My nonfiction film discovery for this year

Review of The Red Tent written by Ennio de Concini, Richard L. Adams, Richard Adams and directed by Mikhail Kalatozov
Rating ****

One of the reasons I have this blog is to bring attention to nonfiction books, films, and documentaries that others might have missed. A few posts back I wrote about the film Silkwood, which was released in 1983. Today I’m writing about a film that was released in 1969.

I first learned of this story while watching a National Geographic special about the search for arctic explorer Roald Amundsen. The guy disappeared in the arctic while searching for a group of other explorers who had managed to become stranded after a freak dirigible accident. They never did find any clues as to what happened to Amundsen, but they did mention this film about the incident.

The film uses a weird framing mechanism to tell the story. They have the main character, General Umberto Nobile, in a mock trial that takes place in his imagination with a jury consisting of all the main characters in the story (now all dead). Nobile has been having trouble sleeping over accusations that he was the cause of so many deaths and that he abandoned his men by being first to be rescued. While this aspect of the film didn’t work for me, everything else about the film was pretty damn good.

This is one of those stories that is ripe for a modern day retelling. Hear that publishers? Give me a contract and I’ll do the work. This story is every bit as dramatic, maybe even more, than the story of Ernest Shakleton and the Endurance.

The story takes place in 1928 and aviation plays a big role. The goal was to fly to the north pole in a dirigible and land there. As they approached the north pole, however, the winds were too strong, so they elected to head back to their departure point. The dirigible ran into poor weather and began to ice up. Unable to maintain altitude, the men started throwing supplies and equipment overboard. Their attempts to lighten the load were not enough and the dirigible eventually ran into the polar ice. But the ship didn’t crash. Instead a part of the ship tore off, leaving ten men behind as the dirigible rose back into the air with other men still on board.

All of the men were presumed lost. But after several weeks on the polar ice they somehow got a radio to work. The radio had been shoved overboard just before the scrape with the ground. A radio operator heard their distress call and a huge rescue operation was set in place.

Amundsen, played by Sean Connery, decided to take part in the rescue effort. Problem was that the search was performed by aircraft and Amundsen’s fate was in the hands of the pilot. No one knows what happened to Amundsen. He took off on the search and never returned. But there are a number of possibilities, all of them having to do with the harsh conditions, weather, and aircraft and pilots that weren’t equipped to operate in those conditions.

The whole story of how the men survived, the attempts by three men to walk out, an ice breaker that got stuck in the ice, another rescue plane that crashed after spotting several survivors, is all dramatic stuff that holds up well. I still think that this is a little known story that would do well today.

So add this to your queue. You won’t be disappointed.

 

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