Real footage of Captain Robert Falcon Scott’s tragic attempt to reach the South Pole, as well as some of the first moving pictures taken of Antarctica’s wildlife form a rare and fascinating documentary.
The Dog and Pony Show
Before We Begin: As I did with my review of Roald Amundsen’s South Pole Journey, I will issue a trigger warning. All material related to arctic exploration is pretty intense and neither man nor pony had it easy. People die. Animals die. It’s harsh stuff and it’s harsh in unexpected ways. While I will not be dwelling on these details, there is disturbing material ahead.
The audience that saw The Great White Silence would have been intimately familiar with the history of Captain Robert Falcon Scott and his exploration of the South Pole. Modern viewers may not be so aware of certain names and events so a fair amount of background information must be discussed. Fair warning, this is going to be a pretty deep dive.
Scott’s reputation has been in decline of late but when news of his icy death in the South Pole reached England in 1913, the national mourning was deep and intense. British writers have compared it to the national mourning experienced when Princess Diana died and the tragic fate of Scott and his companions on the Antarctic ice was held up as the sort of noble end that deserved posthumous glory.
In the intervening decades, poor planning, bad decisions and bad weather have been brought to light, debated, debunked and reaffirmed. I am afraid that I am firmly in the Brave Bungler school of thought but that creates a little problem when reviewing The Great White Silence.
The phrase “look at context” has often been abused to mean “don’t say anything is racist or sexist ever even if it was viewed as such in its own time” but I do feel that context, real context is important here. The “It is a far, far better thing” school of heroism has lost its luster these days—most polar enthusiasts I talk to prefer Ernest Shackleton and his against-all-odds survival—and it’s quite probable that to really understand the appeal of Scott, one must be British. That being said, I feel it’s my duty as a reviewer to try to put myself in the shoes of The Great White Silence’s intended audience and view it through a sympathetic lens. Whatever our impression may be of him today (and he still has many enthusiastic defenders) Scott was a bona fide idol to a generation so let’s see if we can understand this admiration in the context of the motion picture.
Whatever your opinion of Scott, there is one fact that is beyond dispute: the man knew his audience. Before departing for the Antarctic in 1910, he secured the services of Herbert Ponting, an experienced photographer who had traveled extensively, particularly throughout East Asia. Ponting was to take still photographs and motion picture footage that Scott would then incorporate into his lectures. (Scott already had a lecture tour booked for his anticipated return to England in 1912.) Such multimedia presentations were wildly popular and a combination of motion pictures and painted slides was seen as particularly fine. (For example, L. Frank Baum toured with a multimedia presentation entitled The Fairylogue and Radio-Plays.) Further, footage was sold in standalone packages for worldwide distribution.
At this point in time, money for a scientific expedition was by no means guaranteed and both films and paid lectures provided much needed income for the explorers. Scott also raised money by subscription and the expedition’s dogs, ponies, tents and even sleeping bags were sponsored by various schools from throughout the British Commonwealth.
To lead a polar exploration team, one had to be part athlete, part daredevil and part snake oil pusher with nerves of steel and a salesman’s gift for gab. Still, expeditions attracted more than their share of enthusiastic volunteers who were caught up in the romance of mapping the planet’s last great frontier.
Scott had been seeking the South Pole for years, it was good for his career and he was genuinely interested in the scientific value of his mission. He was likely also spurred on his new expedition by two factors: first, his much-disliked rival, Shackleton, had gotten within striking distance of the Pole during the 1907-1909 Nimrod Expedition. (Expeditions were generally named after the ship that carried the leader.) Second, Scott had been born in 1868 and knew that his age would soon preclude him from the Pole and the hoped-for promotion that would surely come with it. It was now or never.
Another factor that Scott did not know about was Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen. Amundsen had already had quite an feather in his cap with his successful navigation of the Northwest Passage, one of the major exploration prizes that had killed more than its share of adventurers over the centuries. (Including the Franklin Expedition on the HMS Erebus and Terror.) Now, Amundsen hoped to be the first to the North Pole but rival claims from Peary and Cook made him think twice. The South Pole was still pristine and untouched by controversy. Amundsen quietly rerouted his ship, the Fram, south and then sent Scott his famous telegram: Beg leave to inform you Fram proceeding Antarctic.
Amundsen saw this as a polite challenge, a race between explorers. Scott saw it as impertinent as, in his opinion, nobody should have been allowed on the continent while he was working there. Or even when he wasn’t. Thus began the race to the South Pole.
Scott often claimed that his main goal was scientific research with the attainment of the Pole being more of a cherry atop the science sundae but his diary makes it clear that the Pole was something he wanted above all else. The Great White Silence goes along with the “we are scientists” narrative while simultaneously making everything about the Pole. This have-it-both-ways storyline was and is a core technique of Scott defenders so if things seem contradictory that’s because they are.
Ponting starts The Great White Silence by introducing the tale and assuring viewers of royal approval. The film then shows Scott’s ship, the Terra Nova, departing New Zealand with its cargo of dogs, ponies and other polar supplies. The men sing and dance and cut each other’s hair. Then we get our first glimpse of what awaits them: an iceberg. Ponting does a wonderful job of capturing the scale of the thing as it looms over the deck of the ship. From there, more ice in the water, more icebergs out to sea. We are shown how Ponting captured his more dramatic images: he strapped himself and his camera to a board that hung out over the side of the Terra Nova’s deck.
Once in the Antarctic, the crew unloads and sets up base camp. Then they are allowed to play soccer and have fun with the dogs and ponies brought along on the mission. We also see the pricey motor sledges that Scott purchased for the expedition.
Ponting knew what was what and so we also get lots and lots of wildlife, mostly penguins and seals. Their antics are accompanied by wry title cards explaining what is going on. I am not generally a fan of title-heavy film but Ponting’s warm sense of humor and dad jokes make the title cards a welcome improvement.
Ponting is at his best when photographing the landscape itself. He has quite an eye and his compositions are flawless. Both still and moving pictures of ice caves and glaciers showcase the eerie beauty of Antarctica and he is rightly considered one of the great pioneers of polar photography.
Members of the expedition are showcased as well. Since this film was cut together years after the tragedy that marked the end of the Terra Nova’s mission, Ponting puts special emphasis on the men who accompanied Scott to the Pole: Dr. Edward Wilson (Uncle Bill), Lawrence Oates, Petty Officer Edgar Evans and Henry Bowers (Birdie).
Coincidentally, all of these men except Oates took part in a filmed demonstration of polar camping for the benefit of Ponting’s camera. Scott, Wilson, Bowers and Evans sit inside a tent, prepare a meal, change their socks and show off their reindeer skin sleeping bags. At the time, it would have been a fun and lighthearted showcase of their equipment but considering the fate of the polar party, it takes on a sinister sense of foreboding.
Using maps, still photos, models and footage he shot of practice runs, Ponting recreates Scott’s attempt at the pole. We are, of course, also given the requisite final shot of Scott’s team as they disappear into the snow with their ponies. The rest is familiar history: Amundsen beat Scott to the Pole by five weeks. On the way home, Evans deteriorated and died, possibly due to a hemorrhage caused by a fall; Oates was frostbitten and, according to Scott, sacrificed himself by walking out into a blizzard. “I am just going outside and may be some time.”
