General Umberto Nobile (Peter Finch) sits alone in his apartment, watching a documentary on television about his aviation exploits. One in particular, the events that have haunted him down these years since 1928 when his ill-fated expedition to the North Pole took place. Before then, he has been lauded by Benito Mussolini's Italian government as a hero, and since the North Pole had been conquered it was thought that a flight up there would be capably handled by Nobile and his crew. Little did they know they were headed for disaster - but how responsible was the General who took them there in his airship?
A spectacular-looking Italian-Russian co-production featuring a Scotsman playing one of the most famous Norwegians in history? Yes, it happened, and all the signs are this was expected to be the blockbuster it failed to be, an international effort to bring a true life adventure to the big screen that was released in two versions: a long one for the Soviets and a short one for the rest of the world. It begins eccentrically, as Nobile assembles the ghosts of that fateful event in his sitting room to hold a trial to judge exactly how culpable he was for the lives of those who died and the overall failure of the mission.
Although these scenes, which are returned to throughout the film, underline the themes of responsibility and the drive to achieve great things whatever the cost, the story would have been just as effective without them and they prove distracting long before the end. However, they do offer more screen time for Sean Connery, whose Roald Amundsen is a small part of the tale that adds to the overall tragedy. In the 1928 sequences Connery has about three scenes, so his fans may be a little let down, but during the trial he takes on the wise old owl persona that Nobile needs to feel justified and assuage his guilt.
Whether the real Nobile felt any better after seeing this is unknown - he was still alive when it was released - but the film does go some way to vindicating his behaviour. In many ways, Nobile is the victim of both success and circumstance, as the impression you leave with is that the expedition would have been better never attempted. They did manage to reach the North Pole but it was as they were deciding if they should land in poor weather that they hit a major snag, which was that they lost control of the airship and it broke into two pieces, the balloon and the control room and quarters.
It was the underside that Nobile and his crew landed in - this sequence ranks with the best of the disaster movies of the coming decade - and had to set about building shelter, the red tent of the title. Eventually, thanks to a small scrap of paper scribbled on with pencil (really) they get their radio working and a man in Russia picks up the signal. Many days have gone by and the usefulness of sending another search party is questioned, but Valeria (Claudia Cardinale), a nurse girlfriend of one of the survivors, won't let them be abandoned: Amundsen is one of the people she persuades to join the hunt. All through this we're meant to be questioning Nobile's decisions, but the manner in which they're presented lead you to think he had no choice in how things turned out. Apart from one thing: the film never queries the rationale of the expedition in the first place. Music by Ennio Morricone (in the international version)