The tragedy of Scott's expedition was one of a series of events (the Boer War, the sinking of the Titanic, the outbreak of World War I) of the early twentieth century that brought an end to a complacent age, an age in which people felt that ever-progressing mankind was nearing a summit of nobility and had tamed and was about to conquer the forces of nature. Because they boasted an empire reaching to Earth's "four corners", the British had the most cause to be arrogant about their position. They had, after all, prevailed over the harshest conditions in the African and Indian jungles and built with sea power an empire coveted by all of their European neighbours.
But as the downfall of the Roman Empire demonstrated, decadent complacency threatens to erode the greatest of imperial states. The British may have retained their refined mannerisms and Christian beliefs in the constructing of their world-encompassing dominion, but never considered how overweening belief in their superiority and misplaced certainty over their scientific progress might be to their detriment and that a modest explorer nation may better them in certain pursuits.
Norway is a high-latitude country, with harsh, wintry landscapes within its borders and the Arctic immediately to the north. Its people have developed a hearty endurance for cold weather and wisdom about effective methods of transport in icy places. At the start of the twentieth century, the Norwegians were wary of technological progress and were not inclined to dispense with tried-and-true, old-fashioned techniques. Roald Amundsen was a seasoned Arctic explorer whose dream of being first to reach the North Pole was thwarted by Americans Frederick Cook and Robert Peary. He had for years been building a reliable team of experienced polar campaigners. Amundsen was not a military type. Though he commanded unswerving respect from his men, he was not given to military pretencions. So, there was a comradeship between him and his men, which could only be to their benefit in the hazardous penetration of the most unforgiving frontier then known.
Antarctica being the coldest, most inhospitable part of the globe, the South Pole near its centre had been the last place on Earth to be trodden upon by human feet. In the early 1900s, the continent was only accessible by sea during the Antarctic summer, and then, the interior was icebound in deeply sub-zero temperatures and ravaged by frequent blizzards. An expedition hoping to reach the South Pole had to travel by ship to the "coastal" area along the Ross Sea in Antarctic Summer, build a base, and depot food and fuel supplies by sledge teams as far south as possible and return to Ross Sea base before Antarctic summer ended. Expedition team members would then have to "wait out" the 6-month-long Antarctic winter in their base before starting for the Pole as soon as summer began. It would require the entire Antarctic summer to reach the Pole and return to base, and even this would depend upon a substantial amount of favourable weather. All supplies of food and fuel would have to be depoted on the outward journey to supply returning teams, which meant very heavy pulling! And then there were rock samples, depot marker flags, diaries, writing supplies, etc..
The route to the Pole from the Ross Sea begins with the Great Ice Barrier, essentially an extremely thick ice sheet atop the Ross Sea, 400 miles to cross. Cutting across the route after the Barrier are the Transantarctic Mountains, thousands of feet high. An earlier expedition led by Ernest Shackleton had discovered a means of traversing the mountains through the Beardmore Glacier, which is a steep enough climb in itself, 120 miles up. Atop the Beardmore, there is the polar plateau, 350 miles of which must be crossed to reach the Pole. Conditions on the plateau are worsened both by altitude and by the proximity to the Pole. The identical route had to be undertaken in reverse to return to Ross Sea base, so that the depots laid on the outward journey could be accessed for vital food and fuel. The British were confident about the Beardmore Glacier, the only known way of reaching the plateau through the mountains, being their claim and theirs alone. The Ernest Shackleton expedition in 1907-8 used the Beardmore to journey to within 97 miles of the Pole and return to base, with the Pole remaining to be reached.
Scott had little faith in the ability of sled-dog teams to assist in the immense journey. Though he brought some dogs on his expedition, he only intended for them to be used, in addition to Siberian ponies and motorised sledges, to transport supplies to depots on the Great Ice Barrier. Scott did not believe that either the dogs or the ponies would be able to endure the ascent of the Beardmore Glacier or travel on the plateau. The ponies would be slaughtered for an extra source of food for men and dogs, and the dogs would be returned to base and then be utilised in an additional southward trek to replenish the depots on the Barrier for the men returning from the Pole. From the foot of the Beardmore to the Pole, Scott's team members man-hauled their sledge- and had to do so from the Pole all of the way back to Ross Sea base.
