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Expedition South (1961)


The Thala Dan brings relief supplies and 33 new men to Mawson, Australia’s largest Antarctic station, in early 1960. They will relieve the winter party, who have spent a year on the ice. In fine weather, teams erect new huts and a new diesel powerhouse. RAAF personnel rush to assemble a Dakota DC-3 aircraft, which has been disassembled for the 15-day journey south. Each wing must be attached with hundreds of small bolts inserted by hand, but the cold makes the work difficult.

The first serious storm changes the landscape of the camp, dumping snow everywhere. The new men get to work maintaining the powerhouse, collecting data for the meteorological and physics laboratories, and manning the radio room or the kitchen. The radio broadcasts weather information to the other bases in Antarctica – American, Russian, Belgian, South African and Japanese – remaining on duty 16 hours a day, in regular contact with Perth, Western Australia. Physicist John Humble and his colleagues work with the Universities of Tasmania and Adelaide recording data on cosmic rays, meteors and auroras. The Husky dogs must also be fed and ice melted for fresh water – the only water supply. In the kitchen, the cook tries to come up with new ways to use the same ingredients, as the camp receives no fresh food during the year.

After the worst of the winter, everyone prepares for exploration. The Dakota begins photographic reconnaissance. RAAF pilots fly men, dogs and supplies 800 kms south to the southern Prince Charles Mountains to resupply an advance party already there. These men have been out for some time, driving Caterpillar tractors pulling sleds piled with supplies. A second plane, a de Havilland DHC2 Beaver, looks for a route for a dog team across the Fisher Glacier towards Mount Menzies, the highest peak in the Prince Charles Mountains. The tractor trains then turn north for home, travelling at four miles per hour, the drivers watching constantly for hidden crevasses.

As the summer begins, seal pups are born on the ice. Adélie penguins nest on rocky outcrops in large colonies, and some of their eggs become omelettes for the men. The returning inland party has struck trouble: a tractor has slipped into a crevasse. It must be dug out with winches, and the trail ahead must then be checked for more crevasses, which slows the return journey. Once out of the danger area, they make better progress, averaging 50 kms per day, in warmer temperatures. They will soon be back at base, ready for the next relief ship to arrive.

Curator’s notes

The Australian Antarctic program was a mature operation by 1960. It had been underway for 13 years and now had three permanent bases in Antarctica, and another at Macquarie Island. The scientific programs were well established, funding was marginally more secure, and the depth of experience within the Antarctic Division was considerable, under the leadership of its director, Phillip Law. Nevertheless, every year presented new dangers and difficulties, and none more than 1959. There were three disastrous fires, two at Mawson and one at Macquarie; two aircraft were destroyed at Mawson; and one member of the party at the new Wilkes base was killed in an accident, while another had to be restrained in a makeshift cell there for six months after he turned psychotic and violent.

None of these things is mentioned in Expedition South, which is perhaps a stark illustration of the nature of government filmmaking. These films were not made as history, although they documented history being made. They were propaganda of a benign sort. Australians were interested in the work being done in the south, but neither Phillip Law, nor his superiors in the Department of External Affairs, thought they should be allowed to know too much. Indeed, the department went to extremes to ensure they did not. For example: all messages about the man with the psychiatric illness were sent in code, in case someone was listening. The Australian newspapers, although generally supportive, would have loved a story about a madman loose in an Antarctic base.

Expedition South, shot during 1960, is almost comically calm, given the events of 1959. The film gives only one clue of what had happened – it shows the construction of a new powerhouse, but fails to tell us why it was necessary (the old one had burned down). Since many of these films were probably seen by the families of men who were about to go south, or men who were already there, there was a strong drive towards reassurance. The music often suggests danger, and the images admit of that danger, but the films of this period use technology as a comforter. Expedition South shows how ships, aeroplanes and tractors are keeping the men safe, and within reach of help when difficulties arise.

