Tuesday, 10 July 2012

The Great Ealing Film Challenge 86: Scott of the Antarctic (1948)

In the numerous celebrations and commentaries around the 100th anniversary of Scott’s expedition in 2012, few mentioned this Ealing hagiography of Captain Scott (John Mills), the studio’s big budget Technicolor epic of Antarctic exploration. Part of Michael Balcon’s belief that Ealing (and the British film industry more widely) should be producing films of great British heroes and events, the film’s simple narrative is visually overshadowed by strong landscape elements, and the (complicated) production history of its Technicolor imagery.

French film critic Andre Bazin dismissed Scott as a ‘boring and ridiculous undertaking... told with an almost pedantic formality’ (Bazin 1967, 157-8) and it is hard to challenge that assessment. After a brief 1904 prologue, the film jumps to 1908 and follows Scott as he gathers together money and men in England, including Bill Wilson (Harold Warrender), ‘Teddy’ Evans (Kenneth More), Taff Evans (James Robertson Justice), Bowers (Reginald Beckwith), and Captain Oates (Derek Bond). There is no real sense of why these men gather together, although dialogue does pay lip service to the spirits of scientific enquiry, adventure and patriotism. Slowly (it is 27 minutes before it leaves England), the film gets its characters to Antarctica, and off on the route to the Pole, now in a race against a Norwegian team. From there, the story treads familiar ground: the trek across the desolate landscape, the problems of the journey, the final five men arriving too late to claim their prize, and then dying on their journey home.

Any attempt to appreciate Scott, however, likely needs to ignore its narrative and thinly drawn characters, and focus instead on the staggering landscapes, images and Technicolor that sit at the heart of the film. Despite his dislike for the film, Bazin had noted the film was ‘a Technicolor masterpiece’ and ‘lavishly and carefully made’ – and that is an assessment that captures the issue at the heart of the film. That is not to say that such elements save the film (it remains too long, and too deferent) but they reveal its scope and ambition, something quite apart from Ealing’s reputation as a safe and restrained studio.

This is, after all, a film that required three cameramen/directors of photography: Osmond Borradaile shot the Antarctic imagery with a Technicolor Monopack camera; Geoffrey Unsworth filmed location images in Norway and Switzerland; and Jack Cardiff, who had the job of stitching those different colour palettes together with his own studio-bound footage. Sometimes that needlework succeeds (some of the Antarctic work, cutting from long and medium location to close studio images is convincing), at others it doesn’t (the ship’s departure features an awkward combination of a studio-bound ship and dockside with location scenes of a pier that doesn’t match in terms of colour), but there is no doubt that the impressive scale of the landscapes function as the film’s main visual spectacle.

Borradaile’s extreme long shots of the Antarctic landscapes, intercut with some of Unsworth’s location scenes on safer European snow slopes (which often feature stand-ins rather than the actual actors), sells the idea of isolation, with tiny groups of men, dogs and sleds lost in a white sea of icy and snow. Such images fuel the narrative themes more than dialogue and plot points, and provide an atmosphere that the studio work struggles to replicate. While the artificiality of the studio-bound Saraband for Dead Lovers (1948) emphasised the melodramatic nature of that film, here the studio artifice works against the power of the realistic imagery provided from the location work. While Cardiff struggled to match the colours, the unsettling yellow sunset tones and grey-green hues of the tent interiors work to undermine the realism that Ealing was obviously striving for.

Away from aesthetic issues, the film is also a film about men, not women. Kathleen Scott (Diana Churchill) is supportive (‘You knew the Antarctic long before you knew me’), Oriana Wilson (Anne Firth) is not, although that is conveyed through Firth’s largely mute performance. But they are two of only four female speaking parts, and all are dismissed within the first half hour. The male performances are a curious mix: Mills is his usual blank slate, perhaps frozen by the pressure of giving any real passion or life to this legendary figure; only James Robertson Justice stands out of the other men who make it to the Pole, offering some depth and humour to the otherwise po-faced characterisations.

At the end of the film, you know little about Scott, his motivations, whether his decisions (trying new machine sleds and ponies instead of relying purely on dogs) were truly the cause of the deaths, or (perhaps the film’s most crucial fault) why a failed expedition to the South Pole is worthy of celebration and memorialising. There is a curious scene early on where a Yorkshire crowd query why Britain should go to the Antarctic at all: like Scott, this Ealing film has no real answer to that question.

[Scott of the Antarctic is available on DVD from Studio Canal UK. See www.studiocanal.co.uk for more details]

Next time, time is running out for The Man in the Sky (1957)...

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