Amundsen, however, was a firm believer in dog power. He used more than 100 dogs on his attempt at the Pole, and though he was crossing previously unknown territory, he managed to find another way of ascending the mountains and used dogs on his entire journey to and from the Pole.
Nearly nobody knew that Amundsen was planning to go to the South Pole. Even though the North Pole had been reached, Amundsen still led his countrymen, including his sponsor, Fridtjov Nansen, to believe that his intentions were North Polar. It was not until Amundsen had embarked upon his ship for the long journey south and was beyond wireless communication range that his brother, Leon, released the news of his intentions. While on his own ship in New Zealand, Scott received a cablegram from Amundsen, sent to him by Amundsen's brother, that said, "Am heading south. Amundsen." Thus, Scott's long-planned expedition to the South Pole in 1911-2 became a race. Both men were determined to reach the Pole first in the name of their countries, though Scott always maintained that his expedition was scientific first, glory-seeking second, and Scott's expedition was composed largely of scientists, military and civilian.
The first dramatisation of this epic race through Antarctica's lethally frigid environs was 1948's Scott of the Antarctic, a breathtakingly spectacular and riveting film. Though it was made in 1948, its visuals still command awe and respect, especially the scenes of Scott's team on the Beardmore as seen from high above, while the eerily haunting music by Ralph Vaughan Williams captures the despairingly bleak feel of being in the midst of this "awful place" (to quote Scott at the Pole) and the mood of the men on the expedition in Antarctica's interior, the only living things far, far from anything remotely resembling the congenial world of their upbringing.
Produced with the consent of the surviving relatives of Scott's expedition, Scott of the Antarctic is an unfailingly respectful account of the difficulties experienced by the doomed Scott, his friend, Dr. E. A. Wilson, and his three other companions, Bowers, Oates, and P.O. Edgar Evans. Scott is portrayed by Sir John Mills as an unimpeachable hero: authoritative and determined, yet able to laugh with his men at comical moments; and stoic and never cynical, even after he discovers that he has come second at the Pole to Amundsen. The expedition is portrayed to have failed due only to abysmal weather, to misfortunes entirely beyond the control or blame of Scott or anyone in his team. There are no recriminations of any kind upon any member of the expedition. Everyone is cheerfully devoted to duty, and the five who die face their end with humble fortitude. The film is entirely devoted to Scott's expedition. Amundsen is never seen, and Scott's understandable bitterness and resentment toward him never really comes indignantly to surface. The film ends with the finding of the bodies of Scott and his companions in their tent in the following Antarctic summer and a glorious panning of the camera around the tombstone later erected on Ross Island in honour of Scott's party. No subsequent enquiries are seen.
To a viewer who had come to know Scott through Sir John Mills' noble portrayal, it seemed inconceivable that his tragic experience could be enacted any differently, that it could be remade as a mid-1980s television production, with a "post-modernist" desantising of the hero, showing all of his foibles and those of his colleagues, the disharmony among the expeditionary group, the at times crude arrogance of the British imperialists who funded Scott's journey, and even some dubious leadership by a hasty Amundsen. There were no really noble heroes in an updated, mid-1980s account of the 1911-2 race to the bottom of the world.
Based on Roland Huntford's "demythologising" book, Scott and Amundsen, and produced in 1985 for broadcast on Britain's ITV network and on the American PBS network's Masterpiece Theatre, The Last Place On Earth was a seven-instalment miniseries filmed in Greenland, Canada, Norway, and, of course, England, in 1985. The production company was Central Productions/Renegade Films. Unlike Scott of the Antarctic, it chose to give equal focus to Scott and Amundsen's campaigns and to unapologetically display in unprecedented detail the questionable preliminaries of Scott's journey, Amundsen's expedient insincerity, the in places graphic suffering, and less-than-reverent reactions at home to Amundsen's success. Amundsen returned to Europe to experience the scorn or disinterest of nearly everyone, while the story of Scott's tragic demise gained lurid attention and admiration of aristocrats and working class alike. Amundsen won the race, but Scott emerged the posthumous hero, a legend, prompting Amundsen to comment, "Never underestimate the British habit of dying. The glory of self-sacrifice, the blessing of failure." It is a version that stands in jarring contrast to Scott of the Antarctic.
