Antarctic exploration on film

February 23, 2011

Alongside my occasional reading about Antarctic exploration, I have also seen a few films that have been made about the subject. Here is a brief summary of each, along with a star rating to serve as a crude guide for the discerning.

90° South (1933) [***]

This short film, lasting only a little over an hour, consists of original footage from Scott’s ill-fated 1910-13 Terra Nova expedition. The film’s director, Herbert Ponting, was one of the expedition’s members, and he filmed life in the camp, as well as preparations and practice for the South Pole trek. There is a good deal of footage of Antarctic wildlife, especially penguins, the sight of which would have been a novelty at the time. As indicated by the date above, the film was not issued until 20 years after the expedition finished, and the delay worked to its advantage, for it permitted the addition of voice-over narration (an element of high-tech “talkie” films). This is especially effective when the film relates the tragic end of Robert Falcon Scott and his companions.

South (1919) [**]

Another original, this film was taken during Shackleton’s Endurance expedition by the photographer, Frank Hurley. The film gives valuable background on the expedition, including Shackleton’s newspaper ad to solicit applicants (“Men wanted for hazardous journey. Low wages, bitter cold, long hours of complete darkness. Safe return doubtful. Honour and recognition in event of success.”). It is fascinating, too, to see the slow destruction of the expedition, including dramatic footage of the Endurance being crushed by ice. There is, however, quite a lot of screen time given to the dogs and to penguins, which I found a little tiresome. Also, it is a silent film with musical accompaniment, and I found that the music, in a piano score, became irritating after a while.

Scott of the Antarctic (1948) [**]

This film is a dramatization of the South Pole trek undertaken by Scott and his companions, with a famous film score by Ralph Vaughan Williams. It is a quite faithful adaptation, filmed mostly on location, and it appears to accurately show the equipment and methods used by the men. The cinematography is a little grainy, at least by today’s standards, and the drama a little staid, though the tragic ending comes through well, largely on the strength of voice-over quotations from Scott’s journals. Until a few days ago I had thought this the only film version of this story, but Janet, in a comment on an earlier post, pointed out that a BBC mini-series called The Last Place on Earth dramatized the stories of both Scott’s and Amundsen’s expeditions. I’d like to see that one.

The Endurance (2000) [***]

Co-written by Caroline Alexander, this documentary film closely follows the structure and content of her book, The Endurance. It makes good use of Frank Hurley’s original footage from the expedition itself. With the advantages of additional modern footage, interviews with experts, diary excerpts, and an explanatory voice-over, it is a better overview of the expedition than Hurley’s original film, South. Being a documentary, though, it lacks the dramatic punch of a full-scale dramatization like Shackleton (below). Considered as a substitute for Caroline Alexander’s book, it is actually quite serviceable — though it would be a pity to miss out on the book’s photographs. (My thanks to Maclin Horton for bringing this documentary to my attention.)

Shackleton (2002) [****]

In my opinion, this dramatization of Shackleton’s Endurance voyage is the cream of the Antarctic film crop. Not actually a film in the strict sense, it is a two-part television mini-series that runs about 3-1/2 hours from start to finish. The lead role is played, rather surprisingly, by Kenneth Branagh; I would have thought him too effeminate to play a man’s man like Shackleton, but, despite a few missteps, he does it remarkably well. The story spends a little too much time in London during the planning of the expedition — for budgetary reasons, perhaps? — but it works as a means to introduce the crew and establish character before the ship sets sail. Once embarked, the film portrays the actual events of the expedition quite faithfully, making only a few dramatically justifiable changes. I particularly liked how the director and cinematographer reproduced in several scenes famous photographs from the expedition. Shackleton is dramatically effective, and the beautiful scenery (filmed, alas, in Iceland and Greenland) is terrific.

Are there any other Antarctic exploration films that I should see?

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