Black Ice by Bruce Bedford

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Black Ice by Bruce Bedford (2012). Dir. Hamish Wilson.  Perf. Crawford Logan, Richard Greenwood, John Walsh.  BBC Radio 4 Extra, 29 Jan. 2015.  BBCiPlayer to 28 Feb. 2015


In 1911, a year before Robert Falcon Scott’s ill-fated expedition to the Antarctic, three other intrepid explorers had embarked on a similar venture in search of penguin’s eggs.  Black Ice told their story.


One of my favorite quotations from history was uttered by the explorer George Malory, shortly before embarking on his ill-fated quest to climb Mount Everest in 1924.  When asked why he wanted to make such a hazardous journey, he replied: “Because it’s there.”  The same spirit of doing things for the sake of it informed Edward A. Wilson’s (Crawford Logan’s) venture a dozen years previously.  There was no particular need to go to the Antarctic, but the three men wanted to be the first to collect the eggs.  Call it pride if you like, or even hubris; but we have to admire the pioneering spirit of such people, even if their quests turn out to be quixotic failures.


The narrative of Black Ice oscillated between a first person account of the quest, narrated by Wilson; and a series of dialogic exchanges between the three men.  The fact that they all suffered was unquestionable; in temperatures of -60 degrees plus, they often experienced difficulties trying to keep warm, despite the regular use of penguin blubber.  At times Wilson and his closest cohort Apsley Cherry-Garrard (Richard Greenwood) contemplated turning back and abandoning the expedition altogether; but they felt that, having come so far, it might be churlish to do so.


In the end their suffering became so acute that they often found it difficult to separate fact from fiction.  Wilson’s narrative became increasingly surrealist, as he described the perpetual ice-storms that kept buffeting them; perhaps he was simply retreating into the world of the imagination, in a final admission that the expedition would never succeed.  His colleagues experienced similar suffering; at one point we understood that one of them had his head encased in ice.


Finally the ordeal became too great for them; reduced to vegetables, they decided to lie down and die.  Nature had defeated them, and it would only be later that their corpses would be discovered.  Yet we did not necessarily feel sorry for them; they had known what the risks would be, and had accepted them even before they embarked on the expedition.  They were more to be treated as heroic failures, showing great courage in a futile cause.