Based on history and Scott’s journal, the explorer organizes, promotes, and leads an expedition to be the first humans to reach the south pole.
On September 9, 1904 Captain R. F. Scott (John Mills) wrote in his diary about the unknown continent of Antarctica.
In 1908 Scott begins to plan a second expedition. He poses while his wife Kathleen Scott (Diana Churchill) sculpts his bust. He says the government approved his expedition but declined to finance it. So he will need to make a public appeal. If he does, he might lose his position in the Navy, and that discomfort could affect her. He would do it, and she agrees to support his endeavor. He is grateful and kisses her hand. He sits down and begins a letter to appeal for money.
Dr. E. A. Wilson (Harold Warrender) is sitting outside when his wife Oriana Wilson (Anne Firth) calls him to lunch. He says he found a rare flea, and she helps him preserve it in a test tube. She notices his drawing of “Natterer’s Bat.” She likes being there in the country on their own. They hear a motorcar, and Scott arrives for a visit. Oriana says he is on his honeymoon, but Scott says he hopes they will have time for one. Scott tells Wilson that Shackleton has not done it, and he is going back. Shackleton got within ninety miles of the south pole, and Oriana asks if that is not near enough. Scott says no because “it is not it.” He wants an Englishman to get there first. Scott asks Wilson to go, but Wilson says his exploring days are over; but if they were to continue scientific investigation, then he would go. Scott agrees that the scientific part is important. Wilson asks his wife if he could let Scott go without him, and she says no. Oriana offers him something to eat before he goes.
Scott has an office with the sign “British Antarctic Expedition” tacked on the door. He goes in and says good morning to Lt. Teddy Evans (Kenneth More), who shows him a chart of their contributions so far and their goal. A servant lets in Helen Field (Mary Merrett) who says she brought money from a school. Scott tells her to thank the students.
Scott is giving a public lecture and says he has addressed meetings around the country. He hopes the rivalry will stimulate their city to contribute more. He takes questions, and a man asks about the Norwegian Nansen. Scott says he has given up exploration because of his age. The man asks about Amundsen, and Scott says he is trying for the north pole. The man asks what difference it makes. Another man asks if there is any coal or other resource that could be bought or sold.
Outside in the rain the chairman apologizes to Scott they did not raise more money. Captain L. E. G. Oates (Derek Bond) tells Scott that he came from India to join his expedition. Oates says he was in the cavalry and thinks he could help with the ponies. Scott asks if he is married, and he says no. Scott agrees to take him, and Oates contributes £1,000.
Scott goes to Norway to try out a motor vehicle that makes its trail in the snow. The Norwegian man says he prefers to use dogs. He says they cannot eat a machine after it no longer works. Scott says he is taking dogs, ponies, and motorcars.
The office has a better sign, and Scott greets Wilson. Taff Evans (James Robertson Justice) is wearing goggles, and Scott recognizes him. Taff says he knew Scott would send for him. Scott asks about his appointment with Lt. H. R. Bowers (Reginald Beckwith), who comes in and points out his age is 26. Scott is impressed by his muscles, and he asks him why he wants to join. Bowers says he wants adventure and to gain knowledge. Scott says they have had 6,042 applications, and he has decided not to take anyone else. The phone rings, and Scott learns they will get £20,000. Wilson says that is short of what they wanted, but Scott says they can do it and will not cut down on the science side. Wilson asks how they will do it, and Scott says they will use one ship instead of two. Scott tells Bowers that he will take him.
On the first leg of their journey Scott gets a message in New Zealand on the ship. Kathleen asks Scott if he has a message for Peter, and he says he will bring him a penguin. Wilson says goodbye to Oriana. Kathleen asks Scott to think of her when he writes his footnotes. The ship departs as people wave.
On the ship men sit around a table and read messages. Scott gets a message from Amundsen that he is going south, and they are surprised. Scott says he changed his mind and leaves the room. Wilson joins him and says Scott wants to be first, but Scott says he will not race nor take risks.
The ship passes icebergs that become more plentiful. The ship cuts through some of them. They arrive at the great ice barrier, and Scott chooses Cape Evans to go ashore. They build a hut in eight days. A sailor asks Scott if he will take the black cat to the pole, and Scott says no. He says goodbye to the sailors and says he will see them in a year when they will return.
They work in the daylight and see penguins. Mills tells them that they will stay there for six months during the darkness of winter. On a chart he shows the route they will follow to the south pole. He says they will have to carry all their food. They have put food in depots during the summer. The plan is to enable four men to go to the pole. He says they will have to start later than he expected because the ponies cannot stand the cold. They hear a sound and run out to a ship. They hear the news that Amundsen has landed with more than a hundred dogs.
During the six-month winter night they use lamps in the hut which they share with the animals including puppies. Wilson plays music on a gramophone. Midwinter is on June 22, 1911, and they celebrate and drink toasts. A man plays piano, and Oates and Dmitri (Edward Lisak) do Russian dancing. A man recites a poem about a fur coat with a skin-side and a fur-side. They sing a Christmas carol and have a tree made of feathers and colored paper. Scott asks Surgeon Atkinson (James McKechnie) if the ponies will get them across the barrier in the spring. Atkinson says he is worried about them, and he asks if Amundsen can do it only with dogs. Scott says they can leave earlier.
The sun rises on a day that will last six months. The motorcars are started, and they haul supplies on sledges. Ponies pull smaller sledges. Scott says they have sixteen men, and he leads one of the ponies.
