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The Secret Land

The Secret Land(1948)

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teaser The Secret Land (1948)

The Oscar winner for Best Documentary Feature of 1948 was The Secret Land, the chronicle of a U.S. Naval expedition to Antarctica. Known as Operation Highjump, it embarked in late 1946 with an armada of thirteen vessels, including an icebreaker, submarine and aircraft carrier, transporting 29 planes and helicopters, and 4700 men. There were also bulldozers, caterpillar sledges and other vehicles designed for snow and ice.

Commanded by Rear Admiral Richard E. Byrd, who had famously explored the Antarctic many times already, the purpose of the mission was to train military personnel in polar operations, test cold-weather equipment, map the land, and study the value of the natural resources buried under the ice.

In an arrangement with MGM, the Navy also brought dozens of military cameramen and fifty cameras to document the mission. The footage, over 300,000 feet in all, was then edited into a finished film in Hollywood, overseen by producer Orville O. Dull, an MGM house producer who appears to have been producing his first credited documentary.

In the end, the expedition surveyed over 180,000 square miles of never-before-mapped land and explored 1.5 million square miles in all. The ice and cold are natural antagonists as well as objects of beauty in this film, and penguins are on hand to supply humor, but the cameras were also there for many unexpected dramas: a rescue of airmen lost for two weeks, the rescue of a Navy captain who is swept overboard when a line snaps, an icebreaker saving another ship from being crushed after it is enveloped by sea ice, and more.

There's also the discovery, by Navy pilot David Bunger, of the "Bunger Oasis," a vast expanse of blue lakes and snow-free mountains--sort of a Shangri-La in the Antarctic. In an interview with the Los Angeles Times in 1948, Bunger described his discovery: "When I first saw the land it was a dark patch that might have been a distant mountain, and I thought it must be a mirage. There are many optical illusions of that sort in the polar regions. Within a half hour of flying we knew that it was real, but incredible at the same time."

MGM got three movie stars to provide the narration, billed as Cmdr. Robert Montgomery U.S.N.R., Lt. Robert Taylor U.S.N.R., and Lt. Van Heflin A.A.F. (Ret.). The Secret Land was very well received by critics and was popular at the box office; for many viewers, this was the first time they had seen the Antarctic in color. In a winking nod to a shared maritime theme, The Secret Land opened in some theaters on a double bill with Luxury Liner (1948), a musical with George Brent and Jane Powell.

By Jeremy Arnold

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