Poles apart: 5 lesser-known polar exploration films

BFI curator Simon McCallum explores some of the most rarely screened dramas and documentaries reflecting cinema’s fascination with all things polar.

7 January 2022

By Simon McCallum

To the Ends of the Earth (1983) © Courtesy Ranulph Fiennes/Transglobe Expedition Trust

The frozen extremes of our planet have exerted a pull on the more intrepid among us since the heyday of polar exploration in the late-19th and early-20th centuries. Thanks to pioneering filmmakers working in unimaginable conditions, we’re lucky to have extraordinary film records of some famed British expeditions, preserved and restored by the BFI National Archive. 

South (1919), Frank Hurley’s incomparable tale of survival during Sir Ernest Shackleton’s 1914 to 1916 Endurance expedition, is being re-released with a new score by Neil Brand to mark the centenary of Shackleton’s death (which itself marked a symbolic end to the ‘heroic age’ of Antarctic exploration). Herbert Ponting’s The Great White Silence (1924) captured Captain Scott’s fateful Terra Nova expedition of 1910 to 1913. 

The history of polar exploration has offered ample inspiration for dramatic features too, not least Ealing Studios’ Technicolor opus Scott of the Antarctic (1948). For those seeking more, there’s a wealth of forgotten or previously unavailable drama and documentary to discover. These five are just the tip of the iceberg. Grab the chance to see them if you can.

Under Sail in the Frozen North (1926)

Director: J.C. Bee-Mason

Under Sail in the Frozen North (1926)

Newly digitised by the BFI National Archive, this compelling travel feature was edited from footage shot by British naturalist J.C. Bee-Mason during a 1925 to 1926 expedition to the Arctic. Devised by young Icelander Grettir Algarsson, the expedition also involved Frank Worsley, commander of Shackleton’s legendary Endurance. Algarsson’s dream of beating Amundsen to the North Pole by plane or dirigible launched from a ship was nixed due to insufficient resources, but the modified expedition had genuine scientific objectives. Bee-Mason’s footage was possibly edited for the lecture circuit, film being an integral part of fundraising for such costly endeavours. What survives features some gorgeous colour tinting and animated maps, bringing to life this magical journey.

The White Continent (1951)

Director: Thomas Stobart

The White Continent (1951)

Ace expedition filmmaker Thomas Stobart is best known for Conquest of Everest, the official film record of the first successful ascent by Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay in 1953. Unseen for decades, this earlier short documentary follows – with great panache – the Norwegian-British-Swedish expedition to Antarctica’s Queen Maud Land (1949 to 1952) and their first season on the ice. Sponsored by the Foreign Office, it was produced by the fledgling Central Office of Information (COI). The BFI National Archive holds a rare unrestored Technicolor print of the film.

The Red Tent (1969)

Director: Mikhail Kalatozov

The Red Tent (1969)

This strange and enthralling Soviet-Italian co-production recreates the doomed 1928 Italia airship expedition to the North Pole and subsequent rescue operation. A lavish, star-packed affair, it cost a bomb but is rarely screened. Peter Finch plays Commander Nobile, who is haunted by the ghosts of his Arctic hubris, while, in an intriguing dyed-blond cameo, Sean Connery is Roald Amundsen, the famed Norwegian explorer who controversially beat Scott to the South Pole in 1912 and vanished attempting to rescue the Italia’s stricken crew. A superfluous romantic subplot engineered to boost Claudia Cardinale’s role aside, the film’s recreation of the crash and aftermath is jaw-dropping, with the international version boasting a beautiful score by Ennio Morricone.

Antarctica (Nankyoku Monogatari, 1983)

Director: Koreyoshi Kurahara

This gripping drama was based on a Japanese scientific expedition to Antarctica in 1958, which was aborted due to extreme weather conditions. Shot in northern Hokkaido (with supplementary scenes filmed in Antarctica itself), it shifts focus away from the human explorers to tell the incredible story of their dog team, left behind to fend for themselves. With an electrifying synth score by 80s legend Vangelis, it was a massive hit in Japan but never theatrically released in the UK, nor has it been published here on DVD or Blu-ray (subtitled versions do sometimes appear online).

To the Ends of the Earth (1983)

Director: William Kronick

To the Ends of the Earth (1983)
© Courtesy Ranulph Fiennes/Transglobe Expedition Trust

Led by Sir Ranulph Fiennes, the Transglobe expedition of 1979 to 1982 was the first north-south circumnavigation of the Earth without leaving its surface. Broadcast by Central Television in the 1980s but now rarely screened outside specialist exploration circles, this immersive account of the epic Pole-crossing mission was funded by colourful US tycoon Armand Hammer, who lavished resources on the project and engaged Richard Burton – in one of his last screen appearances – as presenter-narrator. Fiennes himself was a prolific filmmaker, capturing many of his exploits on 16mm, now preserved by the BFI National Archive. This film also features the late Ginny Fiennes, who devised the expedition and was the first woman to be awarded the Polar Medal.  

To the Ends of the Earth: Exploration and Endurance on Film runs at BFI Southbank throughout January 2022. 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 21 February.

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