Exploring the world through global cinema

Kinematic

This week, we explore how and why Antarctica was captured in living colour for the very first time in the first chapter of Antarctic Film Month.

As the banner above subtly suggests, it’s Antarctic Month here at World On Film  – not in fact corresponding to any particular month on the calendar (that would be too easy), but four weeks devoted to that large sweep of ice and land filling up the South Pole. The four films selected to represent it over those weeks will capture its many moods, but perhaps more importantly, the many ways in which we perceive Antarctica. It’s a place of distant beauty and adventure, but it’s also a place of danger and drudgery. Both fact and fiction will be used to explore the subject, and it all begins this week with the very first colour footage ever captured of Antarctica recorded during the United States Antarctic Expedition at the height of South Pole-mania.

Antarctic Echoes

Antarctica, the final frontier of Earth exploration, is an austere world of mystery and quiet menace. Once part of the massive supercontinent of Gondwanaland and covered in rainforest, its ancient past lies buried beneath impenetrable glaciers of ice, guarded by deadly ice-cold winds and temperatures hostile to human survival. It is today a glittering interglacial reminder of the powerful forces that shape our planet, and ready to claim the lives of any who dare to take its capricious nature too lightly.

Bound for the Antarctic, the crew make several pit stops along the way, including remote Pitcairn Island, where the Bounty mutineers settled centuries earlier. Here, a direct descendant of Fletcher Christian is caught on film.

This has not, however, stopped the bold and adventurous from setting a course for the South Pole with the unknown firmly in their sights and discovery fuelling their souls. The list of names associated with Antarctic exploration is long and embedded into the public consciousness, from Amunsden, Mawson and Scott, to Ross, Hillary and Fiennes. However, one name above all others defined human endeavour in the poles: Richard Evelyn Byrd. Not only did Byrd undertake no fewer than 11 expeditions to Antarctica, he was also responsible for galvanizing both government and public interest in the continent. He contributed significantly to and induced the enormous frenzy of scientific activity across the 20th Century that dramatically broke through the quiet, dismissive ignorance the world entertained about its most southerly neighbour.

“Antarctica, an austere world of mystery and quiet menace.”

At the height of the public interest in Antarctica Byrd had himself generated, the explorer, scientist and naval officer was a massive celebrity – almost impossible to believe when today’s incumbents of the term are the dubious breed of cheerfully ignorant, narcissistic attention-seekers whose trifling contributions to the human endeavour are championed and beamed across the globe with undeserving relentlessness by the media. Yet in his day, Byrd was every much as famous, his exploits excitedly recounted in newspapers and radio programs worldwide, his countenance visible on all manner of merchandising from stamps to signed photos. By 1935, he had overseen two highly-successful privately-funded expeditions to Antarctica, and both he and the public were hungry for more.

Arrival in the Antarctic, and the much-vaunted Snow Cruiser makes its dramatic entrance.

Eager to capitalise on this popular sentiment, the U.S. government of the day under the presidency of Franklin D. Roosevelt quickly began assessing the feasibility of a government-funded expedition to the region – the first in over a century. In 1939, the impressively-titled Executive Committee For The United States Antarctic Service was formed and Byrd, who had been preparing for his own return to the region since 1935, readily accepted the invitation to take charge of the new venture. Officially entitled, ‘The United States Antarctic Service Expedition’, to the public it was ‘Byrd Antarctic Expedition III’, with the Admiral overseeing the government objective of establishing a permanent seasonal base at ‘Little America’ and another south of the Cape of Good Hope.’ On November 1939, two vessels carrying 125 crewmen between them departed Boston for the Antarctic. Travelling with them was a young man about to make filmic history.

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Little America was in fact the name given to a series of bases on the Ross Ice Shelf near the Bay of Whales between 1929 and 1956. The breakup of the shelf has seen at least two Little Americas float away to see on icebergs. They were the site of the first-ever radio broadcasting stations in the Antarctic, which, during the expeditions, sent regular transmissions powerful enough to be picked up by household radio sets in the U.S, thereby significantly contributing to the ongoing public interest in the program.

