealing, the playful tone suits the material and the consolidated effort of everyone involved. As whimsically British as Walter Meade & Ivor Montagu’s script is, there is also a sting in the tail.
Together over the first hour, they suggest whether Captain Scott did everything he could to ensure the success of the mission. It is still a strongly made and charming film, championing the spirit of these men and their British pride – yet it does it in such a clever and subtle way that it also manages to ask questions too. Scott of the Antarctic embodies the stiff upper lip of British stoicism just as potently as any other film from the West London studio. Frend is using it alike Ken Russell with his BBC documentary Elgar, he is satirizing that stiff upper lip and asks some real questions of Captain Scott and the processes he did and didn’t do prior to setting off to Antarctica in a role superbly performed by John Mills.
The best part of the Ealing studio film is their uniform brevity making for perfectly digestible cinema, a point of great elegance in Frend’s hands. The expedition itself doesn’t take up much more than 30 minutes and while that may be a little on the brief side it serves as a great antidote to the kind of extreme hardship cinema inspired by Scott’s failed expedition, films that would’ve taken hours to do exactly the same thing with nary an ounce of the charm. Hindsight and history have made Scott of the Antarctic such a refreshing film.
Patently conceived ages before the modernity of computer animation, the only way to bring this story to life as fiction is through sound stages, matte painting and subtle in camera effects. In the quieter moments, those sound stages are as clear as day, while suspension of disbelief does have a hard time the aforementioned combination is as clear as day thanks to the airlessness vacuum of their set. This unreal quiet unexpectedly contextualises this landscape, presenting somewhere that has more in common with the dunes of the moon than anything else of Earth. As is often said of low-budget filmmaking, “necessity is the Mother of invention”.
While serendipity reigns in the silence, that was not what forced Captain Oates to wander into the stormy abyss uttering the words “I’m just going outside; I may be away some time”. Even though shot on a soundstage, Jim Morahan’s special effects team have done the unimaginable, creating something as shockingly real and modern; ergo creating an indelible and frighteningly real threat. With films like Everest or the Day after Tomorrow, it’s easy to understand how such films can be presented via CG, but without it – not only is Scott of the Antarctic an incredible exploit, it will still be as fresh as a daisy when the bullet pace of technology has rendered those aforesaid films surplus. Nothing ages like computer wizardry.
- Interview with Sir Ranulph Fiennes
- Interview with Sir Andrew Davis
- John Mills Home Movie Footage
- Featurette on Jack Cardiff’s Cinematography
- Restoring Scott of the Antarctic
- Stills Gallery