Research Blog Antarctica #23 – 24

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.

Research Blog Antarctica #17 – 22

Fiction film: John Carpenter: the Thing (U.S.A. 1982)

This is perhaps the single most classic Antarctica movie, so it was a high time I saw it also. Antarctic literature has often mentioned it as a special favorite at U.S. stations on the seventh continent, and it certainly deserves its reputation. The Thing is the best Antarctica movie I’ve seen so far. It’s a remake of the 1951 movie The Thing From Another World, where the original concept has been heavily updated and fused with material from the classic H.P. Lovecraft story At the Mountains of Madness, featuring the Shoggoth.

Perhaps the best parts of the movie for me were the little details like the slitted goggles on the Norwegian guy we see in the beginning and the creepily authentic group dynamics we see thorough the movie.

Perhaps the most beautiful part of this movie is the beginning, where a gunman in a helicopter is chasing a dog running across the snowy landscape. We don’t know why, and for a long while there is only the strange chase, the dog, and the stark landscapes.

Fiction film: Eric Darnell & Tom McGrath: Madagascar (U.S.A. 2005)

I watched through this computer-animation movie mostly because I’d been told it has some funny penguins. Penguins = Antarctica, so I felt I needed to see some penguin interpretations so I would have something to work with when I finally need to do my own penguin action.

The penguins were funny.

Fiction film: Frank Marshall: Eight Below (U.S.A. 2006)

Is it fair to accuse a childrens’ movie about sledge dogs of being stupid? Maybe the things I have to nitpick about are not relevant. Maybe I’ll sound like those twerps who complain that Legolas has the wrong kind of underpants in the Lord of the Rings movies.

I don’t know.

What I do know is that there’s no sunshine to be had during the Antarctic winter. In fact, the defining characteristic of the Antarctic winter is it’s utter blackness, months on end without a glimpse of the sun.

Many other annoying things in this movie too, but this was the only thing that was hard to ignore. The movie had no night at all.

On the positive side, the dogs were gorgeous. The movie is a remake of a Japanese original from the Eighties, which in turn was based on the true story of a Japanese Antarctic expedition, which had to leave their sledge dogs behind during an evacuation. The dogs had to fend for themselves for an entire winter with no food and no shelter. Bizarrely, when the relief finally came half a year later, two of them were still alive.

Eight Below makes this story of survival somewhat plausible, while in real life the survival of the dogs was totally inexplicable.

Non-fiction: Lennard Bickel: Mawson’s Will (Steerforth Press, 2000)

Lennard Bickel brings the language of a three-penny showman to Antarctic literature, and while it makes it tedious to read, I suppose its useful to see some a new prose style applied to the old subject.

Bickel’s subject is the epic story of Douglas Mawson’s second Antarctic expedition, a story also told in Mawson’s own excellent book The Heart of the Blizzard. I almost gave up on Mawson’s Will, because the first 100 pages or so are singularly uninspired, but when we finally get to the part where people start dying and the suffering begins, Bickel seems to find his muse. The prose starts to sing, the observation of little details is brilliant, contextualization appears in all the right places, so much so that in this one respect Bickel’s narrative surpasses Mawson’s own.

Fiction film: Gary Trousdale: the Madagascar Penguins in a Christmas Caper (U.S.A. 2005)

More cartoon penguin action in this 10-minute short that fails to be as funny as the original Madagascar movie.

Fiction film: Christian Nyby & Howard Hawks: the Thing From Another World (U.S.A. 1951)

Technically set in the Arctic, I include this movie here mostly because of its more famous remake, the Thing, by John Carpenter, where the action was moved to the Antarctic.