Colour at the bottom of the world: Derek Williams and Foothold on Antarctica

Among the first full colour films to be brought back from the South Pole, Foothold on Antarctica was the Oscar-nominated work of a neglected explorer-filmmaker, says curator Patrick Russell.

24 January 2022

By Patrick Russell

Foothold on Antarctica (1956)

The ‘heroic age’ of early 20th-century polar exploration was captured on celluloid by justly revered epics of silent cinema – shot in black and white, which was then often tinted and toned. When Antarctic exploration resumed after the Second World War, however, filmmakers now had the advantage of full colour, and an under-sung generation of documentary makers were able to bring back dazzling images using modern film stocks such as Technicolor and Eastmancolor.  

A selection of these shorter films are brought together in the programme Antarctic Crossings, which is screening on 25 January as part of our season of exploration films To the Ends of the Earth. Included are three captivating shorts documenting Britain’s involvement in 1950s Antarctic exploration, kicking off with an ultra-rare showing of Tom Stobart’s 1951 Technicolor piece The White Continent, a government production following the British-Norwegian-Swedish expedition early in the decade.

It’s accompanied by 1956’s Foothold on Antarctica and 1958’s Antarctic Crossing, both produced by World Wide Pictures using sponsorship from oil giant BP. They document the Commonwealth Trans-Antarctic Expedition, which became the first successful transcontinental overland crossing. 

A young and adventurous Derek Williams poses with camera

Foothold on Antarctica was directed by Derek Williams and Antarctic Crossing by George Lowe. They represent two types of explorer-filmmaker: Lowe an explorer who filmed (not least on the Everest ascent, he and Stobart being the men who brought 1953 feature Conquest of Everest to the screen); Williams a filmmaker who explored, having often found himself assigned to expeditions in extreme temperatures.  

As Williams died last year, aged 91, this is a good moment to draw attention to his career. For while Foothold on Antarctica was nominated for an Academy Award, and no fewer than four later shorts written and/or directed by Williams would also get Oscar nominations, outside his own corner of the British film industry his name is barely known.

In this he typified generational problems. Postwar filmmakers like John Krish, Sarah Erulkar, Williams and many others had lengthy, productive careers centred on making sponsored shorts (mostly documentaries and drama-documentaries) that were virtually ignored by critics and cinephiles until long after those careers were over. Each of them had recognisably individual skillsets and sensibilities, which were forged in the crucible of ever-shifting relationships between themselves, the production companies contracting them, and the sponsors who hired both.

In Williams’ case, both the sensibility and the sponsorship sources are likely to leave his posthumous reputation stranded several steps even further behind these peers. His style, palpable in Foothold on Antarctica despite chaotic shooting conditions, was based on stately camera composition and the interchange of ‘silent’ visual passages, orchestrally scored, with sequences where ‘voice of God’ commentary alternates concisely informative passages with tersely poetic ones.

Tiresome in the wrong hands, in his this technique was handsomely authoritative, but across his career it grew increasingly unfashionable. Though reflecting the director’s own temperament – sober, romantic, somewhat melancholic – it also conveniently furnished the heyday of the industrial ‘prestige film’. This trade term referred to polished films taking a super-soft approach to corporate public relations by tackling broad subjects, giving filmmakers fair latitude and mentioning their sponsors as little as possible. Credits aside, Foothold on Antarctica makes just one fleeting reference to BP

But this lands us with Williams’ second reputational problem: that so many of his films were bankrolled by big industry, oil companies especially. In 2022, that’s not such a great look for a creative (unless the big industry is Hollywood, then you’re probably fine). Whereas in 1956, sponsorship was virtually the only mechanism by which those without private incomes could make colour documentaries.

Williams’ style was already remarkably fully-formed in his first film Hadrians Wall (1951), a non-sponsored 16mm black-and-white amateur production. This was the calling-card that led World Wide Pictures’ head honcho James Carr to hire the young Cambridge graduate as first a trainee, then a director-cameraman. He was posted initially to a long, frustrating assignment in Aden before Carr selected him as World Wide’s man to accompany the polar expedition’s advance party on board the Theron sealer ship.  

Speaking at the BFI in 2010, the last time Foothold on Antarctica was screened in a cinema, Williams reflected: “There are films you control, and films where circumstances control you.” Foothold on Antarctica was an example of the latter. As its narrator (Williams himself) relates, best-laid plans for the expedition were undone by a disastrous change in the weather, trapping the Theron in ice. Eventually it departed, the film ending with Williams’ camera shooting on board the boat as it pulls away from a party of eight who are left behind to face a cruel winter at Shackleton base before the main party’s return months later. 