Originally seven episodes on ITV, with an opening episode of 75 minutes followed by six episodes of 52 minutes, The Last Place On Earth was reduced to six instalments on Masterpiece Theatre. Episodes 1 and 2 of the initial miniseries were edited into one, 75-minute segment, with wholesale cutting of scenes of Scott's courtship with and marriage to Kathleen Bruce, of Scott's antagonism with Ernest Shackleton, of the growing friendship between Scott and Wilson, of Amundsen's meetings with Nansen, and of Amundsen's avoidance of a meeting with Scott in Norway in March, 1909.
The Last Place On Earth featured an excellent ensemble cast of veteran and budding British actors, an American, and several Scandinavians. Martin Shaw, from British television's The Professionals, starred as Scott, and Sverre Anker Ousdal portrayed Roald Amundsen. Sylvester McCoy, later to become the seventh Doctor Who, played Bowers, 1990s heartthrob Hugh Grant essayed the role of Apsley Cherry-Garrard, and American Brian Dennehy was cast as explorer Frederick Cook. Pat Roach, recognisable as the health club assassin in the 1983 James Bond film, Never Say Never Again, enacted the husky P.O. Edgar Evans, and Max Von Sydow, who played another James Bond villain from the same film, special-guest-starred as Fridtjof Nansen.
In 1994, The Last Place On Earth was released on videotape in its seven-episode entirety by BFS Home Video, based in Richmond, Ontario, Canada, and in 2001, the full television miniseries became available on digital videodisc (DVD) through the same company. In 2006, Network DVD in the United Kingdom issued its own DVD set of The Last Place On Earth with picture quality slightly superior to that on the BFS Home Video DVDs.
Below is a comprehensive guide to the seven episodes of The Last Place On Earth.
Episode 1: "Poles Apart" Amundsen asks for the help of famed, retired Arctic explorer Fridtjof Nansen in lobbying Norway's government to fund an expedition to the North Pole, while Scott contends with enquiries concerning the collision of his battleship, the Albemarle, with another British battleship in the Far East. Scott's ally, Sir Clements Markham, alerts Scott to an expedition led by Scott's former colleague, Ernest Shackleton, in 1907-8 to the South Pole using Scott's 1901-4 McMurdo Sound base on the Ross Sea coast. Scott tries to halt Shackleton's plans, which threaten his own aims to be first to the Pole, by denying Shackleton permission to use McMurdo, but Shackleton defies Scott's wishes. To Scott's relief, Shackleton does not reach the Pole, but comes to within 97 miles of it. Scott cites Shackleton's achievement as proof that the Pole is attainable and successfully lobbies for his own expedition to the Pole. Scott marries the free-spirited and strong- willed Kathleen Bruce and fathers a boy. Amundsen is granted permission by Nansen to use Nansen's ship, the Fram, in his voyage north, but his hopes to be first to the North Pole are scuttled when he is informed that his old friend, American Frederick Cook, has claimed to have reached 90 degrees north. Nevertheless, he pushes ahead with his expeditionary plans, to the dismay of his brother, Leon. Amundsen arranges to meet his brother in a cemetery, where he confides his new, secret plans to journey to the as-yet-unconquered South Pole using the funds allocated for his northern campaign. Episode 2: "Minor Diversions" After sending dog expert Cecil Meares to Siberia to obtain dogs and ponies (despite Meares' statement that he knows only dogs and not horses), Scott travels to Norway in 1909 for a test of his motorised sledges and meets Nansen, who introduces Scott to a young skier, Gran. Scott is impressed by Gran's skiing knowledge and decides to bring him to Antarctica as ski instructor. Scott finds that an up-and-coming Teddy Evans is raising funds for an expedition of his own. Markham urges Scott to coopt Evans and Evans' sponsors with a promise that Evans be Scott's Number One officer. In so-doing, Scott is forced to dispense with the services of his initial Number One officer, engineer Reg Skelton. Amundsen is also required to add a man to his expedition. To placate Nansen, he visits Hjelmar Johanssen, one of Nansen's old comrades, and enlists Johanssen for the expedition with a written agreement that Johanssen obey him without question in all matters. Scott's expedition departs England in a large ship, the Terra Nova, for a journey around Africa to New Zealand, where Scott plans to