After four days Scott says the ponies are doing well. In a tent by a fire they prepare a hot meal.
A monument marks the place where the first motorcar gave out, but they have one other. The other motorcar fails also, and they depend on the ponies. They march during the midnight sun so that the ponies can rest while it is warm.
Half way to the glacier Scott congratulates others who made it that far. The men’s faces are sun-burned. Scott says goodbye to two men who are going back.
Ponies struggle in the snow. Dogs lay down and are covered with snow until the get up. Ponies have a hard time in the soft snow. Scott says they must be close to the glacier, but he says it is the end for the ponies. They shoot the ponies, and the dogs yelp. Clouds clear, and they see the glacier. Scott gives the mail to those who are going back with the dogs, and they say goodbye.
Scott goes on with twelve men who trudge through the snow pulling three sledges. In the tent they prepare a meal.
After five days Scott says they have climbed 4,000 feet, and he believes they were right not to bring the dogs. They climb up hill on ice. Scott has them leave a flag there because it is a good way up. They see the top of the glacier. Suddenly Ashley (Barry Letts) falls into a crevice and hangs by the rope, and they pull him up. In a tent they celebrate, after having short rations.
They are 9,000 feet in elevation, and the rest of the way is level. Scott and seven others say goodbye to four men. The eight men pull two sledges across the snow. Scott tells Wilson he has to make his hardest decision alone. They stop to make a camp.
As they walk, Scott contemplates which two men to choose to go on with himself and Wilson. He considers choosing the surgeon and Teddy. He wonders who are the best four men. In the tent they drink from mugs. Outside three men work on a sledge. Scott comes out and commends their work. He tells Ashley and Crean (John Gregson) that they are not going on with them. Taffy asks about himself, and Scott says he wants him. Scott tells Teddy that he is not taking him, but he has decided to take Oates and Bowers as a fifth man.
The five say goodbye to Ashley, Crean, and Teddy and go on with one sledge. The three watch them go forward until they can no longer see them.
Scott says Barrows has the hardest time on foot. In the tent Scott says they have gone beyond Shackleton. Scott considers that cooking for five takes longer than cooking for four.
They trudge closer to the pole and calculate that they have 27 miles to go. Scott notices that his sleeping bag is not on the sledge. They stop, and they spend two hours going back a couple miles to get it. Barrows points out something, and Scott uses binoculars and sees a flag. He says, “Amundsen.”
They arrive at the tent with the Norwegian flag. They see dog prints in the snow. Wilson finds papers and says that Amundsen wrote to the king of Norway with a note asking Scott to deliver it. Scott is disappointed that they are not first. They have a picture taken in front of the flag. Scott thinks this is an awful place.
On January 18 they begin to head back. Scott passes out chocolate and says they have only 900 miles to go.
They put a sail on the sledge which helps; but they find that the wind is not constant as when they came. Oates and Taff are getting frost-bitten. Taff notices that they are doing better by a half a day going back than Teddy did. Wilson shows Scott a piece of coal he found.
They look for the path they took before, and Scott directs them to go back and to the right to look for it. They have difficulty going down the glacier. Taff points out the flag, but Scott says it is only a shadow. Scott notices that Taff is having difficulties with his hands. One of them sees the barrier while Scott helps Taff with his foot. Some of them are using skis. As they go on, Taff lags behind and removes his gloves. Scott looks back and sees Taff collapse. He goes back and asks him what it is. Taff dies. They leave a cross of skis on a mound of snow.
Wilson says they have 400 miles more of barrier to get home. Scott notes that they only made five miles yesterday. They are not going strong. In the tent Scott says they may have to go on with cold meals.
The four men trudge on, pulling the sledge. They arrive at a flag and use spades to remove snow. They find a can and notice it is not full. In the tent Scott writes in his journal that a soldier is at the end of his tether. Oates tells Wilson that he hopes he will not wake tomorrow. Oates, who has a bad foot, says he is going outside. Scott records that he was a brave man.
Scott finds the intense cold may mean that the season has broken sooner than he expected. They have 29 miles to go to the next camp. On March 18 they are part way there. In the tent they use a lamp. The next day they make only five and a half miles, followed by four and a half the day after that. In the tent they eat little biscuits. Scott notes that they have eleven miles to a ton of supplies. He tells Wilson they can make it in two marches, maybe even one if the storm lets up. Scott has a frozen foot, and Wilson and Barrows plan to go on without him to the next depot and then return. Wilson records that they have traveled 1,800 miles, and now are only eleven miles from plentiful stores. Wilson thinks of his wife walking alone and with him on the beach. Barrows writes to his mother that there will be no shame because he struggled to the end. He expects to see her in the next life. Wilson reflects on causing sorrow and regrets that he is leaving his wife to struggle on alone. He believes in God and the next life and that all is well.
Scott does not regret the journey. They knew they took risks and have no cause to complain. If they had lived, he would have had a great tale to tell. He cannot write much more. His rough notes and their dead bodies must tell the story. He asks them to look out for their people.
When the sun returns, three men with dogs find a mound of snow. One man uncovers the top of a tent and finds Scott’s journal. A cross commemorates who died there in 1912.
This biopic dramatizes a brave and adventurous expedition led by Robert Falcon Scott that reached the south pole only 34 days after Amundsen. The story reflects to what extremes people must go in this era to explore new areas on the Earth.