Roald Amundsen was one of the world’s greatest polar explorers, most famous for beating rival Robert F Scott to the South Pole and planting the Norwegian flag there. Now another race is on to portray his life on the big screen, with no less than four different film projects underway in Norway and Hollywood.
Amundsen is set to receive the same treatment as other Norwegian male heroes before him, such as Thor Heyerdahl and Max Manus, with an epic film about his life and achievements. Not just one film, but four.
Hollywood A-listers Ben Affleck and Matt Damon want to make a film about the race of life and death against Scott, with the working title “The Race to the South Pole.” Meanwhile three other films about Amundsen are also being made in his home country, following on from the centennial celebrations in 2011 of his arrival at the South Pole.
All the interest right now is not coincidental, according to Geir Kamsvåg, editor of the film magazine Cinema. “There is always a need for heroes, and if one is looking for Norwegian heroes, there are few who are known internationally. So Amundsen is someone they can do something with. There’s been a huge international success with Thor Heyerdahl, and it’s clear that Amundsen is also interesting,” Kamsvåg recently told state broadcaster NRK.
Amundsen is most famous for leading the legendary expedition to the South Pole in 1911, beating the rival British expedition led by Scott. His expedition went very smoothly, taking a total of three months there and back, and he arrived 35 days ahead of Scott’s doomed party, all of whom died on the return journey.
“The greatness of Amundsen’s achievements is not just known to Norwegians, he’s also a major historical figure internationally,” Asle Vatn, producer for Friland Film, told newspaper Dagsavisen. The company behind the successful thriller “Headhunters” (Hodejegerne) is also going to make a film version of Amundsen’s race to the South Pole. They’ve had talks with several potential directors in Hollywood, and have secured a distribution agreement with Nordisk Film, as well as EUR 115,000 in funding from the EU’s media program.
The Norwegian directors of last year’s “Kon-Tiki” success, Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg, are also planning their own film. “There are several Amundsen projects … and big competition, so we just have to concentrate on our own film and hope that our project has the right to live,” producer Espen Horn at Motion Blur told NRK.
The director duo has already made films about two of Norway’s other great male heroes, with last year’s Oscar-nominated “Kon-Tiki” about Thor Heyerdahl’s expedition in 1947, and the biographical war film “Max Manus” about the revered resistance fighter. “We have always wanted to make a film about Amundsen … he was a very complicated person. His life was made up of great expeditions, he was a national treasure, and he became a scapegoat,” said Horn.
Their film is about Amundsen’s life as well as achievements. “It’s also about his relationships, with his girlfriend and brother, and his death in the Arctic ,” Horn told NRK. They have applied for funding from the Norsk Filminstitutt (NFI).
Finally, an animation film about Amundsen’s life is also on the cards, from the Norwegian Oscar-winning animation company Mikrofilm.
Amundsen’s life provided plenty of drama and excitement for filmmakers, especially the nail-biting race to the South Pole, which led to a popular TV series in the 1980s. He was arguably better prepared and planned better than Scott for the expedition, although this has been heavily debated ever since. He was already a skilled skier, as were all of his team, and had also mastered dog sledding. As part of his earlier training when he lived in Oslo (then Christiania) he swam every day in the fjord, and slept all year round with the window open. He had also spent two years with Netsilik Inuits on a prior expedition to the North Pole, and learned how they survived, about their diet, how to build igloos and how to dress in Eskimo-style animal skins, instead of the heavy wool suits used by Scott’s party.
(See rare film footage of Amundsen preparing for the South Pole expedition here, from the Norwegian Polar Institute).
When he later wrote about the legendary expedition, he linked his success to planning and preparation. “I may say that this is the greatest factor — the way in which the expedition is equipped, the way in which every difficulty is foreseen, and precautions taken for meeting or avoiding it. Victory awaits him who has everything in order — luck, people call it. Defeat is certain for him who has neglected to take the necessary precautions in time. This is called bad luck.”
A documentary film about Amundsen’s later expedition on his ship Maud (named after the then-Norwegian queen, who actually was British) is also being made by Norwegian film company Skofteland Film. “The expedition was labeled as a fiasco, but it was possibly one of our most important polar expeditions, also internationally,” the producer told NRK. With the working title “Maud Returns,” it follows artist Jan Wanggaard as he travels to the North West Passage, to rescue the wreckage of Amundsen’s ship, and bring it back to Vollen in Asker, west of Oslo. On this later ill-fated Maud expedition, Amundsen’s ship spent two winters stuck in polar ice, and he suffered from a broken arm, an attack from a polar bear and carbon dioxide poisoning.
Amundsen was the explorer who was first to reach both the South and, arguably, the North Poles, and to have discovered the North West Passage in the Canadian Arctic, but he also faced many economic hardships and debts from his expeditions. In 1924 he went on a lecture tour in the US to raise funds. The tour did not go smoothly, partly because of his English pronunciation with a strong Norwegian accent. In his autobiography from 1927 he called this time “the most embarrassing, humiliating … and most tragic episode in my life.”
In 1927 Amundsen’s ship Maud was seized to cover part of his debts after the expedition, and he declared himself bankrupt. “After 30 years of determined work, and after a life lived according to the most honorable principles, that my name was then dragged through the dirt … was an inexpressible humiliation,” he wrote in his autobiography.
Amundsen later made explorations by airship and then airplane, when this became possible. He disappeared on June 18 1928 while flying on a rescue mission. It is believed that his plane crashed in fog in the Barents Sea, and that Amundsen was killed in the crash, or died shortly afterwards. His body has never been found, and the search was called off three months after the crash by the Norwegian government. They declared the day that the South Pole was reached, December 14, as a national remembrance day, marked by two minutes silence at 12 o’clock.