Non-fiction: Charles Swithinbank: Vodka on Ice (Book Guild, 2002)
I’ve come across surprisingly few accounts of life in Antarctica written by scientists working there, especially since its supposed to be “the continent of science”. This is only the second one, the first being John C. Behrendt’s classic and undeservedly little known Innocents on the Ice. Swithinbank has written three other books about his lifelong career with polar matters, but this caught my eye because it deals with a subject about which its difficult to find English-language material, namely the Soviet Antarctic Program.
Sadly, Swithinbank is not much of a writer, and you’re left imagining all the wonderful little details his account misses. The sense of all the wonders a good writer might have been able to coax out of this is almost palpable under the surface of this account. Its nevertheless interesting, if not for any other reason then because it’s always interesting to read about other periods of Antarctic history than the Heroic period or today.
On the positive side, the book features a large amount of photographs. Its a veritable treasury for those who’re interested in visual reference.
Fiction film: Mikhail Kalatozov: the Red Tent (The Soviet Union, Italy, 1971)
Here’s an unlikely challenger for the Thing’s title as the best polar movie of all time. I’m a little surprised I hadn’t heard of this before, given its bizarre character. It’s a Soviet/Italian co-production about the disastrous North Pole expedition of the Italian airman General Nobile, who attempted to land there with a zeppelin. When contact was lost with the expedition, the discoverer of the South Pole, Roald Amundsen was among those trying to find Nobile, and disappeared along with his pilot and airplane in the polar sea.
In the movie Amundsen is played by a surprisingly Norwegian-looking Sean Connery. It’s directed by the Soviet master Mikhail Kalatozov of Soy Cuba fame, also features Claudia Cardinale and music by Ennio Morricone. As an added treat, the rescue ship featured in the movie is the Soviet atomic icebreaker Ob, the very same ship featured extensively in Charles Swithinbank’s book.
The Red Tent is excellent just as a process movie. You get to see all kinds of great stuff from crashlanding zeppelins to real-life icebreakers. The actual content, dealing with issues of cowardice and leadership often encountered in polar literature, is well dealt with here.