Asked to give his assessment of Umberto Nobile's leadership in the Italia airship disaster of 1927, his friend and colleague, Samoilovich, offers this sage advice, "Men are judged by their actions and their actions by their success". What exactly are the qualities needed for leadership? "The Red Tent" is a wonderful meditation on that question. At the time Nobile was disgraced, he was accused of abandoning his men, and made a scapegoat for the disaster by Benito Mussolini's Fascist government. Forty years after the event his rest is still disturbed by doubts he has about the leadership he exercised. Could the tragedy have been averted? Was it his vanity to be the first to cross the pole by air, that led to the calamity? These and other questions are tackled in this thoughtful film.
The entire film actually takes place in the General's mind. He calls back various participants to the event, to re-live what happened, and ultimately to pass judgment on him. It is this framing device that makes the film unique, for it examines Nobile's leadership from a divergent points of view, allowing the viewers to make their own judgment as well. It is a theatrical device to be sure, but it works in this film. In time we come to learn that truth often walks on two legs and has a left and right hand. "Yet we must have judgment", says one of the participants, and so they do. These scenes which all take place in Nobile's apartment in Rome with it's warmth and comfort, provide a wonderful contrast to the stark reality of the struggle for survival at the Arctic Pole.
The film is beautifully written and the acting is of a high level throughout. Sean Connery, ridding himself of his Bond image, plays Roald Amundsen, the great Arctic explorer at the end of his days. It is Amundsen who exemplifies the qualities a great leader should have. It is the first and in some ways still the best of Connery's wise old man performances. He is also the one participant Nobile has most conspicuously not brought back. After intruding on the proceedings like some force of nature, he describes how he had reached the wreak of the Italia, only to crash land and be stranded. With nothing to do but wait to freeze to death he finds solace in his final moments of life with a book he has found strewn among the wreckage. The cynical Lundborg scornfully rejects this "final touch" as "theatrical" "But who would I be acting for?" Amundsen asks. "Yourself" Lundborg replies. "But that isn't acting," Connery wisely replies, "That's necessary. The trick is to choose the right part." The film is filled with great lines like this. Claudia Cardinale, as Nurse Valaria, provides the emotional center of the film. She resents the good people of King's Bay capitalizing on the disaster, yet she has no misgivings whatever in playing on Amundsen's sense of guilt to get him to mount a rescue attempt. After all he had introduced her lover, the Meteorologist, Finn Malgrem to Arctic exploration. She is also willing to offer herself to Lundborg if he will risk his life to fly in unsafe weather conditions. It is her bitter confrontation with Nobile after he has been safely brought back to King's Bay while the others were left freezing on the ice, that is the beginning of his sleepless nights. His inability to stop Zampi, his ambitious second in command from leaving the red tent with Mariano and Malgrem in a vain attempt to reach help, would result in the Meteorologist being lost on the ice. "You cracked like the ice." she tells the General. "We shall never meet again I hope. And I hope you never forget." He doesn't.
Peter Finch as Nobile carries the film, and he is in every way up to the task. He manages to convey the intelligence, courage, vanity and despair of this self-doubting individual. He is a man who both admires Amundsen and resents always being compared with him. Hardy Kruger plays the dashing Aviator Lundborg with a nice blend of charm and hard edge cynicism. He is the first to reach the survivors. His motives for rescuing the Nobile over the General's objections that he take the other members of his expedition first, some of whom are badly injured, may have been less than admirable, but it is this act that will ultimately save the others. Lundborg finally persuades the General to go with a combination of threats,(he will leave him and the others behind), reassurance,(six quick trips and it will be over), and finally reason, (the General is badly needed at King's Bay to organize the rescue). The others also agree the General must go. It is only when he is safely back at King's Bay, that he realizes his actions have been badly misconstrued as an act of desertion. By that time weather conditions have changed again and it is impossible to go back and rescue the others by air. "What do they think I've done?" he asks Captain Romagna, the ineffectual rescue coordinator, after reading a cable from Rome placing him under arrest. "They think you have done what you have done, I suppose." Romagna lamely replies. While aboard ship, Nobile radios his friend Samoilovitch to use the icebreaker Krassin to rescue the others. This he does. "Men are judged by their actions and their actions by their success." The General's decision to leave his men led to his being able to radio the Krassin which in turn led to the rescue of his men. "His actions, therefor were correct."
Lastly, Ennio Morricone's lush score captures both the romance of a great endeavor being undertaken and the desolate, ethereal beauty of the Arctic. This film deserves to be seen and heard, and one can only hope that one day it will be restored.
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