collect the dogs and ponies which Meares has brought thereto from Siberia. Meanwhile, Amundsen and his men board the Fram in Norway and trek for the Madeira coastline, where Amundsen states for his crew his true intentions. All of his men agree to accompany him to the southern end of the Earth, and Amundsen's brother, Leon, travels by rowboat to Madeira to announce Amundsen's true aim and send a cablegram to Scott. "Am heading south. Amundsen." Episode 3: "Leading Men" Scott arrives in New Zealand in May, 1910 and inspects the ponies brought to there from Siberia by Meares and declares them first-rate, while horse expert Titus Oates, whom Scott did not approach about going to Siberia in 1909 due to Oates' South Africa location at that time, does not believe that any of the ponies are fit for the expedition. Oates confronts Scott about this in front of a group, and Scott resents it. While still in New Zealand, a drunk and disorderly P.O. Edgar Evans falls off of the docked Terra Nova, but when Lt. Teddy Evans orders the P.O.'s discharge, Scott overrides him on the basis that Edgar Evans' size and strength are vital to the expedition. Teddy Evans argues with Scott, threatening to publicise his allegations of incompetence unless Scott guarantees to him a place in the final polar party. Scott patronises his Number One officer with a vague, oral promise to this effect. The Terra Nova leaves New Zealand for Antarctica via the Ross Sea but becomes caught in pack ice from the previous Antarctic winter and loses several vital weeks. Amundsen's crew arrive in the Fram at the Ross Sea coast with no obstruction and establish their base, Framheim, in the Bay of Whales on a frozen-over island along the sea rim of the Great Ice Barrier. A hut is built at McMurdo Sound by Scott's expedition, and an exploration team led by Lt. Victor Campbell is dispatched along the coast while a depot-laying party led by Scott travels south into the Great Ice Barrier. Campbell's team encounters Amundsen's base, and, as Amundsen's guests, they view Amundsen's huge number of sled-dogs and learn that Amundsen's base is 50 miles nearer to the Pole than is Scott's. Scott opts to halt his depot-laying mission 11 miles short of target, a decision that will haunt him, and return to McMurdo base for the winter. He receives word from Campbell about Amundsen and is furious. Amundsen and his men embark on their own depot-laying trip into the Ice Barrier, and they penetrate much deeper into the Ice Barrier than Scott did, setting marker flags two miles away from the depots, on both sides. "This is not the place to take chances," says Amundsen. He and his companions return to Framheim for the winter. Episode 4: "Gentlemen and Players" During the Antarctic winter of 1911, dissent stirs in the camps of both Scott and Amundsen. Teddy Evans urges Scott to cancel a winter expedition along the Ross Sea coast and use the supplies to augment the polar party in the summer, but Scott rebukes him, stressing that he will not be seen to be racing to the Pole. Evans commiserates with Oates and Meares, both of whom are annoyed at Scott's arrogant refusal to listen to their advice on pony and dog transport. Amundsen, unnerved by Scott's reported use of motorised sledges, pushes his men onto the Ice Barrier too early (in September), and the result is the loss of some dogs and two men suffering from frozen-foot. Amundsen orders his team's retreat to base non-stop, and there is an unseemly scramble. After the return to Framheim, Johanssen accuses Amundsen of being an unfit leader, and Amundsen responds by removing Johanssen from the polar team. In early November, the expeditions of both Scott and Amundsen leave their respective bases for their polar journey. Episode 5: "The Glories of the Race" Scott's expedition, consisting of his own four-man group, three support parties, and two dog teams driven by Cecil Meares and a Russian, becomes stalled in a days-long blizzard midway through the Great Ice Barrier. Irritable and abrasive, Scott argues with Oates over the timing of pony-slaughter. Oates insists that the ponies be used, ill though they may be, to the foot of the Beardmore Glacier and then be killed, but Scott wishes to kill them earlier to prevent suffering. Oates does not see how pony suffering can be prevented either way and persists in asserting that the ponies be utilised as planned, all of the way to the foot of the Beardmore. Scott grudgingly bows to Oates' opinion. Amundsen, meanwhile, has