Scott, Wilson and Bowers were pinned down by a blizzard eleven miles from the next food depot (called One Ton due to its size) and perished together in their tent. Scott allegedly was the last to die and finally succumbed on March 29, 1912.
Members of Scott’s team set out on a recovery mission, discovered the tent, the bodies and Scott’s diary, along with letters to family. The film concludes with excerpts from Scott’s Message to the Public: “Had we lived, I should have had a tale to tell of the hardihood, endurance, and courage of my companions which would have stirred the heart of every Englishman. These rough notes and our dead bodies must tell the tale.”
Scott also included a plea for their survivors to be cared for and the public was indeed generous when word arrived of the polar team’s fate. Ponting bought back the rights to his footage of the expedition and spent the rest of his life screening it and upgrading it when new technology was introduced. 90° South was the final version created for the talkie market and included narration by Ponting.
The Great White Silence was restored by the BFI for the 100th anniversary of Scott’s departure and it likely has never looked better since its initial release. Ponting was a true artist with his camera and could capture a majestic iceberg like nobody’s business but he also had a warmth in his work, he brought out the personalities of his subjects.
This is ironic given the extreme cold that he faced in order to capture his images. As the footage demonstrates, the thick fur mittens that would have protected his hands from frostbite could not be worn while operating the hand-cranked camera. Other issues included the need to leave the camera outside so that condensation would not form and the glass plates for still photos had to be slowly brought up to temperature lest they crack. Fortunately, Ponting was a professional’s professional and took all challenged in stride, delivering the promised photos and footage and later presenting them with a showman’s flair.
Before starting this review, I had a bit of trouble understanding the appeal of Scott but Ponting makes it clear. In the eyes of his public, Scott’s team was a gang of pals who set out on a great mission and did their darndest. I don’t personally agree with this interpretation but it’s an important component in understanding the appeal Scott held (and still holds in some circles). This also explains the anger directed at Amundsen and the erroneous view that he was like a bullying professional basketball player crushing a group of neighborhood teens on the playground and stealing their trophy. (Scott was a career navy officer and most of his team had military experience so let’s just drop the amateur thing, m’kay?)
“What a lark! What fun! Much science! But when push comes to shove, we have grit!” And that, in a nutshell, was how both Scott and Ponting wanted the expedition to be portrayed. Ponting succeeds in his mission, creating the kind of personalized documentary experience that modern viewers have come to expect from nonfiction.
The Great White Silence is a brilliant example of a silent documentary feature and I thoroughly enjoyed it. The images are beautiful, the pacing is languid but it keeps the audience’s interest and it’s a rare chance to see important figures in exploration.
So, we’ve discussed Scott’s status as a hero in his day. Now we must face some facts, facts that Ponting diplomatically omitted. I’m going to cut to the chase: The demise of Scott’s polar team was a textbook example of death by a thousand cuts. Dozens and dozens of small mistakes, oversights and poor decisions combined to condemn five men to death (and nearly killed three more). Since the decline of the famous explorer’s reputation, there have been numerous attempts to revive it, which has led to the smearing of other reputations. Amundsen is always a popular target but Dr. Edward Atkinson (who took command of base camp) and Lt. Edward Evans (Scott’s second-in-command) have recently been in the crosshairs. It’s funny that in defending an allegedly maligned dead man, Scott’s defenders feel the need to destroy the reputations of… two men named Edward, who are also now dead? Singular but there you have it. The search for a smoking gun that explains Scott’s death will likely continue, running roughshod over members of the expedition and ignoring the fact that Scott was happily shooting himself in the foot the whole time.
Unfortunately, the backlash to the backlash seems to have resulted in the obnoxious behavior of Scott’s defenders (and good lord can they be obnoxious) being conflated with the acts of Scott himself and the attacks against him have been far more personal than necessary. When talking about what went wrong on his journey, some critics of Scott’s planning also find time to take potshots at his manners, morals, intellect, general physique, and method of eating asparagus.
On the other side of the coin, there is also a notion that it is somehow unfair to point out Scott’s mistakes if one has not explored the Antarctic or that comparing Scott and Amundsen is somehow against the… rules of Antarctic blogging? I have to say that I find this belief a bit bewildering. I’ve never been in charge of a sovereign nation’s army but I can sure as heck dissect the Battle of Stalingrad to my heart’s delight and declare that invading Russia is almost always a bad idea (cough, cough, Napoleon) and nobody can stop me. And comparing the British and Norwegian teams is perfectly fair because the comparison is very much apples to apples: same place, same year, same goal. Nobody claims that we are not allowed to compared the Americans and the Soviets during the space race. These arguments all seem to center around the silencing of any criticism of Scott while his defenders simultaneously bash anyone within striking range.
That being said, I do believe that examinations of Scott’s downfall tend to head to polar opposites, pun intended. Either he was a dope and a buffoon and a jerk or a superhuman sweetheart-type man done in by circumstances beyond his control. I am going to dial things back a little and try to stay away from extremes. From what I can tell, Scott’s problems can be classified into four categories, two that were relatively beyond his control and two that were the direct result of his leadership style.
Environment and Common Knowledge: Scott could not control the weather (it was unseasonably cold during his march) and he could not possibly have known about the importance of vitamins because they hadn’t been discovered when he departed for the Pole. Not his fault.
Culture: The expedition was run very much on military lines and that meant that it lacked the feedback from the “lower ranks” who nonetheless had hands-on experience. Scott was also infected with the unhealthy machismo of the era, hiding behind claims of manliness to disguise inefficiency. This was not 100% his fault.
Poor Planning: Amundsen spent the winter before his trek fixing the problems he and his team had noticed in their equipment. They tore apart and restitched their boots, sealed paraffin tins, repacked their sleds (losing 100 lbs. of excess packaging in the process), held a competition to see who could design the best snow goggles and generally worked like crazy to head off any problems before the journey. I’ll go into more detail later but Scott knew about the problems with fuel, ponies, tractors, calories, personnel and other issues but left many of them as they were.
Everything’s going to be all right!
Personality: In addition to a preference for flying by the seat of his pants, Scott allowed petty issues to flair up when they would do the greatest damage. Amundsen had some personnel problems as well but these were resolved before heading out for the Pole.
Dr. George Simpson, a meteorologist who remained at Cape Evans, wrote that “there is little margin, and a few accidents or a spell of bad weather would not only bring failure but very likely disaster.”
(Fifteen years later, Simpson changed his tune and blamed the weather for Scott’s demise.)
Disaster it was, just as Simpson predicted. Unfortunately, some Scott critics have to go one better and use diary entries made in times of extreme stress to prove that he was cruel to his men, most notably the previous suppressed sections of Scott’s diary that describe P.O. Evans (dying, possibly of a head injury or scurvy or both) as “stupid” and “a nuisance” and that Scott was “much disappointed in him.” These were not the only suppressed sections. Scott also seemed obsessed with showing that Shackleton exaggerated his own troubles in the Antarctic and his more pointed barbs were cut for publication.
