Produced by Ealing Studios, the film was directed by Charles Frend and largely shot at the studios, with some landscape and glacier exteriors shot in the Swiss Alps and in Norway; no actual scenes were made in Antarctica, though some pre-war stock footage from Graham Land may have been used. The film was made in Technicolor. The script was by Ivor Montagu, Walter Meade and the novelist Mary Hayley Bell, Mills' wife. The film is also known for its score by Ralph Vaughan Williams that was later reworked into his Sinfonia antartica.
The film is largely faithful to the real events of the ill-fated polar trek, with emphasis on the stoic character of Scott and the hostility of the Antarctic environment.
Captain Scott is given the men, but not the funds, to go on a second expedition to the Antarctic. As his wife works on a bust of him, she tells him that she's "not the least jealous" that he's going to the Antarctic again. The wife of Dr. E. A. Wilson, whom Scott hopes to recruit, is much less enthusiastic, but Wilson agrees to go on condition it is a scientific expedition. Scott also visits Fridtjof Nansen, who insists that a polar expedition must use only dogs, not machines or horses. Scott goes on a fundraising campaign, with mixed results, finding scepticism among Liverpool businessmen, but enthusiasm among schoolchildren who fund the sledge dogs. With the help of a government grant he finally manages to raise enough money to finance the expedition.
After a stop in New Zealand, the ship sets sail for Antarctica. Once there, a camp is set up at the coast, and a small contingent of men, ponies and dogs begins the trek towards the pole. About halfway, the ponies are shot and some of the men are sent back with the dogs. At the three quarter mark, Scott selects the five-man team to make the push to the pole. They reach the pole only to find the Norwegian flag already planted there and a letter from Roald Amundsen asking Scott to deliver it to the King of Norway.
Hugely disappointed, Scott's team begins the long journey back. When reaching the mountains bordering the polar plateau, Wilson shows the men some sea plant and tree fossils he has found, also a piece of coal, to Scott's satisfaction, proving that the Antarctic must have been a warm place once, and opening economic possibilities. The perceived lack of such opportunities had been one criticism leveled at Scott while fundraising. Nevertheless, Scott is increasingly concerned about the health of two of his men: Evans, who has a serious cut on his hand, and Oates, whose foot is appallingly frostbitten. Evans eventually dies and is buried under the snow. Realising that his condition is slowing the team down, Oates sacrifices himself by walking out of the tent into a blizzard to his death after saying "I'm just going outside and may be away some time." Finally, just 11 miles short of a supply depot, the rest of the team dies in their tent after being trapped by a blizzard, with Scott writing the famous "I do not regret this journey…" entry in his diary.
Months later, a search party discovers the tent and the bodies. Scott's diary is also recovered, allowing the members to learn of the polar party's fate. The film ends with the sight of a large wooden cross with the five names of the dead inscribed on it as well as the quote : "To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield." (A line from the poem "Ulysses", by the Victorian era poet Alfred, Lord Tennyson.)
At the start of the film, consulted survivors and relatives of late members of Scott's expedition are thanked for their help: "This film could not have been made without the generous co-operation of the survivors and the relatives of late members of Scott's Last Expedition. To them and to those many other persons and organisations too numerous to mention individually who gave such able assistance and encouragement, the producers express their deepest gratitude."
There are several minor differences between the film and the true course of events:
In the film, Scott receives a telegram in New Zealand, but does not read it for himself or to the crew until his ship is en route to the Antarctic. It says: "I am going south. Amundsen". Scott and his crew immediately comprehend that Amundsen is heading for the South Pole. Historically however, Scott received this telegram a little earlier, in Australia, and Amundsen's true text was less clear: "Beg leave to inform you Fram proceeding Antarctic Amundsen." [Fram is Amundsen's ship]. As Amundsen had publicly announced he was going to the North Pole, the real Scott and his companions did not initially grasp Amundsen's ambiguous message, according to Tryggve Gran's diary (Gran was Scott's only Norwegian expedition member).
In the film, the Terra Nova disembarks Scott's team in the Antarctic, sails along the ice barrier without Scott and unexpectedly discovers Amundsen's Antarctic base camp. The ship therefore returns to Scott's base camp and informs Scott about Amundsen's presence in the vicinity. In historical fact, Scott was not at his base camp during this unscheduled return of his ship, but was busy laying depots in the interior of the Antarctic.
In the film, just before reaching the South Pole, Scott's team sight a black flag planted by Amundsen, and the men realise the race is lost. In the next scene, the men arrive at Amundsen's empty tent (flying a Norwegian flag) at the South Pole, and discover the paw prints of Amundsen's sledge-dogs. In historical reality, Scott and his men discovered the paw prints (and dog excrement) on the previous day at the black flag.
The film gives the impression that Scott asks himself at the South Pole whether he can manage to return to base camp safely. In reality, Scott wrote in his diary that he wished "to get the news through first" (both Scott and Amundsen had lucrative agreements with the media on exclusive interviews), but Scott realistically doubted whether he could do it (i.e., beat Amundsen to the cablehead in Australia). This error in the film is based on a small omission in the originally published diary, an omission that was rediscovered long after the film was produced.
Given that some of the real expedition members were still alive at the time of filming and were consulted, the film documents the causes for the tragedy as they were seen at the time (1948). These causes are alluded to discreetly throughout the film:In Norway, Scott consults the veteran polar explorer Nansen, who urges Scott to rely only on dogs. Scott on the other hand insists on a variety of transport means, including motor sledges, ponies, and dogs. The historical background to Scott's portrayed reluctance is that on his 1904 expedition, Scott's dogs had died of disease while Shackleton in 1908 had nearly attained the South Pole using ponies.
Scott's depicted fundraising speech is not effective, and the government gives him only £20,000. To make the expedition possible anyway, he cancels one of his two planned ships, and settles on the dilapidated Terra Nova, a photo of which he optimistically shows to Wilson, who is unmoved. This scene reflects the real Cherry-Garrard's criticism over the lack of funds and the inappropriate ship, in his book The Worst Journey in the World.
Arriving in Antarctic waters, the ship is briefly seen to fight its way through pack-ice. The parallel to the real expedition is that the ship was delayed for the unusual period of 20 days in the pack-ice, shortening the available season for preparations.
Having ascended the glacier up to the polar plateau, Scott sends home one of the supporting parties, addressing its leader Atkinson ("Atch") with the following words "Bye Atch. Look out for us about the beginning of March. With any luck we will be back before the ship has to go." This paraphrases Scott's real order to the dog teams to assist him home to base camp around March 1 at latitude 82 degrees. The order was never carried out and so Scott and his men died on their way home at the end of March.
On the return journey from the pole, the men find that the oil canisters in the depots are not full. The seals are not broken, so they speculate that the oil has evaporated.
Scott of the Antarctic was the third most popular film at the British box office in 1949.