Robert Scott seemed to epitomize a certain kind of English gentleman-explorer: Brave, honorable, a natural leader of men, and pig-headed.
In Scott of the Antarctic, Scott (John Mills) leads his team in 1910-11 to try to be the first to reach the South Pole (in an unspoken race to beat Roald Amundsen from Norway). With four men, Scott reaches the South Pole, but after Amundsen. On their return from the Pole they die along the way. Scott and his last two men die huddled in a small tent only 11 miles from their depot, which had food and fuel. They freeze to death, exhausted, with frostbite and almost no food, amidst a horrendous snowstorm.
The overwhelming impression left by this movie is how Scott’s upbringing and English amateurism – and some bad luck -- probably condemned him from the start. Amundsen, for instance, chose to use mainly dogs to haul supplies. The dogs were tough and loved to haul. This would conserve his team’s strength. They’d eat the dogs if necessary. Scott decided to rely on motorized sledges, which meant he’d have to haul fuel, on ponies that died, on a few dogs which they didn’t plan to eat and on his men hauling the sleds themselves. It is this insouciant, foolish bravery, this gentleman’s code of amateur honor, this belief in upright English behavior in the face of great adversity, that makes one wonder how the English have survived so many crises. Two years after Scott, the last of his team, froze to death on or about March 29, 1912, brave men began charging machine guns. It took the English years to learn that this wasn’t bravery, just pointless death.
John Mills does a masterful job as Scott, whether a confident, ambitious Englishman at home or a brave leader of men in adversity. The movie was filmed in 1948 when an exhausted Britain needed heroes. Seeing the movie now and knowing of some poor decisions by Scott which have come to light, the gilt has tarnished on the icon. I might want to be led by a man with Scott’s character, but, please, not Scott himself.
The movie, in Technicolor, is a cold, grey slog once Scott moves south. His team is made up of some first class actors, including Derek Bond, Reginald Beckwith, James Robertson Justice, John Gregson and Kenneth More.
Scott’s Message to the Public, written while he was freezing to death, included these words, “We took risks, we knew we took them; things have come out against us, and therefore we have no cause for complaint, but bow to the will of Providence, determined still to do our best to the last ... 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…”