Better known today for his books of film biography, history, and criticism (Rosebud, 1996, etc.), Thomson initially came to attention in his native Britain with this vivid 1977 analysis of the great race to the South Pole and the character of the men who led the efforts.
Roland Huntford gained greater notoriety in 1979 with the far more trenchant Scott and Amundsen, but Thomson was the first to critically assess the myth of England's beloved national hero, Robert Falcon Scott, who perished with four of his men after their second-place finish in the 1912 race for the Pole. Slightly revised and with a new title for its first US publication, this (originally called Scott’s Men) re-examines conventional wisdom regarding the expedition, from the choice of Scott as leader to his claim that he didn't much care if he got there first. Beginning with the details of how the expedition was manned and planned, the author develops a convincing thesis: national character allowed Norwegian Roald Amundsen to reach the pole first and with relative ease. Whereas Amundsen's men grew up on skis, Scott's were never comfortable with them; Amundsen was able to be unsentimentally efficient in the use of his dog teams, but the Englishmen's sympathy for the beasts led them to attempt to reach the pole by “man-hauling.” From a rather slow beginning, Thomson proceeds to conjure the great drama that unfolded in the white wasteland. Scott's ideas of virtue, his rigid adherence to naval protocol, his reluctance to learn from the Norwegians, and his capricious decisions (the worst of which was sending three of his best men on a brutally debilitating trip to collect emperor penguin eggs before attempting the pole), all seem to declare the grim inevitability of failure. Nonetheless, Thomson maintains, “It does not mar Scott's heroism to recognize the confusing strain of misguidedness.”
Compelling, clear-eyed examination of Scott's actions and larger notions of what makes a hero.