Some of this may have been deliberate, although some of it seems almost unconscious. Most of the Australian government films of the 1950s fit a template, whether they are about immigration, agriculture or Antarctica. The tone is optimistic, productive, goal-driven, part of the nation-building project that was born out of the wreckage of the Second World War. Governments, both Labor and conservative, followed the same message: Australia Unlimited. The Antarctic films fit the pattern, only with much more exotic drama and beauty. They provided a vicarious thrill for audiences, both travelogue and subtle propaganda, in the age before television became all-powerful (Australians had been exposed to black-and-white TV for just over three years by 1960).

Expedition South is one of the most beautiful of the Antarctic films, with its aerial shots of the Prince Charles Mountains and the extraordinary ice formations on the high plateau. It is also notable for the way it departs from the traditions of the earlier films. It dispenses with the customary travelling south pictures, in which we would see the ship rocking and rolling; it features no shots of Phillip Law; no hand-drawn maps showing the route of the ship and no real icebergs. It’s far more austere and businesslike, concentrating most of its first efforts on explaining the scientific work underway at Australia’s bases. In a sense, it’s a post-pioneering film. All the earlier films were partly about the huge effort in getting there; this one is about daily work for those staying the winter. It’s a subtle shift of emphasis – the journey is not so important, but the work is.

Science was never the purpose of these bases, at least in the early years. It was the smokescreen for the real aim, which was territorial. Australia in 1933 had made an ambitious claim for 42 per cent of all Antarctic territory. Sir Douglas Mawson and Phillip Law argued that Australia needed to occupy the land if those claims were to be substantiated. In fact, Law and Mawson believed wholeheartedly in the science, but they both understood that the politicians and bureaucrats in Canberra did not share their enthusiasm. For Law, it meant a constant struggle to fund science programs at the bases. By late 1959, the territorial imperative was somewhat reduced by the signing of the Antarctic Treaty, in which all of the key nations – and especially the USA and the USSR – agreed to freeze all claims on territory, and to maintain Antarctica as an unmilitarised, non-nuclear zone. This astonishing agreement, made at the height of the Cold War, remains in force today, with 43 nations as signatories.

Phillip Law felt that the Antarctic Treaty should liberate Australia’s scientific efforts in Antarctica. The resolution of territorial tensions would allow the scientists to get on with their work – not just the Australians, but the Russians and Americans too, both of whom had set up bases in Australia’s claimed territory, without asking Australia’s permission. As neither country recognised our claim, neither recognised a need for permission. The Americans did offer a gesture. They had set up Wilkes base, on the Windmill Islands, as part of their contribution to the International Geophysical Year in 1957–58, but they did not wish to maintain it after the initial flurry of science associated with the IGY (see Antarctic Voyage, 1956). Washington offered the base on long-term loan to Australia, complete with its extensive supplies and relatively lavish facilities. Australia agreed, and Phillip Law supervised the move into the new base in February 1959, using the Magga Dan. Her sister ship Thala Dan would handle the annual resupply voyage to Mawson and Davis bases, as usual.

The same arrangement pertained the next year, with Law on the Magga Dan going to Wilkes, and his deputy Don Styles taking the Thala Dan to Davis and Mawson. That may explain why Law isn’t shown in this film: most of it was shot at Mawson by Jeffrey Newton, and Law wasn’t there during most of the changeover. Law would certainly have had a large hand in how the film was put together a year later at the Commonwealth Film Unit. The emphasis on science reflects his keen feeling that this work needed to be understood and supported. He was more right than he knew, given what we now understand about the forces at work in the earth’s climate, much of which has come out of Antarctic research. It may also reflect the fact that Richard Casey retired as Minister for External Affairs early in 1960. Casey had been a strong ally for Law, and a protective buffer when Law upset the External Affairs bureaucrats, as he often did. By late 1960, Law was dealing with a new minister, Senator John Gorton. It might be that Expedition South is at least partly a stab at educating the new minister about the scientific work his division was doing.