Scott of the Antarctic (film)

Scott of the Antarctic is a British 1948 Technicolor film which depicts Robert Falcon Scott's ill-fated Terra Nova Expedition and his attempt to be the first to reach the South Pole in Antarctica. John Mills played Scott, with a supporting cast which included James Robertson Justice, Derek Bond, Kenneth More, John Gregson, Barry Letts and Christopher Lee.

Scott of the Antarctic
Scott of the Antarctic film poster.jpg
Original cinema poster
Directed byCharles Frend
Produced byMichael Balcon
Written byWalter Meade
Ivor Montagu
Mary Hayley Bell
StarringJohn Mills
James Robertson Justice
Barry Letts
Music byRalph Vaughan Williams
Distributed byGDF (UK)
Release date
  • 29 November 1948 (1948-11-29) (UK)
Running time
111 min.
CountryUnited Kingdom

Produced by Ealing Studios, the film was directed by Charles Frend and largely shot at the studios, with some landscape and glacier exteriors shot in the Swiss Alps and in Norway;[1] no actual scenes were made in Antarctica, though some pre-war stock footage from Graham Land may have been used. The film was made in Technicolor. The script was by Ivor Montagu, Walter Meade and the novelist Mary Hayley Bell, Mills' wife. The film is also known for its score by Ralph Vaughan Williams that was later reworked into his Sinfonia antartica.

The film is largely faithful to the real events of the ill-fated polar trek, with emphasis on the stoic character of Scott and the hostility of the Antarctic environment.


Captain Scott is given the men, but not the funds, to go on a second expedition to the Antarctic. As his wife works on a bust of him, she tells him that she's "not the least jealous" that he's going to the Antarctic again. The wife of Dr. E. A. Wilson, whom Scott hopes to recruit, is much less enthusiastic, but Wilson agrees to go on condition it is a scientific expedition. Scott also visits Fridtjof Nansen, who insists that a polar expedition must use only dogs, not machines or horses. Scott goes on a fundraising campaign, with mixed results, finding scepticism among Liverpool businessmen, but enthusiasm among schoolchildren who fund the sledge dogs. With the help of a government grant he finally manages to raise enough money to finance the expedition.

After a stop in New Zealand, the ship sets sail for Antarctica. Once there, a camp is set up at the coast, and a small contingent of men, ponies and dogs begins the trek towards the pole. About halfway, the ponies are shot and some of the men are sent back with the dogs. At the three quarter mark, Scott selects the five-man team to make the push to the pole. They reach the pole only to find the Norwegian flag already planted there and a letter from Roald Amundsen asking Scott to deliver it to the King of Norway.

Hugely disappointed, Scott's team begins the long journey back. When reaching the mountains bordering the polar plateau, Wilson shows the men some sea plant and tree fossils he has found, also a piece of coal, to Scott's satisfaction, proving that the Antarctic must have been a warm place once, and opening economic possibilities. The perceived lack of such opportunities had been one criticism leveled at Scott while fundraising. Nevertheless, Scott is increasingly concerned about the health of two of his men: Evans, who has a serious cut on his hand, and Oates, whose foot is appallingly frostbitten. Evans eventually dies and is buried under the snow. Realising that his condition is slowing the team down, Oates sacrifices himself by walking out of the tent into a blizzard to his death after saying "I'm just going outside and may be away some time." Finally, just 11 miles short of a supply depot, the rest of the team dies in their tent after being trapped by a blizzard, with Scott writing the famous "I do not regret this journey…" entry in his diary.

Months later, a search party discovers the tent and the bodies. Scott's diary is also recovered, allowing the members to learn of the polar party's fate. The film ends with the sight of a large wooden cross with the five names of the dead inscribed on it as well as the quote : "To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield." (A line from the poem "Ulysses", by the Victorian era poet Alfred, Lord Tennyson.)




Towards the end of the war, Michael Balcon of Ealing Studios, was keen to "carry on the tradition that made British documentary film preeminent during the war. These were the days when we were inspired by the heroic deeds typical of British greatness."[2]

In 1944, Charles Frend and Sidney Cole pitched the idea of a film about the Scott expedition. Balcon was interested, so they wrote up a story treatment which Balcon approved. Ealing secured co-operation from Scott's widow (who would die in 1947).[2][3][4] Walter Meade wrote the first draft.[5][6]

In 1947 it was announced that John Mills, then one of the biggest stars in Britain, would play the title role.[7][8]

"This is the most responsible thing I have done in films," said Mills. "I was only about four when the tragedy happened, but Scott has always been one of my heroes and it's jolly satisfying to feel that the job of helping to bring the great story of British enterprise and grit to the screen has fallen to me."[2]

Three years' research was done for the film. Cameraman Osmond Baradaile spent six months in 1946-47 shooting background footage in the Antarctic at Hope Bay as well as at South Shetland and the Orkneys, travelling 30,000 miles.[9][4]