Derek Williams in a Bell and Howell advert in Film User magazine, 1956

Privately screened for the royal family at Buckingham Palace, Foothold on Antarctica went on release on the Odeon circuit then into awards season. Williams was even used by Bell and Howell as avatar for a publicity campaign for its 16mm cameras, which were capable of withstanding polar conditions. This was slightly sneaky marketing as Foothold on Antarctica was mainly shot using one 35mm camera (with a spare onboard in case of mishap), with smatterings of blown-up 16mm footage interspersed in the cutting room. Williams’ duties had included training expedition members on the use of 16mm cameras (these would be used more extensively in Lowe’s Antarctic Crossing, which continues the story beyond the advance party into the main expedition).   

For its director, the film’s success was a mixed blessing. It catapulted him on to the in-demand list but typecast him as an explorer-cameraman “condemned” (his word) to several years’ globetrotting to bitterly cold and searingly hot places alike. From the mid-1960s, “I started to feel that adventure wasn’t enough… I wanted to make more thoughtful films, and so I really left adventure behind and tried to market myself as a thoughtful film director.”

This “thoughtful” phase had its biggest success with The Shadow of Progress (1970), Williams’ best remembered film today. Reputedly seen globally by 50 million viewers, it’s an imposing, lugubrious environmentalist statement… sponsored by British Petroleum. An essential exhibit for critical study of the knotty relationships between content, form and funding in the fascinating field of sponsored documentary, it exemplifies Williams’ magisterial directorial style, here applied to fascinatingly vague messaging.

A characteristically majestic and sombre composition, counterpointing nature with industry, from The Shadow of Progress (1970)

Williams later told me that he “faced the often insoluble task of reconciling industry’s demands with sincerity of product and personal integrity. Shadow of Progress exemplifies such dilemmas. It divides into two parts: problems and palliatives… the remedies featured were piecemeal and failed to penetrate root causes.”

Dig deeper and you’ll find less flawed films, including two that I consider minor masterpieces. North Slope – Alaska (1964) concluded the ‘adventuring’ phase with a wonderfully atmospheric, and unabashedly romantic-heroic-melancholic study of BP-contracted oil searchers inside the Arctic Circle. And 1977’s The Shetland Experience marks the peak of the “thoughtful” phase, perfectly orchestrating the elements of the director’s brooding style under sponsorship from the Sullom Voe Association.

The industrial films industry was now on its uppers, however, and most of the subsequent 15 years of Williams’ career produced largely forgettable results that were, I think, frustrating and saddening for him. 

I corresponded with Derek, and met him several times, years ago while researching a book chapter on his career. Our worldviews differed in some key respects, but I couldn’t help liking and respecting his polite erudition and his palpable passion, for history, geography and film, burning bright beneath a gentle surface. I still love much of his work, which I believe it is possible both aesthetically to enjoy and dispassionately to analyse. 

Kevin Brownlow, who edited one of his Oscar-nominated shorts (1966’s Turkey – The Bridge) described Williams to me as “the pioneering 1920s type that I admire so much: very modest, very brave, and produced good stuff”.

John Krish lived near Williams in 1950s Hampstead (and he and then wife Anne even once wrote a script for a now-lost Williams film). John’s personality was very different to Derek’s, and he could be caustic about the industry, but in 2007 he emailed me with warmth for “the dear man”: “very singular, one of the very few absolutely dependable creatures in the business. In a way too good for it. That you picked up on the melancholy is testament to my belief that he always felt out of place in whatever unit he found himself.”

At that 2010 screening, Williams recollected of his early film years: “I was a sort of romantic intellectual out of his depth.” And yet his films weighed word and picture with self-effacing self-assurance, and they took his viewers to so many places, physically and metaphorically. The ice-packed Theron, astride lonely Antarctica, was one of the first.

Foothold on Antarctica screens as part of Antarctic Crossings on 25 January as part of our season of exploration films To the Ends of the Earth.

Related collections are available to view free on BFI Player and at the BFI Southbank Mediatheque. The digital re-release of South with live performance of a newly commissioned score by Neil Brand will premiere at BFI IMAX on 27 January, followed by an extended run at BFI Southbank. South and The Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration on Film will be released on dual-format edition (Blu-ray/DVD) on 28 February.

BFI Player logo

See something different

Free for 14 days, then £4.99/month or £49/year.

Get 14 days free