had favourable weather and efficient pulling by his teams of dogs, and he and his four companions cross the Barrier in just a few weeks and ascend a glacier, with their dogs pulling the heavy sledges. Near the top of the glacier, with the plateau very close, Amundsen orders the butchering of some of the dogs for a supply of fresh meat, for dogs and men. He and his men eat the dog meat to prevent scurvy. Amundsen's group then journeys on the plateau and finds an eerie area of pressure-formed fissures. Dog teams are sent back to base by Scott once his expedition has reached the Beardmore. Resentful of the effective performance of the dogs as compared to the faltering ponies, Scott has antagonised Meares with endless and groundless insinuations of incompetence, knowing that he will be dependent upon Meares for another dog run on the Barrier to replenish the depots. Meares opts to quit the expedition upon return to McMurdo and not to lead the depot- replenishing dog run. Episode 6: "Foregone Conclusion" Three teams of sledge-pulling men labour for weeks climbing the Beardmore Glacier as Scott urgently tries to recover the time lost in the Ice Barrier blizzard. One of the two support teams (the one commanded by surgeon Atkinson) is sent by Scott back to base once the Beardmore is climbed. Prior to parting from Scott, Atkinson recommends that Scott choose someone other than P.O. Edgar Evans to represent the "lower deck" in the polar party, but Scott dismisses Atkinson's advice, not aware as yet that P.O. Evans has injured his finger on a sledge nail. Amundsen and his four companions complete their trek to the Pole with their dogs on December 14, 1911, more than a month ahead of Scott. They mark the site with flags and leave the Pole, to return to base by the same route on which they came to "polar glory", with surplus food and fuel! Scott decides to add a man to his final party, and Teddy Evans is not selected. Scott dispatches Evans back to base with two men and proceeds to the Pole with Dr. Wilson, Bowers, Oates, and P.O. Evans. They attain the Pole on January 17, 1912 to find they have been forestalled by Amundsen. Scott cries in Wilson's arms. The five dejected explorers plant the British flag in the polar snow and leave the Pole for their return journey to McMurdo base. Amundsen arrives at Framheim and learns from his ship's mate that the British have already cast him in the villain's role. Scott and his men are plagued by "short rations" and wayward marches that force them to "double back" in search of desperately needed depots. P.O. Evans' injured finger and frozen foot weaken him, and he becomes demented during descent of the Beardmore. On February 17, near the foot of the glacier, he wanders away from Scott's group, and Oates finds his dead body. Episode 7: "Rejoice" In early March, Scott and his three remaining companions' progress on the Great Ice Barrier is slowed by lowering temperatures, stormy weather, continually deficient depot rations, scurvy, and Oates' deteriorating leg. Oates, at the end of his strength, sacrifices himself on March 17 by crawling out of the Scott party tent and into a lethal blizzard, hoping that his death will enable the others to complete their return journey. Scott, Wilson, and Bowers struggle onward. At McMurdo base, Teddy Evans and his two men have returned, delirious with scurvy. Meares is not available for a depot- replenishing dog run, and a young and inexperienced Apsley Cherry-Garrard is sent in this capacity. He arrives at One Ton Depot with ample supplies and waits for Scott. With no sign of Scott, he debates whether to go further south with the supplies or to depot them at One Ton and return to base. He chooses the latter. Scott, Wilson, and Bowers are a mere 11 miles from One Ton Depot when they are trapped in their tent by a blizzard lasting more than a week. Their food and fuel exhausted, they die. In Europe, Amundsen is snubbed and mocked by English nobles and chastised by Nansen for "breaking his word" and going to the South Pole instead of the North. Atkinson leads a search party in November, 1912 and finds the tent with the bodies of Scott, Wilson, and Bowers. He deliberately misdiagnoses the scurvy of his dead colleagues and attributes the deaths to wanton exposure. Word of Scott's death reaches England, and his diaries are published with his wife's consent, but edited to remove any hint of failure of decision or behaviour on the part of anyone involved in the expedition.