January 28, 2024

Litter Box Treasures: THE RED TENT (1969)

In Litter Box Treasures, we focus on a variety of older films which aren’t necessarily classics, but are well-worth discovering.

Starring Peter Finch, Sean Connery, Claudia Cardinale, Hardy Kruger, Massimo Girotti. Directed by Mikhail Kalatozov. (121 min)


The Red Tent
is a lavish, expensive Russian-Italian co-production that died at the box office in 1969. Too bad, really, because aside from a pretentious narrative framework, this is a tense & exciting adventure story of survival and rescue based on an ill-fated 1928 airship expedition to the North Pole. For those who enjoy such survival stories as The Flight of the Phoenix or Alive, the movie is well-worth checking out.

Peter Finch plays the stoic General Nobile, an Italian explorer who leads his team on a dirigible flight to the North Pole, more for national pride than any scientific purpose. When the airship crashes, Nobile and the surviving members of his team must brave the worst elements on Earth, their chances of survival dwindling every day. As the days pass with no contact, few back home hold much hope of their chances for survival, save for Valeria (Claudia Cardinale), a lovely nurse whose boyfriend, Malmgren (Eduard Martsevich) is among the team members. 

After determining the team’s location could be anywhere in a 2 million square mile area, the Italian government believes it’s futile & dangerous to organize a search party. Valeria doesn’t give up, enlisting the aid of slimy mercenary pilot Einar Lundborg (Hardy Kruger), then eventually begging famed arctic explorer Roald Amundsen (Sean Connery) to search for them, though the latter is pessimistic that anyone is still alive. Once it’s discovered there are survivors, there’s the monumental dilemma of how to get to them. Meanwhile, Nobile and his men are dealing with bitter cold, hunger, bears, dwindling hope, dissension (some want to attempt the walk out of there, while Nobile thinks its suicide) and the continually shifting, cracking ice cap on which they’re stranded.

"Yay! Snow day!"

The Red Tent tells a great story with one narrative drawback...it is told in flashback. Framing the survival & rescue tale are segments in which Nobile, 40 years later on a sleepless night, recalls the events as the other characters appear as apparitions to judge his actions. It’s a personal trial he has repeatedly subjected himself to since the tragedy. Those scenes are not really necessary and simply aren’t as exciting as the rest of the movie, adding an arty, pretentious air to the proceedings. They could easily be removed and the film would still remain an intense tale of survival.

The performances are all uniformly great. Finch is terrific as Nobile, displaying strength & vulnerability in the face of adversity. Kruger is also effective, with a cocky selfishness that gives the audience someone to hate. Even though he’s top-billed, Connery is more of a supporting player and really isn’t in the film all that much, not even appearing until the last 45 minutes.

While the special effects are fairly phony (check out the tethers supporting a model plane during a crash scene), the movie benefits from great location work, with northern Russia subbing for the North Pole, so you get a great feel for the isolation the survivors experience. For the most part, Ennio Morricone provides a suitably dramatic & sweeping music score, save for the goofy synthesizer interlude during a horse-riding scene. And despite the G rating, the movie is sometimes pretty violent, particularly in a scene in which a polar bear is shot and eaten.

The needless flashback framework notwithstanding, The Red Tent is an intense and fascinating tale of survival in the worst possible conditions, with great performances from its international cast. A forgotten minor gem that deserves a second life.

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