Filming started in June 1947 in Switzerland for four weeks, at the Jungrau Mountain and the Aletsch Glacier. In October 1947 there was further nine weeks location filming in Norway, near Finse, which was used to represent the area near the South Pole. The bulk of the scenes were shot at the Hardanger Jokul.[4][10]

The film's unit transferred to Ealing studios in London for three months of studio work.[11][12][13][14]

Playing the role, Mills wore Scott's actual watch which had been taken from his dead body.[15][16]


At the start of the film, consulted survivors and relatives of late members of Scott's expedition are thanked for their help: "This film could not have been made without the generous co-operation of the survivors and the relatives of late members of Scott's Last Expedition. To them and to those many other persons and organisations too numerous to mention individually who gave such able assistance and encouragement, the producers express their deepest gratitude."

Departures from the historical course of eventsEdit

There are several minor differences between the film and the true course of events:

In the film, Scott receives a telegram in New Zealand, but does not read it for himself or to the crew until his ship is en route to the Antarctic. It says: "I am going south. Amundsen". Scott and his crew immediately comprehend that Amundsen is heading for the South Pole. Historically however, Scott received this telegram a little earlier, in Australia, and Amundsen's true text was less clear: "Beg leave to inform you Fram proceeding Antarctic Amundsen." [Fram is Amundsen's ship]. As Amundsen had publicly announced he was going to the North Pole, the real Scott and his companions did not initially grasp Amundsen's ambiguous message, according to Tryggve Gran's diary (Gran was Scott's only Norwegian expedition member).

In the film, the Terra Nova disembarks Scott's team in the Antarctic, sails along the ice barrier without Scott and unexpectedly discovers Amundsen's Antarctic base camp. The ship therefore returns to Scott's base camp and informs Scott about Amundsen's presence in the vicinity. In historical fact, Scott was not at his base camp during this unscheduled return of his ship, but was busy laying depots in the interior of the Antarctic.

In the film, just before reaching the South Pole, Scott's team sight a black flag planted by Amundsen, and the men realise the race is lost. In the next scene, the men arrive at Amundsen's empty tent (flying a Norwegian flag) at the South Pole, and discover the paw prints of Amundsen's sledge-dogs. In historical reality, Scott and his men discovered the paw prints (and dog excrement) on the previous day at the black flag.

The film gives the impression that Scott asks himself at the South Pole whether he can manage to return to base camp safely. In reality, Scott wrote in his diary that he wished "to get the news through first" (both Scott and Amundsen had lucrative agreements with the media on exclusive interviews), but Scott realistically doubted whether he could do it (i.e., beat Amundsen to the cablehead in Australia). This error in the film is based on a small omission in the originally published diary, an omission that was rediscovered long after the film was produced.[17]

Causes of the tragedyEdit

Given that some of the real expedition members were still alive at the time of filming and were consulted, the film documents the causes for the tragedy as they were seen at the time (1948). These causes are alluded to discreetly throughout the film:

  • In Norway, Scott consults the veteran polar explorer Nansen, who urges Scott to rely only on dogs. Scott on the other hand insists on a variety of transport means, including motor sledges, ponies, and dogs. The historical background to Scott's portrayed reluctance is that on his 1904 expedition, Scott's dogs had died of disease while Shackleton in 1908 had nearly attained the South Pole using ponies.
  • Scott's depicted fundraising speech is not effective, and the government gives him only £20,000. To make the expedition possible anyway, he cancels one of his two planned ships, and settles on the dilapidated Terra Nova, a photo of which he optimistically shows to Wilson, who is unmoved. This scene reflects the real Cherry-Garrard's criticism over the lack of funds and the inappropriate ship, in his book The Worst Journey in the World.
  • Arriving in Antarctic waters, the ship is briefly seen to fight its way through pack-ice. The parallel to the real expedition is that the ship was delayed for the unusual period of 20 days in the pack-ice, shortening the available season for preparations.
  • Having ascended the glacier up to the polar plateau, Scott sends home one of the supporting parties, addressing its leader Atkinson ("Atch") with the following words "Bye Atch. Look out for us about the beginning of March. With any luck we will be back before the ship has to go." This paraphrases Scott's real order to the dog teams to assist him home to base camp around March 1 at latitude 82 degrees. The order was never carried out and so Scott and his men died on their way home at the end of March.[18]
  • On the return journey from the pole, the men find that the oil canisters in the depots are not full. The seals are not broken, so they speculate that the oil has evaporated.