Arctic exploration is stressful, physically demanding and uncomfortable. Nerves fray under such circumstances and small annoyances that would never have elicited a reaction at home can be magnified. We lash out at others when we stub our toes, is it any wonder that journals and letters got a bit heated? In fact, I would go so far as to say that angry writing about their companions was probably a much-needed stress release for Scott and his team and healthier than throwing an actual fit. Scott would have almost certainly omitted what his family omitted from his published diaries had he lived.
However, I do take into account Scott’s digs at Ernest Shackleton and others not present in the polar party. These jabs were delivered in cold blood and, for the most part, before Scott realized he was in danger. They also reflect opinions expressed by Scott before leaving for the Pole and are therefore fair game.
(I have made liberal use of Race for the South Pole: The Expedition Diaries of Scott and Amundsen, which includes Scott’s unedited diaries, as well as those of Amundsen and Olav Bjaaland. Huntford has led the charge in taking down Scott’s reputation and his asides are rather harsh but the diaries themselves are invaluable. I also recommend the excellent audiobook narrated by Bronson Pinchot.)
One of the most significant edits can be found in Scott’s account of reaching the Pole. In his original notes, Scott writes about discovering that Amundsen’s team has beaten him and “Now the run for home and a desperate struggle to get the news through first. I wonder if we can do it.” The published version omits a significant line and reads as “Now the run for home and a desperate struggle. I wonder if we can do it.” Of course, this changes Scott’s meaning and homecoming goal entirely and makes his situation sound much graver, a true victim of Norwegian cunning. In fact, Scott hoped to salvage the situation somewhat by scooping Amundsen and expressed no doubts as to his team’s chance of survival at this point in his journey. Both The Great White Silence and the 1948 biopic Scott of the Antarctic use this second version, their makers likely believing this was what Scott really wrote.
The “I wonder if we can do it” line also played into the popular narrative of Amundsen’s polar attempt. The view put forth at the time (and one that is still embraced in some circles) is that Scott was done out of his rightful place as King of the Pole by a sneaky “foreigner” and that a noble scientist was outmaneuvered by a vulgar pole-seeker. Feh. Scott was bizarrely possessive of the Antarctic (he also pulled this nonsense with Shackleton, who, by the way, brought a gaggle of scientists with him on the Nimrod expedition) and I am very sorry that the Norwegians didn’t play by the rules that Scott and company made up but give me a break. For what it’s worth, Oates thought Amundsen was perfectly within his rights: “I do not personally see it is underhand to keep your mouth shut.”
Amundsen himself seems to have been taken completely aback by the accusation that he violated some kind of code that conveniently only benefited Scott. “A number of people seem to be indignant over our activities down here—a breach of ‘etiquette’? Are these people mad? Is the question of the Pole exclusively reserved to Scott for solution? I don’t give a hang for these idiots. (Fridtjof) Nansen, as usual, with his calm, clear understanding, has cleared emotions. Oh well, people are crazy.” (You don’t know the half, Roald. The paper leading the charge in the “breach of etiquette” narrative was the Daily Mail. Of course.) As for the rest, yes, I think we have established that there were and are some who actually did think that the Pole was reserved for Scott, including Scott. When Shackleton returned home after his Nimrod adventures, one official was very careful to state that the medal he would be getting would not be as big as the one given to Scott.
Oh well, people are crazy.
Norwegian explorer Fridtjof Nansen, it is worth noting, was Scott’s opposite (polar opposite?) to an even greater degree than Amundsen and freely shared his expertise with both English and Norwegian explorers. Still, the narrative of the sneaky Norwegians and poor Captain Scott has persisted. I feel no need to argue the point because there is nothing to argue. Amundsen had as much right to the Pole as anybody and Scott made liberal use of information gathered during Shackleton’s trailblazing Nimrod expedition so he can hardly claim exclusive rights to anything. Scott’s childish insistence that everybody make way for him is one of the least appealing aspects of his personality.
Finally, we have issues of both writing and optics. Amundsen’s writing (at least as it is translated into English) is matter-of-fact and interesting but Scott’s is far more poetic and includes shameless emotional appeals. Further, optics almost certainly play a role. Scott looks like a kind-hearted-but-remote Edwardian father who learns to express love with some help from Nanny McPhee. Amundsen looks like his next line of dialogue will be “No, Mr. Bond, I expect you to die.” It will be interesting to see how and if the announced Amundsen film will rebalance matters. (On a side note, a redo of the race to the Pole ended in another victory for Norway.)
And so we pick up the thread of Scott’s last expedition. Because no team could carry enough supplies to make it to the Pole, all arctic exploration depended on the pre-laying of supply depots along the way and this is what both Scott and Amundsen busied themselves with initially. After wintering in the Antarctic, it was time for the main event. Scott’s team for the push to the Pole was a confusing mix of men and dogs and motorized snow vehicles and ponies. There was the main polar party (to be determined closer to the Pole) and there were supporting parties who would leave supplies and drop off for a return trip to the base camp at Cape Evans. Because everyone was traveling at different speeds and at different levels of exhaustion, there were different times for departure and considerable time spent waiting for some while others zipped ahead. It sounds like a slow-mo Mario Kart with bonus frostbite.
The dogs, driven by Cecil Meares and Demetri Girev, quickly proved their worth, covering ground that took an entire day of manhauling in just a few hours. Scott had had trouble with dogs on his previous expedition and wasn’t really keen to work with them again. (An arctic dog expert had been engaged to obtain the animals from Russia for the Discovery mission but Scott had not seen fit to hire the man to actually drive them. Scott was squeamish about shooting seals for dog food and fed them biscuits, which resulted in a vitamin deficiency and a lack of fattening, and fish that had rotted in the ship’s hold, which made them sick.) After taking over pulling the sled themselves, the Discovery team felt relieved. Scott wrote: “All day we have been steadily plodding on with the one purpose of covering the miles by our own unaided efforts, and one feels that one would sooner have ten such days than one with the harrowing necessity of driving a worn-out dog team. For the first time we were able to converse freely on the march, and in consequence the time passed much more rapidly.” A poor workman blames his tools.
Scott eventually appreciated the attributes of the dog team on the Terra Nova voyage and ended up keeping them in his party far longer than originally intended to make up for lost time. This may have made sense in the short term but it had significant consequences later.
Meares described constant quarrels between members of the shore party; he quit the expedition and didn’t think much of Scott’s leadership. (Scott apparently tried to tell him how to handle dogs, which would have been pretty rich considering the circumstances.) He was joined in this opinion by Lawrence Oates, who was appalled by the price Scott had paid for the ponies. Oates thought they were too old considering and described them as “a wretched load of crocks.” (Oates had subscribed £1,000 to the expedition so his interest was more than that of a mere Antarctic party member.)
The problems with ponies on the ice are many and obvious. They cannot be fed meat and they cannot be fed one another, no hay or grass grows on the trail to the Pole so all their food has to be hauled with them. Further, while dogs sweat from their tongues, ponies sweat from their bodies much the same way people do, which leaves them susceptible to the cold as their sweat freezes. The ponies were steadily shot and eaten en route with the final slaughter on December 9, 1911.