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Harrison Holt Richardson

Responsible for capturing the expedition on celluloid was Byrd enthusiast and youngest member of the group, Harrison Holt Richardson. His interest in both Byrd and Antarctica began when, as a teenager, he attended a speech being given by the Admiral at Beaver College, Pennsylvania, where his father was a trustee. He would later write to Byrd hoping to persuade him to let Richardson join the crew of the U.S.S. Bear for the summer, a request which was later granted. Owned by Byrd, the Bear had been one of the principal ships used during his second expedition to the Antarctic, and Richardson the elder would subsequently convince Byrd to keep Richardson on for the third Antarctic expedition of 1939-41 in which the vessel was again utilised.

Richardson not only shot the first-ever colour footage of Antarctica, but also joined one of the scientific teams towards the end of the program. Over the winter of 1940-41, he would be a member of the biological team stationed there, working as a dog team driver and meteorological observer. Mt. Richardson in Marie Byrd Land, and discovered during his time there, would be named in his honour.

“Richardson not only shot the first-ever colour footage of Antarctica, but also joined one of the scientific teams towards the end of the program.”

In later life, Richardson would graduate from Geneva College and the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine and serving in the U.S. navy as a medical officer during subsequent military expeditions to the North and South poles, helping to open the United States Air Force Base in Thule, Greenland, finally working as a radiologist for two hospitals back home. He would die at the age of 80 in 1999.

Richardson’s remarkable footage was produced using a 16mm film camera, which documents highlights of the 3-year expedition, from the crews’ departure in Boston to the closure of Little America in 1941. The silent footage would subsequently go out under the film title Antarctica, unsurprisingly credited to the United States Antarctic Expedition Service, with the occasional caption card to provide some kind of narrative.

Captured On Film

Face to face: penguins prove the most captivating of the local fauna, though whether scientists would get this close today is a different matter.

Whether or not Richardson was given much direction as to what he should document, the young cameraman/cinematographer does an excellent job under the circumstances, making sure to capture every aspect of the expedition, from the multifaceted scientific programs conducted to the equipment used in their implementation and the people behind it all who would go on to make history. He is also adept at capturing some of the breathtaking scenery and the mood of those around him. Probably the happiest surprise for me at least in viewing Antarctica is the fact that Richardson starts filming in Boston harbour at the very beginning of the journey, with impressive equipment like the Snow Cruiser, the overambitious and ultimately problematic all-terrain diesel car designed for ground-based mobility at the other end, excitedly paraded along the wharf prior to loading. An enthusiastic crowd is assembled, excited to be present at the momentous new chapter of scientific history, while crewmembers aboard the USMS North Star, the first ship to depart, cavort about on deck in pirate costumes, clearly lapping up every minute of their fame.

Along the way to icier climes, the crew would check in at destinations no less interesting, such as Pitcairn Island and Rapa Iti, with Richardson’s camera work ensuring the stopovers are saved for posterity. Pitcairn Island is a rich subject unto itself, being the very remote southern paradise the mutineers of the H.M.S Bounty would choose to make their home centuries earlier, with the North Star encountering their latter-day descendants as they trade for much-needed items during the 48-hour stopover. To the West, Rapa Iti, tropical outpost of French Polynesia and sinking volcanic remnant of a younger Earth, offered further trade and shore leave for the crew. Not to be confused with Rapa Nui (Easter Island), ‘Little’ Rapa bears the legacy of similar feats of stonemasonry, this time in the form of hill forts rather than giant statues. Richardson however, appears to be less concerned with history than the bare-chested Polynesian natives – his interest purely in anthropology never in doubt for a moment.

The North Star, one of the principal ships of the expedition and previously owned by famed polar adventurer, Richard Evelyn Byrd. Although a government endeavour, the public viewed this very much as his latest expedition.

Choosing not to document the most crucial stopover of all in Dunedin, New Zealand, which would act as a major supply stop for the Bear and the North Star over the course of the expedition, the filming resumes once more as the first icebergs hove into view – promising monuments of the main act and harbingers of the many pitfalls waiting for anyone daring to venture beyond.

“The first icebergs hove into view – promising monuments of the main act and harbingers of the many pitfalls waiting for anyone daring to venture beyond.”

Then begins the expedition proper, with Richardson producing many recorded highlights throughout. The Snow Cruiser quickly demonstrates its design flaws from the moment it leaves the ship in much the same way that elephants and rope bridges don’t mix. Some of the scientists develop a deep fascination for the local penguin population, engaging in an intimacy that today’s naturalists would frown upon. Meanwhile, the spectre of death looms over the team, with crevasses hiding their true depths and threatening to swallow up the unsuspecting newcomer for all time. Away from all this, the natives show how perfectly they have evolved to suit the natural environment, with seals surfing joyfully across the powdery surface of the land towards the food-rich depths of the icy water, while rubbery penguins bounce across the achromatic landscape very much at home in this frozen world.

