Antarctic films offer visual surprise

People sitting in conversation on a stage, with a projected image of Antarctic expeditioners behind.
Australian Antarctic Division Senior Communications Technical Officer Ian McLean (far right) in conversation with NFSA Curator of Film, Sally Jackson (far left), and expeditioners from Casey research station (on the screen) during the midwinter film festival in Canberra. Some of the Antarctic film cases are stacked in the foreground. (Photo: NFSA)
Two Antarctic film boxes with comments written on the side.

The 1954 science fiction film, Target Earth, about killer robots from Venus, was considered by Australian Antarctic expeditioners to be so bad that it was only watchable after a few stiff drinks. Despite the bad rap, a double screening with the similarly dire Conquest of Space, was always well attended, according to Australian Antarctic Division Senior Communications Technical Officer Ian McLean.

Mr McLean volunteered his services as a projectionist in the days when Australia’s Antarctic stations provided 16 mm feature and short films for the entertainment of expeditioners.

With the advent of DVDs, many of these films, including Target Earth, have now been donated to Australia’s National Film and Sound Archive (NFSA), as an internationally significant example of “cinema in isolation”.

NFSA Curator of Film, Sally Jackson, said the collection of more than 600 films was a “living archive” of Antarctic film culture.

“The expeditioners interacted with their films, rating them out of five, leaving notes for each other about the quality of the plots and acting, and even editing some of the films by splicing in little ‘visual surprises’ from other films,” Ms Jackson said.

“For wintering expeditioners, many of whom returned year after year, this editing was a way to keep the films alive – to make them exciting again for the same audience.

“Unlike cinema today, where people just watch a film and then leave, I can imagine the expeditioners would have talked over the top of the films and poked fun at them, while they were screening.”

According to Mr McLean, who has wintered nine times between 1992 and 2011, this is exactly what happened. 

The 1940 version of Pride and Prejudice, starring Greer Garson and Laurence Olivier, for example, was so regularly viewed that expeditioners took to turning off the sound and voicing their own dialogue in British Regency English.

The 1940 classic Australian film, Forty Thousand Horsemen, about the Australian Light Horse in Palestine, was creatively edited during the Battle of Beersheba cavalry charge.

“There was a scene with hundreds of soldiers on horseback charging across the sand dunes and someone spliced in a scene from a 1970s film of people riding motorcycles in the opposite direction,” Mr McLean said.

And then there was the 1956 melodrama Tea and Sympathy, about a young man’s battle with his sexuality. Ms Jackson said that inside the film’s case she found a note reading “Stop! This film is terrible. Don’t watch it.”

Tea and Sympathy is one of David Stratton’s [renowned English-Australian film critic] favourite films. When we told him what the Antarctic expeditioners thought, he frowned,” Ms Jackson said.

Many of the feature and short films in the Antarctic collection are from the 1940s, 50s and 60s. When Mr McLean arrived in 1992 he sought to update the collections and managed to acquire a range of 1990s films from Village Roadshow.

“We got the films for free; the only caveat was that we weren’t allowed to charge admission or sell them,” he said.

As a projectionist, Mr McLean said he often spent more time managing the projector than watching the film.

“I spent a lot of time making sure the projector didn’t blow up, or that the film didn’t unspool all over the floor, or catch on fire,” he said.

“We sent the projectors off for maintenance and repair every year, but they seemed to return in a similar condition.”

Films were shown every Wednesday and Sunday night and were generally chosen by the ‘slushy’ (kitchen-hand).

To choose the films for the NFSA collection, Ms Jackson said curators selected the expeditioners’ favourites and those considered too awful to watch. They also chose films with an Australian connection, with cases that had comments written on or inside them, and oddities – such as Jaws 3D.

Target Earth and a number of short films were screened in Canberra at midwinter, to the delight of past expeditioners and the general public, and future Antarctic film nights are planned.

“Many of these films are generally available, but the fact that these particular ones have been to Antarctica and have been rated, lends another dimension to the whole story,” Ms Jackson said.

“The only place I can think of that would have the same caché as Antarctica, is space. What do astronauts watch on the International Space Station?”

Perhaps Target Earth would be better received in space.

Wendy Pyper
Australian Antarctic Division