Scott’s defenders like to point out that he was merely following Shackleton’s lead as the latter had very nearly reached the Pole with ponies. After reading Scott’s unedited diary, I think there was more to it. Scott was locked in an Anything You Can Do I Can Do Better rivalry with Shackleton— at the urging of his men, Scott even held off shooting his first pony until he is past the point where Shackleton shot his. “We have better animals than Shackleton. A better view that Shackleton. Can he bake a pie?” I am firmly convinced that if Shackleton had ridden across Antarctica on a unicycle wearing sequined hot pants, Scott would have shimmied into a pair himself.
(Scott’s behavior toward Shackleton can best be described as petty. He imputed that Shackleton was a weakling and then claimed the only known usable Antarctic landing ground for himself and demanded that Shackleton stay well clear during his Nimrod expedition. Dr. Wilson, who sometimes held Scott back but at other times seemed to act as an enabler for his worst tendencies, backed him to the hilt and demanded that Shackleton stay clear of just about everything Scott so much as spied with his little eye. Shackleton had his flaws as a leader but when push came to shove, he was willing to give up on glory in order to save the lives of his crew. I certainly know whose expedition I would rather join.)
As Diana Preston puts it in A First Rate Tragedy: Robert Falcon Scott and the Race to the South Pole: “Scott did not analyze Shackleton’s experience to identify why he had failed to reach the Pole. Instead he focused on why he got as far as he did. Consequently, Scott’s strategy was simply to add more of the same basic ingredients as Shackleton, in terms of men and equipment, rather than to vary the recipe. Unfortunately, his relations with Shackleton had become too strained to allow him to see Shackleton’s advice direct.” (That is what we in the writing biz call an understatement. Preston is Team Scott but the book is full of these incisive statements that undercut her attempts to make a hero of him once again.)
Scott’s strategy was simply to add more of the same basic ingredients as Shackleton, in terms of men and equipment, rather than to vary the recipe.
Another line of defense for Scott (and attack on Amundsen) that I have seen is “Well, I prefer an explorer who didn’t eat dog!” which is certainly going to leave them open to a shock. Amundsen did indeed factor dog meat into his travel plans but Scott factored in pony meat (ostensibly for the dogs but the men partook as well and rather enjoyed it) and both parties munched on seals. I can’t say that I see a huge difference between eating Rover and eating Twilight Sparkle or Salty the Seal. (Or in the case of Scott’s ponies, Christopher, Snippets and Davy.) This is a case where context must be considered and having fresh meat was an essential ingredient in warding off scurvy. Lacking a friendly local Whole Foods, the expedition teams had to rely on sources that modern people may find disturbing.
(Scott wrote about wanting to pen a book about the ponies and their unique personalities. Oh dear heavens, it would have read like an accidental Gashlycrumb Tinies! “Little Christopher, spunky and wild. We were shocked to find his flavor so mild.” As was always the case where animals were concerned, Scott swung between mawkish sentimentality and utter brutality.)
Critics of Amundsen sometimes point to the way he casually describes killing his dogs for food but, heavens above, have they read Scott on ponies? And the creatures were sponsored and named by schoolchildren. Worst. Class. Project. Ever. (And Scott was almost gleeful at the idea of feisty little Christopher’s demise.) And don’t even ask me anything more about the Discovery dogs. Or the puppies when Scott thought he had too many. Look, I don’t like this any more than you do but when someone starts up with the special pleading, I need to nip it in the bud.
The motorized sledges were absolutely splendid except that they didn’t work and anyway, one was dropped in the drink during unloading. Scott was very worried about the poor motors, fretting that nobody would believe in the technology if they were to fail. Fail they did (never go to Antarctica with a beta test model, especially if naval etiquette precludes taking along the inventor) but Scott needn’t have concerned himself as snowmobiles have done just fine for themselves over the years. That being said, failing to work out the kinks before striking out for the Pole was classic Scott and I’ll leave it at that.
In his diary, Roald Amundsen’s one apprehension about Scott was centered on his use of the motorized sledges. They didn’t have to sleep and did not have the discipline issues of a dog team. Would they be the magic ingredient for success in the Pole? No, not yet anyway.
The various means of transport gave out and the men who had been assigned to them had to switch to manhauling (that is, pulling sleds with no assistance from motor or beast). Four-man teams strapped harnesses to their bodies and heaved sleds piled high with equipment and food, which would have been exhausting, sweat-producing, calorie-burning work.
Scott’s eventual exclusive use of manhauling during the final leg of his trek can be considered another factor in his demise. And to quote noted polar expert Cosmo Castorini*, manhauling “is pretty good, unless something goes wrong. And something always goes wrong.” Helmer Hanssen, who was on Amundsen’s polar team, later stated that Scott and his men “were their own sledge dogs” and he’s not wrong. Pull a plow by hand when oxen are available and that makes you the oxen, which is all very cute but don’t go claiming superiority if the crops aren’t planted in time (but your neighbor’s crops all in the earth are because he used oxen, the cheater).
Of course, some on Scott’s team and even modern people take a different view. Bowers described their polar journey as superior to Amundsen’s because they used “good British manhaulage.” The popular idea that manhauling a sled was somehow more manly makes my eyes roll into the back of my head and, frankly, comes off as less of a philosophy and more of a line of dialogue for the He-Man Woman-Haters Club. (And some modern manhauling enthusiasts have had to be evacuated from the Antarctic with frostbite…) This is the same logic displayed by marketers who feel men cannot possibly use soap unless it is wrapped in Kevlar-printed paper and diet soft drinks need to have explicit No Girls Allowed signs. Roar, grunt, snarl, etc. (I should note that Oates wrote that Amundsen “had his head screwed on right” and that the dogsledding seemed far better than their “wretched manhauling.”)
In any case, self-contradiction pervades once again. Scott was both a macho manly man big boy who pulled sleds by hand AND a bold pioneer for bringing three kinds of transport with him (and ultimately using none) and wishing to use dog sleds of the final leg of the return trip. So, I mean, Scott wasn’t exactly a poster child for manhauling. Sled technology has improved and the Antarctic is no longer so isolated, which has taken much of the risk out of manhauling but Scott had absolutely no margin for error.
Scott’s poor planning is often excused with “Oh, he had to raise funds” or “Oh, he was distracted by that foreign bounder, Amundsen” but that argument is ridiculous. Scott was a veteran polar explorer, he knew that fundraising was always a possibility, he knew that there were other explorers interested in the Pole. It’s like a professional football player complaining that they can’t concentrate with a bunch of people looking at them. It’s part and parcel to the gig. It may not be fair, it may not be ideal but them’s the breaks. (Amundsen’s original goal was the North Pole and he had to engage in his own fundraising. He didn’t have time to fully test some of his equipment before departing but he and his team immediately set about tweaking these items once they arrived at their destination. Further, Amundsen worked hard between gigs, so to speak, training and educating himself.)
The difference between Scott and Amundsen can also be put down to unhealthy machismo. We hear again and again how easy Amundsen had it but I must repeat that he packed up his workload BEFORE he left for the Pole. He lived among the indigenous people of the North and respected them as experts on icy living. He tested out and improved his equipment, packed extra everything and generally worked out every kink he could before setting out. And it’s somehow surprising that his journey was smoother? Just good luck?
