The film is based on the story of the mission to rescue Umberto Nobile and the other survivors of the crash of the Airship Italia. It features Sean Connery as Roald Amundsen and Peter Finch as Nobile. The script was adapted by Yuri Nagibin and Mikhail Kalatozov from Nagibin's novel of the same title. Nagibin couldn't complete the script due to a series of conflicts with the producer, who insisted on expanding the role of his mistress Claudia Cardinale, and it was completed by de Concini and Bolt.
The film begins in Rome many years after the expedition. Nobile has endured years of scorn for his actions during the disaster and its aftermath. He imagines his apartment turned into a court of inquiry against him, where witnesses and judges are his former crewmen – including Captain Zappi, his navigator and his meteorologist Finn Malmgren. Also arrayed against him are Valeria, Malmgren's lover, Captain Romagna, one of the expedition's would-be recuers, famed aviator Lundborg, professor Samoilovich, chief of the Soviet rescue mission, his pilot Boris Chukhnovsky, and Roald Amundsen who lost his life in the search for survivors of Nobile's expedition.
As they try Nobile, the events of the expedition and its failure are depicted. The expedition is successful at first, but ends in disaster. The Italia is weighed down when ice forms on it. Colliding with the ground, the airship's gondola is torn from its "envelope", the upper frame which contains the airship's lifting cells. Freed of the weight of the gondola, the envelope floats away and out of control, taking some of Nobile's crew with it.
Nobile maintains control of the surviving crew who are now marooned on arctic drift ice. Rescue efforts are made by both Italy and the Soviet Union. Nobile's group is first found by Lundborg, who lands on the ice. The aviator insists he can only take Nobile. Reluctantly, Nobile agrees, sure he can best assist the rescue once he returns from the ice. These efforts are blocked: reaching the Italian ship Città di Milano he finds that his superiors have stripped him of command for apparently abandoning his crew, and he is to have no role in the rescue. Desperate, Nobile contacts the Krasin, a Soviet icebreaker also searching for the survivors. Nobile implores Samoilovich, the Krasin's captain for help in rescuing the survivors. Unfortunately, the Krasin has sustained damage. Also, because of the ice pack has drifted, Nobile cannot give the Krasin an accurate position for the survivors. Some of Nobile's crew - Zappi, Mariano and Malmgren - leave the camp in a group hoping to reach Kings Bay.
Amundsen joins the rescue effort as well, but disappears, becoming another victim of Nobile's expedition. In the film, Amundsen explains that he died soon after his plane found the remains of the envelope of the Italia, spotting what appeared to be survivors. The pilot, ordered to land, crashed and was killed. Amundsen survived the crash, but was nonetheless doomed, finding nothing to build shelter or fire with, no supplies and no hope of rescue. The men that had appeared to be survivors when seen from the air were already long dead.
Back at camp, the drift ice begins to break apart, and the survivors there barely escape from the gondola before it sinks. Alone on the ice, Nobile's survivors find themselves at their bleakest point when finally spotting the Krasin on the horizon. As the ship nears for a rescue, the survivors see Zappi and Mariano waving at them from its deck. Malmgren, who had also joined Zappi, died before he could be rescued.
Pressed for a vote, Samoilovich defends Nobile's actions, noting that his rescue of the survivors was a direct result of Nobile's escape to King's Bay. Neither can he fault Nobile's apparent lack of heroism because a captain has no right to risk his own safety by individual acts of heroism. The others quickly reach a verdict of guilty, but Amundsen discounts the verdict, finding each of the accusers unfit to judge for various reasons, including indifference to others and emotional sterility, but mostly for their bitterness. The accusers file out of Nobile's apartment, Amundsen being the last. With Amundsen, Nobile reveals his feelings of guilt for leaving the men on the ice. While Nobile admits that his decision to join Lundborg was based on a number of reasons, some correct while others were wrong, his first thoughts on entering Lundborg's plane were not of rescue, but of a good hot bath. Amundsen helps Nobile find peace by reminding him that his frailty is only a sign of humanity and not guilt.
The international version of the film features original music by Ennio Morricone, with Dino Asciolla as violin solo and Bruno Nicolai as the conductor.
The film was nominated for 1972 Golden Globe award as the best English-language foreign film.
While the 1917-built icebreaker Krasin was still in service at the time of the filming, it had been extensively rebuilt in the late 1950s. For this reason, she was substituted by the icebreaker Sibiryakov which had retained her traditional look.Peter Finch as Gen. Umberto Nobile
Sean Connery as Dr. Roald Amundsen
Claudia Cardinale as Nurse Valeria
Hardy Krüger as Lt. Einar Lundborg
Massimo Girotti as Capt. Romagna, rescue mission coordinator
Luigi Vannucchi as Capt. Zappi
Mario Adorf as Sgt. Biagi, radio operator
Eduard Martsevich as Dr. Finn Malmgren, meteorologist officer
Grigori Gaj as Prof. Rudolf Samoilovich, Chief of the Russian rescue expedition
Nikita Mikhalkov as Chukhnovsky, Russian aviator
Nikolai Ivanov as Kolka Schmidt, Russian radio amateur
Boris Khmelnitsky as Viglieri
Yuri Solomin as Troiani
Yuri Vizbor as František Běhounek
Donatas Banionis as Adalberto Mariano