Scott of the Antarctic – Review ***

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Before humankind worried itself with conquering outer space, and before World War I kinda got on the way of noble scientific expeditions that weren’t military related, there were men determined to conquer, once and for all, the last unmapped regions of our World. One of them, Captain Scott, despite failing to reach the South Pole before Norwegian Amundsen, would become a tragic, romanticised hero that would forever be glorified (and sometimes heavily demeaned) in many books and films. One of these films, Scott of the Antarctic, has now been restored to 2K from its original three-strip negative, and can be enjoyed in all its epicness in Blu-ray and DVD.

Based on the Antarctic expeditions of Captain Scott between 1906 and 1912, with most of its duration dedicated to his last, fatal trip for the South Pole, Scott of the Antarctic was directed by former editor Charles Frend for Ealing Studios and premiered in 1948, having been nominated for a BAFTA for Best British Film that year. With John Mills as Captain Scott, an original soundtrack by Ralph Vaughn Williams (who later would make it his Sinfonia Antartica), and cinematography by the great Jack Cardiff, Scott of the Antarctic is an epic studio film, and though it lacks the impressiveness and strength of, for example, David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia, it still remains a great achievement and, despite its age, a treat for the eyes.

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After a slow start, and as we adapt to the very dated pace and performance style, the film picks up as our hero and his companions sail to Antarctica, only to be faced by ever-growing obstacles, from sudden competition with Amundsen to Nature itself. Filmed in studios, on location in Norway and using B-roll from Antarctica to impress some realism on the narrative, Scott of the Antarctic pays close attention to detail, using actual artefacts from the expedition (lent by the British Museum) and dialogue provided by Scott’s widow. Obviously, as a late 40s British film, it paints a highly idealised portrait of Scott, particularly in direct opposition to Amundsen. The Norwegian is cruel enough to use dogs up until the end as long as he reaches the Pole first, whereas the British captain prefers human power out of respect for his four-legged friends, and cares mostly about scientific discovery.

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Of course, this is a somewhat black and white interpretation. Recent scholars claim Captain Scott was, first and foremost, a foolish idiot – bad planning, taking an extra man to the Pole when rations didn’t allow it, etc. But from this film, closely based on the diaries of the man himself, you can see that any explorer back then was kind of a fool, and if there’s a right and a wrong way of being a fool, Captain Scott was the right kind. It is, after all, a celebration of Britishness – even hiding an injury from your leader is treated as an heroic act (though in hindsight was enough to doom the whole expedition) And heroic is the word that crosses our minds when the same man leaves the tent and his companions to die alone in the storm. As tension builds up towards the inevitable tragedy, and we reach the last breathtaking 45 minutes, you’ll turn on your heaters and reach for your coats, as ice claims the life of the explorers, only 11 miles away from salvation. This is pure tension, with no car chases or explosions – just Humanity pushed to its limits by Nature itself.

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It may not be as dramatic or pacey as a Roland Emmerich film (even the dogs are killed off screen, and no frozen corpses are present) but Scott of the Antarctic still proves itself to be a great introduction to Scott’s life and, in this brilliant new restoration, a cinephile’s delight. The Blu-ray edition also comes with some excellent extra material, including interviews with Sir Ranulph Fiennes and Sir Andrew Davies, featurettes on Jack Cardiff’s process and the restoration, and mute making off footage, as well as a booklet and on set stills.

Scott of the Antarctic is available in fully restored 2k on Blu-ray and DVD from 6th June, courtesy of StudioCanal.

Sara is originally from Coimbra, Portugal, where she studied Film Studies before moving to London to enrol in film school. Having made her first short film about her neighbour's chickens when she was 9 (a dystopian sci-fi, still her favourite genre), she is now a London-based film director and editor, and also a writer for the Portuguese Take Magazine. She is a huge fan of Lars Von Trier, Krysztof Kiéslowski, and David Lean.