As Roald Amundsen put it: “I may say that this is the greatest factor: the way in which the expedition is equipped, the way in which every difficulty is foreseen, and precautions taken for meeting or avoiding it. Victory awaits him who has everything in order, luck, people call it. Defeat is certain for him who has neglected to take the necessary precautions in time, this is called bad luck.”
Again we get the contradictions. Amundsen was simultaneously “just lucky” and also a ruthless polar machine who crushed a dear, sweet little amateur science fair under his sled dogs’ paws.
Scott saw issues with his equipment, men and animals but was bizarrely content to leave some of the major ones as-is. From the inaccurate sledgemeter to the problem of evaporating fuel to issues with footwear, Scott consistently worked on an “it will do” principle and seemed to prefer to fly by the seat of his trousers. His status as “amateur” may have been admired in his day and there is certainly nothing wrong with an impromptu trip, say, to the seaside but not when you are heading to the South Pole with several other lives depending on your leadership. (Again, I must emphasize that he was a captain in a professional military and not some kid exploring the big woods behind grandma’s.)
The sheer sloppiness of Scott’s preparations and equipment choice make claims of a purely scientific mission laughable. Huntford calls attention to the fact that Scott packed only one hypsometer thermometer (say that three times fast!) which was used to measure altitude. It was broken well before Scott reached the pole and he hadn’t packed a spare for this delicate instrument. (Amundsen packed four. Just sayin’.) In the ONE time he decided to bring something extra, Scott also made the decision to take a fourth man (three men plus Scott had been the plan and the rations were laid out with four in mind) in order to provide himself with extra manhauling power as well as a navigator, which his team lacked with Lt. Edward Evans out of the polar party. (More on Lt. Evans in a bit.) Scott’s own navigation skills have been described as rusty. Amundsen had four navigators.
I cannot emphasize enough how annoying this is. Instead of packing an extra hypsometer or two or a sextant in addition to the unwieldy theodolite (don’t ask), Scott left room to pick up
scientific samples rocks. Excuse me, I need to bang my head against a solid object for a spell. I’ll be right back.
I’m apologize if this is all getting very “Marcia, Marcia, Marcia” but the failure to build in a margin for error is a key element in Scott’s demise (it very nearly killed him, Shackleton and Wilson during the Discovery mission) and his strange inattention to certain details illustrates why the “scientific mission” defense is an incongruous fig leaf. Further, claiming that you failed at something you were doing badly because you were also doing another thing badly seems like a rather odd bit of reasoning. “Sorry I burnt dinner but I was also fixing the car and I accidentally cut the brake lines.”
Long story short: Maybe instead of running after penguin eggs, they should have figured out how to keep their paraffin canisters sealed.
I should also mention that Amundsen himself claimed the same mission as Scott: science over reaching any particular destination. In a 1913 interview he stated that, “I do not seek the pole. I may not even reach it. I do not care whether I do. These stories that I am actually to seek the pole are untrue. I am going up into that vicinity only on a scientific expedition, chiefly to study air and ocean currents. If I am close to the pole and conditions are favorable I will go there, not otherwise.” So there you have it. (Sips tea.)
Now let’s back up and take a closer look at the final quintet of explorers. With the Pole in reach, Scott had eight men including himself and only room for four in the final party. The choices were Wilson, Oates, P.O. Edgar Evans, Bowers, Lt. Edward Evans, William Lashly and Tom Crean. (Lashly and Crean had also been with Scott on the Discovery Expedition.)
Scott would be going, of course, and he chose Wilson, Oates and P.O. Evans. In a significant last minute decision, he also claimed Bowers, which meant that the polar party was five instead of four. Lt. Evans, Crean and Lashly were to return to base camp but Scott had set them up for failure.
First, Scott had ordered the erstwhile motor team to dump their skis for reasons I cannot fathom and then he reassigned Bowers, which left him without skis, an extra man on the polar team to feed and house in a tent made for four. Further, the failure of the motorized sleds meant that Lashly and Lt. Evans were already pretty worn out from manhauling. To send the trio back to base camp in this condition and a man down was very nearly a death sentence and almost entirely Scott’s fault. (Lt. Evans also bears responsibility as he refused to eat seal meat, the one thing standing between himself and scurvy.)
I don’t think Scott meant it maliciously but he certainly seems to have been aware of how irresponsible this decision would appear. He performed some serious posterior covering/conscience clearing in his diary as he stated that “their sledge is a mere nothing to them, and thus, no doubt, they will make a quick journey back.” Lt. Evans saw things differently, describing the appropriation of the powerful Bowers as an “injustice” and writing that “Scott took one of my people, Bowers, to make his hauling easier – thus having 5 men to do what I was expected to accomplish with 3.” It’s hard to argue with his point considering what happened during the journey home.
As second-in-command and an ambitious naval officer, Lt. Evans would have obviously hoped and expected to be a member of the final Pole party but he and Scott were not getting along and it is possible that Evans was showing signs of weakening. He was knocked flat by scurvy later in the return journey.
Scott’s leadership was appallingly bad in this instance and while playing mind games in order to choose a team might have worked in other contexts, it created an unnecessary issue with morale that could have been easily avoided. Scott had had an entire depot run and an Antarctic winter to assess and select his team.
(In all fairness, Amundsen had his own personnel issues but they flared up and were worked out in or near base camp and he rearranged his polar party before setting out. He ended up taking fewer men than originally planned, which meant his already generous food depots would be even more plentiful. I do have serious reservations about Amundsen’s treatment of one member of his team and discuss it in my review of Roald Amundsen’s South Pole Journey.)
Lt. Evans grew weaker and weaker during the return journey but he was fortunate in his companions. Lashly and Crean were heroic, no two ways about it. (Wilson and Atkinson had both voted for Lashly to be in the polar party and Atkinson had also advocated for Crean. Scott had chosen P.O. Evans over their objections but Lt. Evans benefitted.) They helped their commanding officer along and dragged him on their sled when his strength gave out. He ordered them to leave him behind but they disobeyed and heaved him along all the same. Unfortunately, Lashly’s foot became frostbitten and it was clear that the team would not make it if they continued as they were. They made the fateful decision to send Tom Crean to walk for eighteen hours in terrible weather to get help. He had no tent, no survival equipment, just some biscuits and chocolate to eat and he made it. Crean met Atkinson, Girev and a dog team, who were able to whisk Lt. Evans and Lashly away for medical attention but this played havoc with Scott’s already messy scheduling.
The question of the fifth man proves controversial. The team did rearrange their food supplies once the decision was made but considering that a lack of calories was such a significant factor in the polar team’s doom, it seems intentionally obtuse to try to claim that the fifth man didn’t make a difference. One defense references Scott’s diary in which he says cooking for five takes much longer than cooking for four. This is supposed to prove there was plenty of food but the entry was made on January 5, just after he had sent Lt. Evans, Crean and Lashly away so it really proves nothing. Further, longer cooking meant more of their precious fuel used up and because somebody neglected to fix the evaporating paraffin containers (cough, cough), it was in short supply and there’s not much firewood to be found at the bottom of the world. Hot meals are a matter of life and death and fuel was also required to melt snow for drinking water, so dehydration was another factor in play. Further, P.O. Evans was a strapping fellow, big and tall, who required more calories to keep going.
