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Vintage Films from Pole to Pole

article-imageHerbert George Ponting documenting Antarctica in 1912 (via National Library NZ)

There is something so magical and evocative about a vintage film —the strange voice overs, the flickering black and white images, the faces of people long gone. Join us on a video journey to the world’s polar places, as they were viewed in the 1900s to 1960s.

Encyclopedia Britannica’s Eskimos (Winter in Western Alaska) from 1950 shows a day in the life of an Inuit family. The colonial perspective in this film is regrettable, nevertheless it is a fascinating moment in a culture’s history, and contains some fun details, like “their pillow is a log,” and “Can you see what he’s bringing in? It’s a piece of hard packed snow to melt for morning tea.”

The U.S. Army Air Force created this training film Land and Live in the Arctic during WWII, and, while it’s full of helpful tips for survival in harsh Arctic conditions, it is rife with hilarious voice overs. One is our trusty narrator, giving sage survival advice, and the other from the man who is reluctantly surviving. A few choice quotes:

On frostbite: “My schnoz looks like a vanilla popsicle.”

On standing still if you see wolves: “Mister, you stand still. If wolves come around to take census, they’ll be interviewing me from the top of a tree!”

And on taking off layers if you start to sweat: “All I gotta say is this is one hell of a spot for a strip tease!”

In gorgeous desaturated color, the US Navy’s A Portrait of Antarctica from 1961, takes us to the South Pole via sea, air, and land, including a glimpse of Mt. Erebus, many an icy beard, and a slide-whistle sound effect for penguins hopping out of the ocean. 

Lastly, a strange and somewhat melancholy film, The Truth About the North Pole from 1912, was created by Fredrick Cook in an attempt to prove that he did indeed arrive at the North Pole (in 1908) before Robert Peary, as he claimed. Whether or not Cook actually stood at the exact spot of the North Pole (or simply somewhere else nearby) continues to be a subject of debate today. The silent film, though incredibly slow and somewhat confusing, is absolutely captivating to watch. There is a haunting quality to it, created by a man attempting to prove his accomplishment, and us knowing that he never did receive the recognition he so desperately wanted, and that his reputation as an explorer never recovered from the controversy.


Polar Week is January 27 - 31, 2014 at Atlas Obscura. Follow along on Twitter (hashtag #PolarWeek), FacebookTumblrGoogle+, and Kinja