Scott of the Antarctic (1948), DVD review: ‘The story of the doomed Polar expedition’

A scene from Scott of the Antarctic

A scene from Scott of the Antarctic - Credit: Archant

The passing of time has not been kind to Captain Robert Falcon Scott and his doomed Polar expedition, which is increasingly seen less as a noble, brave failure and more as a foolhardy, badly organised waste of human life.

Time though has been much more considerate to this 1948 Ealing Studio film of the expedition whose virtues are pretty much as good today as they must have been for post war audiences nearly seventy years ago.

The two chief selling points are that it has an original score by Vaughn Williams, which went on to become his 7th Symphony, (he’s no John Barry but he could certainly knock out a decent tune or two) and that it was photographed in Technicolor by the great Jack Cardiff. Before shooting begun teams were sent off to the Arctic, Norway and Switzerland to get some footage but remarkably most of the film was shot in the Ealing studios.

Film colour was a much more basic thing back then, and Cardiff was a master of the primary palette. His previous three films had been Powell and Pressburger’s A Matter of Life and Death, Black Narcissus and The Red Shoes, riots of red and three of the most beautiful films you could ever see, then or now.

Scott is a wonder of white. Of course at times it is very noticeable that you are looking at models or painted backdrops, but for the most part it is entirely convincing. Some shots are taken directly from the documentary The Great White Silence.


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Coming just after the second world war and with John Mills in the title role this is, as you’d expect, a heroic treatment of Scott and his expedition, full of terse understated approaches to danger and discrete veils drawn over unpleasantness.

The film though does subtly suggest that maybe there were organisational failings: the biggest criticism of Scott is his refusal to use dogs because he was squeamish about eating them, istead doing most of the trek with the men pulling the sleds themselves.

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You notice in the dialogue how often the phrase Man-hauling is reiterated, almost as a subliminal nudge to audience that this was the big mistake.

The most damning scene for me though comes early on, during the preparation phase in England, with the wives.

Mrs Scott (Diana Churchill) is a bluff old stick, fully supportive of this adventure that will see her husband be away from home for the best part of two years. In contrast though is the wife (Anne Firth) of his closest companion Wilson (Warrender).

There is an achingly poignant moment though when Scott toddles over in his automobile to visit them and interrupting lunch, a souffle she has slaved over, to coax him along on the expedition.

He’s initially reluctant but Scott talks him into it.

While all this is happening his wife, not consulted, tries to withhold her horror at what is happening, her dread at the prospect of their happy family life being tossed away and for so very little; a foolhardy boys’ only adventure.

She alone seems to realise the terror that is coming but is obliged to try and conceal it.

Hers is the sole quivering lip in a parade of stiff uppers.

Extras:

Most of these are pretty short and a bit slapdash – the one on Jack Cardiff’s cinematography seems to have been taken from somewhere else and has an abrupt start that makes you think you’ve missed a bit – but the interview with Sir Ranulph Fiennes is nearly a half hour long.

Rating: 4/5 stars

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