This celluloid piece of tosh purports to be the story of Robert Scott
's ill-fated 1911 expedition
to the South Pole
. Apologists and this film
tell it like bad weather
, bad luck
, the gods, and Roald Amundsen
(who reached the South Pole before him) all connived against Scott; but the journey turned into a fiasco
largely because of bad
planning and mismanagement
. And maybe amateurism
had something to do with it too.
Early on, Scott discusses the possibility of beating Amundsen in the quest to reach the South Pole, and says, "I think an Englishman should get there first"; and this paves the way for many expressions of that peculiarly-English fondness for amateurism and sentimental qualities which allows Dunkirk to be considered a sort of victory, the way one plays the game to be valued above winning, and Scott to become a hero over the more professional (and Norwegian) Amundsen. A bit later, Scott visits veteran explorer Fridtjof Nansen, who advises him to use dogs to haul the sledges. Scott replies diffidently (as if explaining something rather obvious) that Englishmen consider dogs to be their friends (rather than beasts of burden), and chooses horses and motor sledges. In the Antarctic, Scott, having after all taken some dogs along as well, says (if my disbelieving ears heard correctly) that the expedition members will do most of the sledge-pulling as he won't have the dogs do more than they (their human masters) themselves would be prepared to. (As any fule kno, the motor sledges broke down, the horses couldn't bear the cold and were shot and fed to the dogs, and then Scott decided to leave the dogs behind and travel the final stage to the Pole on foot. One can only imagine his chagrin--'imagine' is the word, as his stone-faced stare gives nothing away--when he discovers Amundsen, Nansen's protégé, has beaten him to the Pole with the help of dog-drawn sledges.)
The film is filled with elements that lend the English expedition the ambience of a boys' school, with Scott's fellow explorers as jolly Fourth Form lads and he as their admired Captain of Sports or a popular schoolmaster: at one point Scott congratulates a few of his men with a hearty "Well done lads, first-class job." Even in a flimsy tent in the middle of a blizzard, Scott's fellow explorers address him as "Sir", while he calls them by their surnames or schoolboy-type nicknames. And when the team hears that Amundsen has changed his mind and is heading for the South Pole (thus turning the situation into a race), one of them exclaims, "I say, this is a bit thick", another adds, "It's not very sporting, I must say", and Scott himself bursts outs with, "The Antarctic's a big enough thing to be up against without this fellow bunging in as well". One gets the impression the unsportsmanlike Amundsen was not playing the game in not leaving the South Pole alone and letting it be discovered by the English for the British Empire.
John Mills portrays Scott, and he and the rest of the cast employ the method of acting whereby the characters, in times of emotion, stiffen their upper lips and stare into space silently while concealing the feelings stirring in their manly bosoms. An excellent example of this is displayed by Mills and his co-stars in the scene where the noble Captain Oates, pushed beyond his limit, utters his famous understatement "I'm just going outside. I may be away some time," and commits suicide by leaving the tent and wandering into a snowstorm.
In addition to these manifestations of Englishness, all working-class characters have mindlessly-chirpy regional accents; while the middle/upper classes speak with the distorted vowels of Oxbridge/BBC Received Pronunciation that renders 'that' as 'thyat', 'house' as 'hice' and 'thank you' as 'thenk you', and which makes 1930s English movies such an aurally-excruciating experience. One wouldn't expect to find it in a film made in 1948, but there it is.
Beryl Bainbridge's 1993 novel, "The Birthday Boys", also tells the story of the 1911 expedition, but more vividly and with greater attention to the facts. Perhaps "Scott of the Antarctic" couldn't do this because it was made while members of the Great Man's family were still alive.
One wonders whether the film was secretly meant as a satire of those values which England holds most dear, but with the presence of everyman actor John Mills, Diana Churchill (Winston's daughter) as Scott's wife, the stirring music of Vaughan Williams, and the bathos of the ending, one can hardly hope so for long.