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Wednesday, 27 March 2013

Classic Film Review: Scott of the Antarctic (1948)

An Ealing Studios production, Scott of the Antarctic focuses on the famous story of Captain Scott's final ill-fated expedition to the South Pole. It stars John Mills as the title character with able support from the likes of  Harold Warrender, James Robertson Justice and Kenneth More. It also boasts a score by Vaughn Williams and remarkable colour visuals - there is very little this film does wrong.

Since this was made in 1948 there has been a lot of revision over Scott's legacy. The man portrayed in this film is valiant, a gentleman and a victim of circumstance more than anything else. That depiction has been challenged since but, taken in the context of post-WWII patriotism, the positive portrayal is hardly surprising and can probably be excused. It doesn't detract from the story itself, which is as heroic as it is heartbreaking, and it was trading on the legend of Scott as it stood in popular opinion. It doesn't attempt to analyse Scott's decisions too much, reproducing mostly what is written in the diaries as his only kind of internal conflict. In this way it's closer to documentary than drama and the main players aren't really explained much more than is necessary to watch them on their journey.

The first half of the film is necessarily choppy as the narrative focuses on a number of things in rapid succession: Scott's first expeditions, deciding he wants to conquer the South Pole, gaining funding for that, the various legs of the journey. While there are good moments in these sections it does feel a little laboured, as though they are inserted for the sake of completeness but without real conviction. Once the five men break from the rest of the crew, though, the tension picks up: the final third of the film is engaging and compelling as they reach the South Pole, discover they've been beaten and start the lonely trek back to civilisation. Mills and the other four refrain from over-acting but the inner-emotions of the men are still hinted at. The final moments of the journey are described with subtlety and are all the more hard-hitting for that.

Arguably, the star of this film is the landscape which, I believe, was actually Norway. Thanks to excellent direction, the ice is the villain, the humongous obstacle in the way of the goal. The idea of man versus nature has never seemed so stark.

Scott of the Antarctic is an excellent film but is very pro-Scott. However, don't allow that to put you off; it's worth a watch for the spectacular filming alone, even if the tale wasn't as compelling now as it was just over a hundred years ago.

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