Scott of the Antarctic Review

“The hardihood, endurance and courage of my companions which would have stirred the heart of every Englishman”

The above quote is taken from the final words spoken by John Mills in Scott of the Antarctic, a film in which he plays Captain Scott, the famed explorer who reached the south pole, yet was unable to return home and died an untimely death. What’s interesting about this quotation is the way in which it so succinctly sums up not only the film, but also the general view on British cinema of the time and the thoughts of producer Michael Balcon, then head of Ealing Studios.

Yes, Scott of the Antarctic is one of those quintessential British films; a film which is forever associated with Bank Holiday Mondays and one which could never have been made in the quite the same way anywhere else in the world. Indeed, Balcon had a view of the films he was making as the being the essence of “Britishness”, yet they were this to such a degree they rarely delved into such issues as politics, and always displayed a remarkable good taste. As a result the film is regularly lumped in with such stiff upper lip wartime adventures as The Colditz Story and The Dam Busters, and that venerable Kenneth More starrer Genevieve, to form a collection of films which define British filmmaking. Yet any collection of this sort neglects so many more adventurous works (works by directors ranging from Len Lye to Donald Cammell), and simply consists of a few solid, though unremarkable pictures.

And this is exactly what Scott of the Antarctic is: solid and unremarkable. The film is ably directed by Charles Frend, yet displays so little in the way of a signature that it could have been make by anybody (even, God forbid, Lewis Gilbert). Indeed, Frend’s filmography consists mainly of films which could be described in the same. Of course, there is the presence of a masterpiece or two (The Cruel Sea and perhaps San Demetrio, London), though for the most part his directorial career consisted of the likes of Johnny Frenchman and The Big Blockade; perfectly watchable films, though ones which don’t stand comparison with the works of Ealing’s maverick directors. Indeed, one wonders what the results would have been had Scott of the Antarctic been directed by Alexander Mackendrick perhaps, or Robert Hamer during his prime, though sadly the workmanlike talents of Frend were employed and signs of life must be looked for elsewhere.

Thankfully, Scott of the Antarctic has two major selling points. It’s first is fine score by Vaughan Williams. With the dialogue often limited to the stiff upper lip voice-over of John Mills as he reads out sections of his journal, the musical accompaniment provides real drama to the on-screen heroics. Secondly, the film gains immeasurably from Jack Cardiff’s splendid technicolor photography. An equal to his stunning work for the Archers from the same time (A Matter of Life and Death, Black Narcissus, The Red Shoes), the cinematography almost creates the documentary realism the filmmakers’ aspire to despite their use of studio backdrops. Indeed one wishes that John Mills and company had been filmed on location, as film would have gained a certain frisson with Cardiff’s input.

In fact one wishes that John Mills and company had been replaced with a number of more interesting actors. Of course this isn’t meant as an insult to John Mills, Kenneth More or James Robertson Justice; it’s simply that when a film such as Scott of the Antarctic is so damned straight-laced, one hopes a little excitement will result from the casting, and the likes of Mills, More and Justice rarely provide such thrills, despite being consummate professionals. Eagle-eyed readers may have spotted Christopher Lee in the cast list, though his role is a tiny one and passes by almost unnoticed; a pity as a larger role for the actor, alongside perhaps Alec Guinness and Marius Goring would have been hugely beneficial, both for the film and the audience.

And yet, another quote:

“...I defy anyone to watch Genevieve and not feel full of Sunday lunch...”

As critic Andy Medhurst quite succinctly puts it, these solid, unremarkable British films (of which, perhaps, Scott of the Antarctic is king) are now part of the British consciousness whether we like it or not. And whilst I would much prefer a list of the public’s favourite films to include A Canterbury Tale, Witchfinder General, Performance, The 39 Steps and The Quatermass Xperiment rather than any of the films I’ve mentioned above, there is still (despite myself) a great, if undemanding, enjoyment to be had from these pictures. As said, they’re solid.

The Disc

As with the other titles present in Warner Bros’ ‘Ealing Classics’ box set, Scott of the Antarctic is completely devoid of extra, though the presentation isn’t too bad. Jack Cardiff’s photography looks, for the most part, fine, with only the long shots and second unit footage displaying any discernible damage. There is however a green tint present throughout owing to the print having faded over the years, and one would have expected a film as loved by audiences today as it was in 1948 to have been restored to some extent.

The sound, on the other hand, is remarkably clear. Presented in its original mono (spread over the front two speakers), neither hiss nor audio dropouts are apparent.

This disc is only available as part of the Ealing Classics DVD Collection box set. The other titles featured are Dead of Night, Nicholas Nickleby and Went the Day Well?.

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