ADVENTURE IS MAN’S GREATEST LOVE. AND LOVE IS MAN’S GREATEST ADVENTURE.
Director Jan Troell had adapted several novels in the past and became interested in Per Olof Sundman’s account of the ill-fated Swedish expedition to the North Pole that took place in 1897. But he knew that it wouldn’t be a cheap project and the search for financing stalled. The director had a small Hollywood adventure in the shape of Hurricane (1979), a disaster movie starring Jason Robards and Mia Farrow. The film was critically maligned, but back in Sweden Troell finally had some luck and was able to mount his expedition. Well, he certainly did a lot better than S.A. Andrée.
Boosted by patriotic fever
After a failed first attempt to fly to the North Pole in a hydrogen ballon, Swedish engineer S.A. Andrée (Max von Sydow) is preparing another expedition together with his colleagues, Nils Strindberg and Knut Fraenkel (Göran Stangertz, Sverre Anker Ousdal). Andrée’s project is boosted by patriotic fever, a widespread urge to explore the unknown before other countries do it, but the engineer is also challenged by experts who fear that he’s underestimating the dangers. In the summer of 1897, the expedition moves to Svalbard in northern Norway and finally the weather is right for Andrée’s ballon the Eagle to start its journey to the North Pole.
Right from the start things go wrong as the Eagle loses its drag ropes and thereby the only means of steering the balloon. After two days, the Eagle crashes into the ice and the three men prepare to walk all the way to Franz Josef Land…
The stuff of legend
The story of Andrée and his journey became the stuff of legend early on. The three men disappeared in 1897 and their bodies were not found until 1930. When they were brought back to Stockholm, 30 years after the flight of the Eagle, the men were considered heroes who died for a noble cause. Things have changed over the years. People have a natural desire to regard explorers as brave men and women who risk everything to learn more about the ocean or space or the North Pole; we want mysteries solved. But in the case of the Eagle there was reason to question the whole affair – foolish nationalism inspired it and alarming incompetence doomed it.
All of this is mirrored in Troell’s film, which captures the hysteria surrounding Andrée as well as his refusal to understand the risks. You could argue that perhaps there is little reason to see a movie that spends its entire second half subjecting us to the horrors of three men facing an inevitable destiny, but Troell makes it worth our time; this may be a slow film but utterly compelling. He is clearly fascinated by tragic adventures such as this and the story of 19th century emigrants who left Sweden for a better life in America, as depicted in the director’s Emigrant Saga; you could say that these films in themselves are adventures, considering the challenges and hard work that lie behind them. It is quite an achievement to maintain tension and engage our imagination the way Troell does here in spite of no surprises.
A documentary-like approach and meticulous attention to detail make us feel like we’re really traveling to the North Pole; Troell and his team did prepare by going to Svalbard to document the landscape and get a feel for it. The cast is perfect, especially von Sydow who really embodies the dual nature of Andrée; daring but ultimately a failure.
Even though this is a technically brilliant film, the director does not lose sight of the human tragedy. Flashbacks to the men’s lives in Sweden that exude warmth bring a fascinating but sad relief to their northern misery.
The Flight of the Eagle 1982-Sweden-West Germany-Norway. 140 min. Color. Produced by Göran Setterberg. Directed, photographed and edited by Jan Troell. Screenplay: Klaus Rifbjerg, Ian Rakoff, Jan Troell, Georg Oddner. Book: Per Olof Sundman. Music: Hans-Erik Philip. Cast: Max von Sydow (S.A. Andrée), Göran Stangertz (Nils Strindberg), Sverre Anker Ousdal (Knut Fraenkel), Clément Harari, Eva von Hanno, Lotta Larsson… Jan-Olof Strandberg, Ulla Sjöblom, Mimi Pollak, Cornelis Vreeswijk, Ingvar Kjellson, Allan Schulman, Peter Schildt, Lasse Pöysti.
Trivia: Original title: Ingenjör Andrées luftfärd. Also shown as a miniseries. Troell returned to the subject in his documentary A Frozen Dream (1997).
Venice: Best Actor (von Sydow).