After reaching the Pole and finding that Amundsen had been there first, Scott and his team headed back. And just when time was of the essence and P.O. Evans was fading fast, Scott “spent the rest of the day (February 8) geologizing.” He repeated the procedure the next day. Look, rock hunting is great. I love it. Used to do quite a bit myself as a young sprout. HOWEVER, Scott had a sick man and you may recall that his party perished a mere 11 miles from One Ton. He used two days of fine weather to go looking for rocks when speed was the only thing that could have saved him and his companions. This might possibly be the costliest day of geologizing in modern memory. Scott was obviously giving thought to hiding being his old friend science in lieu of victory at the Pole. (He had a keen and sincere personal interest in scientific pursuits but this rock hunting junket cannot possibly be defended given the condition of P.O. Evans, which Scott recorded in detail. Evans died on February 17.)
And now for more contradictions found in defenses of Scott. He simultaneously did not want the Pole at all and was there FOR SCIENCE but was also so disappointed in not attaining it first that the depression killed him or at least slowed him down enough to kill him. OF COURSE Scott wanted the Pole desperately but the culture in which he lived did not allow him to admit it. That doesn’t mean we modern folks should run around proclaiming that his social white lies were true. Prepare for a shock but I think I should also tell you that when people said they were “not at home” back in the day, some of them were totally in the house. Further, disappointment over placing second need not be fatal or nearly all the athletes in the world would be dead.
There has been a question of whether or not Scott’s men suffered from scurvy, beriberi or other nasties and I highly recommend reading Hoosh: Roast Penguin, Scurvy Day and Other Stories of Antarctic Cuisine by Jason C. Anthony. He correctly points out that the symptoms of starvation, scurvy and beriberi might have overlapped and blended. Further Scott, Wilson and Bowers were buried where they died and Evans and Oates were never found, so there is no forensic data to examine. That being said, the unhealing and reopening wounds are very much in keeping with the symptoms of scurvy (which makes it impossible for the body to produce collagen, the stuff that keeps wounds sealed) and Scott’s men had not exactly been bathing in vitamin C even before the push for the Pole.
(By the way, “hoosh” was the name for a particular Antarctic meal, a stew of pemmican that was thickened with crushed biscuits. Probably much nicer and satisfying than simply chewing on the ingredients. Should you wish to give it a shot, here is a recipe.)
The diet at Cape Evans consisted of tinned foods, white bread and while seal meat was on the menu, it was not served every day and it was overcooked. (Vitamin C is highly susceptible to heat.) In contrast, Amundsen’s team enjoyed a nutritious diet of berry preserves, buckwheat hot cakes, brown bread made with fresh yeast and lightly cooked seal meat. These foods provided both vitamin C and essential B vitamins. As Huntford puts it, “Fate was sitting at the dinner table.”
(Incidentally, when Lt. Evans took a turn for the worse, Lashly fed him oatmeal and seal liver, which would have provided an infusion of both vitamin C and thiamine. However, these food items were not present in the depots beyond One Ton.)
Fate was sitting at the dinner table.
Of course, nutrition knowledge was fairly primitive in the 1910s and vitamins were first discovered in 1912, while the Antarctic expedition was underway. (Vitamin C was not isolated until many years later.) However, Scott had firsthand experience with the perils of food shortage during a polar trek and had also had a chance to observe similar issues with Shackleton’s Nimrod expedition. Both Scott and Amundsen’s parties were rationed about 4,500 calories per day (Amundsen increased this to 5,000 on the return journey) but manhauling is hard physical exertion in an already hostile environment and Scott’s team toiled twice as long as Amundsen’s to cover the same distance if one compares the ratio of rest to labor. Anthony compared the exertion to competing in the Tour de France and it has been widely estimated that 6,000 calories per man per day (if not more!) would have been the requirement for such a journey.
The food issues nicely encapsulate my point about Scott’s failure being due to both circumstances beyond his control (scurvy science had recently gone backwards and many in the British navy believed it was food poisoning caused by contaminated canned food) and poor planning (not realizing that more men meant more cooking time, failing to beef up the caloric content of the supplies).
I should also point out that Scott died 11 miles south of the One Ton Depot but 19 miles north of where it was originally supposed to have been placed. (Though considering the terrible condition of the team, it is by no means certain that reaching the depot would have saved them.) The poor performance of the ponies during the initial depot run was part of the reason for this. In general, Scott’s depots seem to have been placed with animal transport in mind, not manhauling. Yet another strange decision in light of the fact that the dogs were always intended to be sent home, the ponies were always intended as dog food and the motor sledges never worked quite right.
As stated before, defenders of Scott continue to try to rehabilitate him, usually by targeting some poor soul in his land party. (Scott himself lays blame on P.O. Evans and Oates in his diary. While I understand his frustrations and take them with a grain of salt considering his dire predicament, I do think it was irresponsible to publish these opinions. Any road, Scott himself had insisted on taking P.O. Evans over Lashly and Crean.) Just about everyone has had a turn in the hot seat but a recent article by Charles S.M. Turney makes a shocking accusation: Lt. Evans killed Scott and his companions.
Lt. Evans doesn’t always come off as an enormously likeable man, from what I can tell, but there quite a jump between being a bit of a stinker and scheming to murder five men in the coldest blood. And using not one but two nefarious plans yet. First, he allegedly stole rations from the depot and second, he allegedly concealed Scott’s verbal orders for a dogsled taxi. Neither allegation holds water.
Allegedly, Lt. Evans greedily took more than his share from the depots during the journey home and he did it with malice aforethought. Before jumping up to condemn Lt. Evans, let’s all remember that the food shortages could have been due to human error, especially since the other polar teams being sent home had access to the depots. (Meares complained about shortages as well.) Either the Evans team or an earlier team may have miscounted the number of biscuits or amount of pemmican. The supplies were packaged in four-man units. Everything would have had to be redivided, three portions for the Evans team, five for the returning Scott team and this was done without any measuring equipment.
Further, the Turney article relies on very selectively edited portions of Scott’s diary (if a quote’s most common punctuation is an ellipsis, ask to see the original) and while Scott definitely needed to resupply at One Ton, the terrible snow conditions and the blizzard (or alleged blizzard) drained his reserves. In fact, the day after Scott’s team discovered that they were short a day’s supply of biscuits, Scott spent two days collecting geological samples. This would indicate that food was short but the shortage was not dire. (This is supported later in Scott’s diary: they were two days from the next depot and had two days of food. Scott did end up short but this was due to difficulty in locating a poorly marked depot, something that he acknowledges was mishandled. Later issues were blamed on P.O. Evans, who was near death and slowing their progress considerably.)