Crewmembers enjoy some downtime, high spirits being essential in the remote polar wilderness.

The expedition would nonetheless become more adept at survival in the Antarctic than most, and snapshots of their efforts give tantalising glimpses into their mission. Every conceivable scientific study was conducted over the three-year period, from biological to meteorological. Two bases were maintained, 3,540km apart from each other by sea and 2,575km apart by air. With this, successive teams made up of scientists and the U.S. military were able to fill in the gaps between lands explored by previous expeditions. The Bear would be regularly deployed along the coastline, often hampered by sea ice. Seaplanes would venture inland as well as helping to determine whether sections of coast were island or peninsula. Sledging parties would all for ground-based research, often away for weeks at a time and subject to the harsh Antarctic weather. Together, their efforts would result in the mapping of some 1,127km of coastline, as well as shed light on current glaciations and fully map ranges such as the Queen Maud Mountains, which Byrd had discovered several years earlier.

The daily work of the expedition, from the maintaining of the bases, to the construction and maintenance of equipment and even the feeding of the huskies (seals being their primary diet) can also be seen. Camaraderie and downtime show a cheerful atmosphere, and there can be no doubt that such an experience would create very strong bonds among the crew.

Locally-raised husky pups are captivated by the world outside the box.

The camera lens also captures the otherworldly, yet very Earth-like quality of Antarctica itself. Huge, jagged pyramids of rock rise into the sky, forming mountain ranges that fade off into the horizon where few have dared to tread. Hauntingly-beautiful coastlines radiate the sun’s rays while offering none of its warmth. Terrain, forged and crumpled by glaciers that melted before the time of man, is beaten relentlessly by icy, power-filled winds. Blocks of ice as large as Hyde Park collapse into the sea. Icebergs, some as flat as table-tops, others emulating the pointed mountains they have left behind, float almost imperceptibly forward – some returning to the continental shelf, others destined to drift out of sight forever.

By 1941, global upheaval had reached fever pitch, and the base camps would be abandoned, much of their personnel redeployed to join the conflict. Antarctica’s airwaves fell silent and the dreams of establishing a permanent presence in the region were forgotten in the chaos of the Second World War. The Antarctic program would eventually continue, however, and thanks to Harrison Holt Richardson, the golden days of polar exploration are there in full colour for future generations to enjoy.

You too can enjoy it for yourself by clicking on the video below. To compensate for the lack of audio, I watched it accompanied by – what else – Vangelis’s soundtrack to the 1983 film Antarctica.

*****

Further Reading

Unsurprisingly, there is no shortage of resources on the expedition. Those searching online in particular will find a plethora of resources, including this site, which gives a good overview of 200 years of Antarctic exploration, as well as chronicle the life of Admiral Byrd himself.

In contrast, little information exists on Harrison Holt Richardson, and what I did find was largely sourced from his New York Times obituary.

Next Time

Germ warfare plagues the earth when a military-created virus is accidentally released into the planet’s atmosphere, killing almost everyone worldwide. The only survivors are a group of scientists in Antarctica, where the virus lays dormant in extreme low temperatures. The international fragments of humanity must put aside their political differences and rebuild society; however the apocalypse may not yet be over. The epic Japanese thriller Virus, aka Day Of Resurrection next time when World On Film returns. Click below to view the original Japanese trailer:

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3 responses

  1. jasetv

    That snow cruiser is a friggin’ monster! They should have named it snow *jugganaut* instead.

    April 18, 2011 at 1:38 pm

    • Or even ‘junkernaut’, given how useless it turned out to be.

      April 18, 2011 at 5:38 pm

      • jasetv

        Yeah, but it utterly comfortable to live in. Whoever thought to put shod it with tires without a tread…what were they thinking.Given the time period (1939)it was a masterpiece of engineering. Superbly designed, but utterly crap for what it was used for. IF the Russians got hold of it, it would have set them back for years. My bets are that it’s at the bottom of the Southern ocean.

        April 20, 2011 at 10:13 pm

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