The film was chosen for a Royal Command Performance in 1949.[19]

Box OfficeEdit

Scott of the Antarctic was the third most popular film at the British box office in 1949.[20][21]

The film also performed well at the box office in Japan.[22]

Cultural referencesEdit

Scott of the Antarctic was lampooned in the Monty Python Series 2 episode 'Scott of the Sahara'.[23]


  1. ^
  2. ^ a b c "THE STARRY WAY". The Courier-mail (3597). Queensland, Australia. 5 June 1948. p. 2. Retrieved 17 August 2018 – via National Library of Australia.
  3. ^ "Chips Rafferty saw Britain's idea-men". The Daily Telegraph. VIII, (6). New South Wales, Australia. 22 December 1946. p. 28. Retrieved 17 August 2018 – via National Library of Australia.CS1 maint: extra punctuation (link)
  4. ^ a b c "SCOTT of the ANTARCTIC". The Sunday Herald (Sydney) (6). New South Wales, Australia. 27 February 1949. p. 5 (Magazine Section). Retrieved 17 August 2018 – via National Library of Australia.
  5. ^ "Hollywood star Milland to make English films". The Sun (2209). New South Wales, Australia. 12 August 1945. p. 3 (SUPPLEMENT TO THE WEEK END MAGAZINE). Retrieved 17 August 2018 – via National Library of Australia.
  6. ^ "Scott's Expedition To Be Filmed". The Mercury. CLXII, (23, 362). Tasmania, Australia. 20 October 1945. p. 11. Retrieved 17 August 2018 – via National Library of Australia.CS1 maint: extra punctuation (link)
  7. ^ "FILM WORLD". The West Australian. 63, (18, 999). Western Australia. 6 June 1947. p. 20 (SECOND EDITION.). Retrieved 17 August 2018 – via National Library of Australia.CS1 maint: extra punctuation (link)
  8. ^ "CROSBY WAS BEST MONEY MAKER IN BRITAIN". The Mirror. 26, (1391). Western Australia. 15 January 1949. p. 14. Retrieved 17 August 2018 – via National Library of Australia.CS1 maint: extra punctuation (link)
  9. ^ "FILM WORLD". The West Australian. 63, (19, 059). Western Australia. 15 August 1947. p. 19. Retrieved 17 August 2018 – via National Library of Australia.CS1 maint: extra punctuation (link)
  10. ^ REALISM ON ICE: Scott Polar Movie Being Made in Norway Fjords New York Times 21 Dec 1947: X6.
  11. ^ "BRITISH FILMS". The Sun (2311). New South Wales, Australia. 27 July 1947. p. 18. Retrieved 17 August 2018 – via National Library of Australia.
  12. ^ "Frostbites Made To Measure For Stars". Truth (3012). New South Wales, Australia. 12 October 1947. p. 54. Retrieved 17 August 2018 – via National Library of Australia.
  13. ^ "John Mills In Scott Drama". The Mail (Adelaide). 36, (1, 861). South Australia. 24 January 1948. p. 3 (SUNDAY MAGAZINE). Retrieved 17 August 2018 – via National Library of Australia.CS1 maint: extra punctuation (link)
  14. ^ "NOTES ON FILMS". The Sunday Herald (Sydney) (25). New South Wales, Australia. 10 July 1949. p. 4 (Sunday Herald Features). Retrieved 17 August 2018 – via National Library of Australia.
  15. ^ "VIVIEN HAS TROUBLE WITH HER HAT FOR AUSSIE". Truth (2497). Queensland, Australia. 1 February 1948. p. 17. Retrieved 17 August 2018 – via National Library of Australia.
  16. ^ Bringing the South Pole to Britain: How we made the Scott film Mills, John. Answers; London Vol. 114, Iss. 2953, (May 8, 1948): 3, 18.
  17. ^ "Race for the South Pole. The Expedition Diaries of Scott and Amundsen." Roland Huntford. 2010, Continuum, London, New York.
  18. ^ About the first week of February I should like you to start your third journey to the South, the object being to hasten the return of the third Southern unit [the polar party] and give it a chance to catch the ship. The date of your departure must depend on news received from returning units, the extent of the depot of dog food you have been able to leave at One Ton Camp, the state of the dogs, etc ... It looks at present as though you should aim at meeting the returning party about March 1 in Latitude 82 or 82.30. Evans, E.R.G.R. 1949, South with Scott, London: Collins, pp187-188
  19. ^ "'Scott' command movie of 1948". The Mail (Adelaide). 37, (1, 900). South Australia. 30 October 1948. p. 3 (SUNDAY MAGAZINE). Retrieved 17 August 2018 – via National Library of Australia.CS1 maint: extra punctuation (link)
  20. ^ "TOPS AT HOME". The Courier-Mail. Brisbane: National Library of Australia. 31 December 1949. p. 4. Retrieved 24 April 2012.
  21. ^ Thumim, Janet. "The popular cash and culture in the postwar British cinema industry". Screen. Vol. 32 no. 3. p. 258.
  22. ^ FILM SCENE ALONG THE BANKS OF THE THAMES: U.S. Industry Winner in Anglo-American Parley--Production Sheet in the Red Tax Takes Profits Freeze in Reverse Tom Brown By STEPHEN WATTS. New York Times 20 Aug 1950: 83.
  23. ^ Scott of the Antarctic

External linksEdit