Turney makes no allowance for this and uses journal entries, letters and a catfight between Lt. Evans and fellow Terra Nova Expedition member Apsley Cherry-Garrard to try to establish a grand revenge plot on the part of Lt. Evans. We have already established that Evans was indeed disappointed to not be chosen for the Pole and angry that his team lost a powerful man for its journey home but other expedition members were similarly disappointed or disliked Scott anyway. And, as stated above, it really is unfair to use material written in the Antarctic as there were relatively few other ways to let off steam.
Finally, these accusations of food theft implicate Lashly and Crean. I mean, it’s not like Lt. Evans could have sent them to the shop to buy some cigarettes and then pilfer the depot in their absence. Lashly and Crean would have noticed if Evans was constantly sneaking slabs of pemmican into his vest pocket and to steal enough food to make a difference in Scott’s survival would have required quite a bit of space. These were very close quarters. That means they had to be in on it. They had to be in on the murder of five people. And if they were in on it, why do such a half-hearted job? A few biscuits and some pemmican? Ha! Bury the flags marking the depots and thus do the job properly and in an unprovable manner. Antarctica is a murderer’s paradise and THIS was the plan? (Yes, I have read far too many mystery novels.)
Evans was very ill on his return to camp but Turney seems to indicate that he was faking or at least exaggerating his illness so that he could “forget” Scott’s verbal orders for a relief party to meet him further south, at the foot of Beardmore Glacier. (The question of whether these orders were issued has been a subject of debate, like everything else.) His evidence is that Evans asked fellow expedition member Tryggve Gran, of whom he was rather fond, to go to New Zealand with him during this illness. Isn’t he too articulate for a “sick” man?
I think I can lend a hand here. I’ve been sick a lot and here is a review I wrote while suffering from pneumonia, plus assorted other infections. It’s pretty darn articulate if I do say so myself but I couldn’t work, I could barely engage in meaningful conversation. I certainly could not have been trusted to pass on verbal instructions. When people are severely ill, they have lucid moments that they sometimes use for incredibly weird things (like inviting other people to New Zealand) and then fall back into a stupor. Turney’s article is a very malicious reading of Lt. Evans’s behavior especially after the bizarre food stealing accusations.
Long story short, everyone was exhausted, ill and doing jobs for which they were not prepared. It was a recipe for confusion.
Atkinson is also blamed for Scott’s death, though not accused of outright murder so there’s that. To be fair, he seems pretty indecisive all around. However, this is a case of Scott’s lack of communication, sentimentality, constant reorganization and seat of his pants planning came back and bit him right in those same pants. I have been reading book after book after book on the expedition and I still can’t fathom what his plan was. (And I’m not suffering from vitamin deficiency and frostbite.) I am not surprised that his men had similar trouble.
They’ve been trotted out as THE smoking gun against Atkinson lately but the October 20, 1911 orders that Scott issued before departure were rather vague and depended on nothing going wrong with any of the returning teams. The section of his orders usually quoted is “you should aim at meeting the returning party about March 1 in Latitude 82 or 82.30. If you are then in a position to advance a few short marches or “mark time” for five or six days on food brought, or ponies killed, you should have a good chance of affecting your object.”
The first part of the letter states:
“At some time during this month or early in January you should make your second journey to One Ton Camp and leave there:
5 units X.S. ration.
3 cases of biscuit.
5 gallons of oil.
As much dog food as you can conveniently carry (for third journey)”
The written orders end with “You will of course understand that whilst the object of your third journey is important, that of the second is vital. At all hazards three X.S. units of provision must be got to One Ton Camp by the date named, and if the dogs are unable to perform this service, a man party must be organised.” This would seem to indicate that resupply rather than relief was the primary objective of these two missions. Further, the lack of specifics regarding the dog food in contrast to the very specific instructions regarding the oil and rations certainly makes it seem like an afterthought.
Apsley Cherry-Garrard was the person who ended up taking the dogs to the One Ton depot but he did not venture beyond it. Atkinson is sometimes blamed for this but as a doctor, he put the health of the severely ill Lt. Evans over the “if you can manage it” of the written orders. Cherry-Garrard was one of the youngest and least experienced members of the expedition, knowing little of dogs or navigation, and was signed on because Scott and Wilson (mostly Wilson) were touched by his generous donation to the mission after his application was initially rejected. I mean, that’s all very well but maybe that Amundsen guy was onto something with his team of skiing-navigating-dogsledding chaps. (Again, this also shows that Wilson and Scott were likely charming BFFs but Wilson’s tendency to support and encourage some of Scott’s worst ideas makes me think that he would have done better to stay home.)
So, Cherry-Garrard did not venture south beyond the depot. He might have met Scott and his party (who were 60 miles away) if he had set out with the dogs but as there was a shortage of dog food in the depot (and the English did not view the dogs as a source of food for the other dogs), making a further trek ill-advised. According to Turney’s own research, the dog food had been too heavy to manhaul along with the other supplies. Scott had kept the dogs on his polar trek two days longer than originally planned and sent them home with what Meares found to be inadequate rations.
George Simpson, the mission’s meteorologist, had expected the dogs back mid-December and once he received word that the dogs would be delayed, he sent a manhauling party instead per Scott’s instructions, so there far less the men could “conveniently carry”. Meares and the dogs did not arrive back until January 5. (In fact, Scott had sent word to Simpson in late November that “I am carrying the dog-teams farther than I intended at first—the teams may be late returning, unfit for further work or non-existent” and reminded him that the supplies would have to get out in any case.)
The same cold weather that hit Scott had hit Cherry-Garrard and he opted to stay put. He couldn’t have gone to Beardmore with the dogs even if he had been ordered to. Scott’s giving verbal amended orders to Lt. Evans for the dog teams to meet the polar party further south leads to further confusion. As Cherry-Garrard later put it, the situation bristles with “ifs” but we shall never really know. In any case, Gran seems to have been one of the very few who thought Scott’s team was in trouble at the time; both Cherry-Garrard and Atkinson believed they were on schedule.
(There are complaints that physicist Charles Wright should have gone instead of Cherry-Garrard but he could not be spared from his scientific duties. I mean, I thought the Terra Nova Expedition’s goals were pure and scientific, unlike that vulgar pole-seeker Amundsen, so this was clearly the correct and proper decision, right? Right?)
Conclusion: Neither Scott’s confirmed written orders nor his verbal orders to Evans are the smoking guns that some historians think they are because the dogs were not available for the second depot run due to Scott’s decision to take them further south and inability to consider any possible delays in their return. Further, Scott’s orders were a contradictory mishmash that people would have trouble obeying under the best of circumstances.
Weather is another hotly debated topic with some anti-Scott historians claiming that he faked his weather reports. Climate scientist Susan Solomon entered the fray with The Coldest March. She is generally pro-Scott (she dismisses Amundsen as “lucky” which is always a dead giveaway as to where one’s prejudices lie) and makes a good case that the team did indeed march in unseasonably cold weather but Solomon’s conclusion at the end of the book is pretty shocking: the climate data does not match Scott’s description of the blizzard. Specifically, per science writer Robert Lee Hotz: “Detailed weather readings taken in March 1912 by men stationed downwind 100 miles from the spot where Scott and his men were supposedly trapped–squarely in the path of any storm–show not the slightest trace of a blizzard, only a light breeze and relatively warm temperatures.”
