You can view Antarctic Vigil here in its entirety. An Australian ship lumbers south through heavy seas towards Antarctica. At the forbidding Balleny Islands, claimed by New Zealand, the inaccessible terrain forbids a landing. King penguin chicks covered in down greet the ship at Macquarie Island, site of an Australian base. At Kerguelen Island, the Australians visit the abandoned French whaling station, en route to Heard Island, where Australia has its second sub-Antarctic base. The base is surrounded by abundant wildlife, but the Australian team living there has to endure bitter weather that changes very quickly. The men practise their skills for when Australia will establish a base on the Antarctic continent itself.
This beautiful footage contains a couple of mysteries, chief of which is when it was filmed, and by whom. The Australian National Antarctic Research Expedition (ANARE) had been renamed the Antarctic Division of the Department of External Affairs in May 1948, after the first two voyages took place. These bodies established bases at Heard and Macquarie Island, halfway to Antarctica, but not on the continent itself. Alan Campbell-Drury became the new division’s first photographic officer soon after, but he was already one of the experienced hands. He went as a radio operator on the expedition that set up the base at Heard Island in December 1947, aboard the navy’s LST 3501, a Landing Ship Tank left over from the Second World War. He stayed there for 15 months and shot cine footage throughout. Some of the footage here almost certainly dates from his period on Heard Island, notably the final shots of the extraordinary lenticular (lens-shaped) clouds. David Eastman went on the same voyage on the LST 3501 as official photographer, but he returned with the ship to Australia, after they unloaded the wintering group.
Wally Nutt wintered on Macquarie Island during 1950 so it’s likely that some of the footage of king penguins and their chicks was shot by him during that year. He may also have shot the scenes of an amphibious landing vehicle (a DUKW, in army parlance) swamped on a beach at Macquarie. This footage may be from May 1951, when Law records in his diary the loss of a DUKW at Lusitania Bay, while trying to unload cargo to a research camp.
The real confusion is in the beginning of the film when we see the mountainous deep blue seas, shot from aboard an Australian ship. The narration does not mention the name of the ship, which is almost unheard of in these films – we always learn the name of the ship. One possible reason may be that these colour images date from 1947 or early 1948, not 1951 or 1952. The clue is that we see sail-rigging in some shots. That suggests that these images were taken on board HMAS Wyatt Earp (see Antarctica 1948, 1949), a wooden ship that made the first Australian exploratory trip south after the war. She was the only Australian Antarctic ship in the postwar era that had sails, as well as a diesel engine. It may be that Phillip Law, who was a competent and enthusiastic photographer, shot these images in colour on that first voyage to Antarctica. It was difficult to process colour negative in Australia at the time, so he may have decided to hang onto them until that could be achieved. A few shots early in the film are an exact match for shots in black-and-white in Antarctica 1948 (1949), the first Antarctic film of the postwar era – we see the same tubular iceberg with an arch in both films. We also see the Balleny Islands, which the Wyatt Earp visited on the 1948 trip, because she was unable to make landfall on the Antarctic continent itself.
Those two things together make it very likely that the early colour footage is from Phillip Law’s first trip south on the Wyatt Earp, but that doesn’t mean he shot them. There was an official photographer on that vessel too – the distinguished portrait and fashion photographer Laurie Le Guay. We know that he shot moving images, because they make up a large part of Antarctica 1948. So there are now five possible photographers for this colour film, but only three of them are named in the credits. The credits say that Antarctic Vigil is made up of footage shot by Law, Campbell-Drury and Nutt only. They were Antarctic Division employees; the other two photographers worked for the Department of Information, and that department may have controlled their footage. This colour film is credited to the Department of the Interior, because by 1950, a new conservative government led by RG Menzies had abolished the Department of Information. 'DoI’ now meant Department of the Interior, which was responsible for meteorology, among many other roles. Australia’s sub-Antarctic bases had a primary role in providing weather information.
The Australian National Film Board is likely to have done the actual work of putting the images together. It had been established in 1945 after the visit to Australia of the distinguished British documentary maker John Grierson, in 1940. The Australian National Film Board later become known as the Commonwealth Film Unit (from 1956) and eventually, Film Australia. It has had a major role in the films dealing with Antarctica.