Cracked Like the Ice
What keeps you awake is why you did it.
—Roald Amundsen (Sean Connery), The Red Tent
Like many disaster movies before it, The Red Tent asks what drives people to explore dangerous, barren outreaches. And it offers the usual rationales: hubris, competition, fame, money, ambition, some misguided notion of purity or beauty. But this film has something more on its mind. It uses its adventure saga to prompt a couple of philosophical questions, like, what constitutes leadership and courage?
Red Tent recounts the true story of an ill-fated 1928 expedition to the North Pole. In a dirigible. Yes, a blimp in the Arctic just seems like a bad idea. Italian General Umberto Nobile (Peter Finch) leads the voyage. After the inevitable crash (which happens soon after they triumphantly toss a cross draped with an Italian flag out on the ice, one of many critiques the film makes of such explorers’ arrogance), he and his surviving crew argue about what to do. Three men mutiny and set off on foot, while the rest try to repair their radio to signal rescuers. They paint their sole tent red for planes to spot on the ice. Their potential rescuers include some military officers eager to save face, and a crewmember’s girlfriend, Valeria (Claudia Cardinale). She urges a mercenary pilot, Lundborg (Hardy Kruger), and a famous Norwegian explorer, Roald Amundsen (Sean Connery), to join the multi-national rescue efforts.
While this tale might have given director Mikheil Kalatozishvili license for sensationalism (like some rumored cannibalism), the film focuses on ideas instead. It opens 40 years after the event, with an elderly, regretful Nobile watching old black and white news coverage of his failed voyage. In the style of a National Geographic documentary, the TV show recounts the events and passions that drove him, the voice-over intoning, “Why? For reasons of science? Certainly. But there was also the explorer’s age-old reason. For vanity, the desire to be first.” The film doesn’t exploit its historical context (Mussolini’s fascist regime), but it surely resonates here.
The film pursues another sort of context. After watching the broadcast, tortured by questions of his own guilt or innocence, Nobile can’t sleep and is haunted by visions of his crew and rescuers, whom he imagines appearing in his home to put him on trial for “failure to exercise command, desertion, and cowardice.” Nobile’s decision-making during the crash ordeal constitutes the real drama. While he was disgraced and stripped of his military duties at the time, all these years later he still hasn’t determined if he did the right thing.
This psychological drama is quirky and compelling. Nobile wrings his hands as more and more characters appear in his waking nightmare and recount events in flashbacks. He’s sure that these ghosts of the past are there to condemn him. But it turns out that these characters are all wracked by guilt and fear too, so the dynamic turns therapy session. They’re each bound together by this larger-than-life calamity and their individual roles in it, and each finds his or her actions held up for scrutiny, with Amundsen playing the judge (Connery as existentialist philosopher king).
A particularly gripping moment comes when Lundborg accuses Amundsen of being overly theatrical in the proceedings (meta-commentary on the tendency to make our lives into grand narratives and to perform identity). Amundsen questions the pilot’s own mercenary motives, and Lundborg insists money is a means to happiness. Like precision surgery, Amundsen’s reply dismantles the flyboy: “You don’t look like a happy man, exactly. More like a man who’s learned to be indifferent to unhappiness… A man who is indifferent to his own unhappiness is indifferent to everything.” The verbal attacks escalate: Valeria assails Nobile’s leadership, hissing, “You cracked like the ice, General Nobile”; a Russian ship captain explains why some of his men tried to fly a plane off on an ill-advised rescue attempt by saying, “It was their own lives they were risking. That is always seductive.”
Amundsen declares them all “bitter and unfit to judge.” Instead of hanging Nobile high, the movie tries to define courage (it’s relative, as when Amundsen says, “Too much or not enough courage in the Artic” is equally bad) and responsibility. Good leaders have to be fully human (and humane), but that means they will sometimes fail.
The Red Tent is an odd but serious-minded film. Sometimes its solemnity becomes laughable (when Nobile’s pup appears unharmed, a crew member yells, “The dog, the dog is saved!”; a later scene of the mutt riding on a dogsled similarly dislodges the grave tone). But its forcefulness emerges in complex and conflicted characters. As they endure such an extreme situation and dissect it later (some from beyond the grave), they poke holes in standard heroic adventure narratives. The movie comes around to Amundsen’s point of view, as he growls: “I’ve come to think that human beings have no business in the Arctic.”