Throughout his diary, Scott is obsessed with Shackleton exaggerating weather conditions, snow depth, etc. I don’t think it really fits his personality to start faking weather readings and blizzards. But did Bowers and Wilson lie about the storm so that the injured Scott, who was suffering from a frozen foot, would not order them to leave him and save themselves? That seems a little more likely if there was indeed fine weather. I don’t think that Scott and his men died of slow-motion suicide and we cannot know what injuries, exhaustion, dehydration, frostbite, malnourishment, the possible use of morphine to ease pain and the lack of food had done to the three remaining explorers’ psyches, not to mention the deaths of P.O. Evans and Oates. I am not convinced that the team’s inactivity during their final week was due to any conscious decision.
(On March 11, Scott had “practically ordered” Wilson to give every member of the party enough morphine for suicide. The only people who know the real story are dead but given the pragmatic nature of Oates, I have my own opinions on the matter. Bowers and Wilson were both morally opposed to suicide and it is highly unlikely that they made use of the drugs.)
In any case, the possibility of poor weather should have been factored in by Scott. (The temperature was incredibly cold but, as I keep emphasizing, Scott left himself no margin for error in food or fuel.) Amundsen’s efficient strike for the Pole kept him out of the worst of the cold and, by coincidence, his length of time away from base camp and his cook’s cloudberry jam was almost exactly the maximum time a person can survive vitamin C deprivation without starting to show scurvy symptoms. Scott dawdled with two unseen dangers hovering above him and while, as I said before, one cannot blame him for not knowing about vitamin C, he seemed to treat the whole thing like a field trip. Even if Amundsen had never set ski on Antarctica, Scott still had a race on his hands; he just didn’t realize it until it was too late.
Scott’s story can be summed up as Death by a Thousand Cuts at the Bottom of the World. Whether or not you view him as a hero is, of course, entirely up to you but the overzealous defense of Scott that results in the maligning of perfectly innocent members of his party is unacceptable. Ultimately, Scott was in command and he paid the price along with four (and very nearly seven) of his companions. He remains a controversial figure and The Great White Silence is an opportunity to see him right up to his fateful journey south. It is very much a product of its time, a celebration of the alleged amateur status of the Terra Nova land party and a tribute to Scott the hero. Reexamination was half a century away.
Still, the artistry of the film and the witty title cards make it an excellent example of the silent documentary and I highly recommend it to anyone interested in the Antarctic (and would you have read this far if you weren’t?) and to fans of extreme filming conditions.
Where can I see it?
Released on DVD and Bluray by the BFI. I am usually okay about modern scores but find the one included in the release to be a bit much. It’s distracting and attempts to take over the narrative.
Captain Scott’s fame was assured not only by his writings but by the cinematic portrayals of him in a favorable light. The Great White Silence accomplished this but the most famous movie version of Scott is probably the 1948 biopic Scott of the Antarctic. The picture combines high production values with a likable cast to create a relatively rosy view of the Terra Nova land party.
Since we’ve gone over the events of the expedition rather intensely, I won’t be including a plot synopsis. If you know history, you know the story. Scott came, he saw, he died.
The film could hardly have been cast better. John Mills not only resembles Scott but he also projects the gentlemanly, cheery manner and can-do spirits that was the secret to the man’s appeal. (At least in the eyes of the public. Reality was far more complicated, as we have established.) Harold Warrender is suitably serene as Wilson, Reginald Beckwith is a firecracker as Bowers. We even get to see a baby Christopher Lee in a small role as Bernard Day, who was part of Scott’s land party.
Using genuine footage of Antarctica, studio sets and location filming in Scandinavia, the cinematography makes liberal use of the work of Herbert Ponting in creating the icy landscape. (The film includes a nod to Ponting, showing him grinding away on his camera as the polar team departs.) It’s an absolute stunner and worth seeing for the cinematography and production design alone.
The music by Ralph Vaughan Williams is of equally high quality, a little epic, a little dark, a little mysterious. Vaughan Williams later arranged it as Sinfonia Antarctica and Trekkies will be particularly interested in it as it was a major influence on the Star Trek movie sound.
So, we have fine acting, fine music and fine cinematography. What about the history? I should note that I think it’s missing the point of a movie to sit around picking at little inaccuracies. Biopics are particularly challenging because the filmmaker has to strike a balance between being faithful to the real people involved and also creating an interesting film. On that score, I think Scott of the Antarctic does fine.
It’s definitely pro-Scott, it could hardly be otherwise with so many of the Terra Nova survivors and their families still alive. However, the film does hint at Scott’s indecisiveness and problems with organizing the expedition. Certain events are telescoped and the whole thing is given a bit of polishing so that any personnel issues are buffed out.
The cultural chauvinism is a bit harder to take. At one point, Scott tells Wilson that he thinks an Englishman should be the first to the Pole, a dig not only at Amundsen but also at Shackleton, who was Irish. The film also falls down in its portrayal of Fridtjof Nansen, who we know was both an explorer and a humanitarian. Scott of the Antarctic paints him as a bizarre, single-minded dog fancier.
“I say, Nansen, how shall I get to the Antarctic?”
“But I was thinking—”
“But I don’t want to eat my—”
“Too bad. Dogs.”
“To change the subject, where do you send your children to school?”
“We don’t, we just send them out to play with the dogs.”
In fact, Amundsen learned much about dog handling from indigenous peoples and we’ve already had the dog-eating/pony-eating discussion. Scott of the Antarctic, continuing its practice of quiet omission, does not include Scott’s rather cold descriptions of killing the ponies and the relish with which they were eaten. It’s all tears and a pile of bridles on the ground in the film. (Whether or not you shed a tear for an animal, it’s just as dead.) There is an offhand mention of pony meat and nothing more.
If there is a real criticism that can be leveled at the film, it is that it is too smooth, too slick. It doesn’t quite have the ring of truth at all times. I don’t blame the actors or even the screenwriters as they certainly would have had their hands somewhat tied by a threat of libel suits should anything go awry. As a result, we have a group of almost Stepford Explorers who manhaul and get rejected for Pole service with grins on their faces.
The end of the film with Scott, Wilson and Bowers pinned down in their tent is genuinely moving but it also left me a bit depressed. (In order to cure this, I watched John Mills and Charles Laughton in Hobson’s Choice and I recommend the same prescription for anyone.) I guess it all comes down to the fact that, when push comes to shove in Antarctica, I prefer a live donkey to a dead lion. However, from a technical standpoint Scott of the Antarctic is just about as flawless a picture as was ever released in the 1940s. As a narrative… Well, it’s hardly standalone and relies on what would have been common knowledge to its audience in order to tell its tale. Modern viewers may not grasp the significance of certain scenes without additional research.
Scott of the Antarctic is valuable as a product of its time and its worth seeing for any fans of classic color epics. Some describe the film as an “adventure” picture but it is really a rather polite character study and I think it will be much more enjoyable if viewed with that fact in mind. It’s not quite my cup of hoosh but I appreciate the care with which it was constructed and it makes a perfect double feature with The Great White Silence.
Availability: Released on DVD and Bluray.
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