The Film & More|
In June 1934, winds howled across the Antarctic landscape at 90 miles an hour.
Temperatures hovered at 70 degrees below zero. Burrowed into the ice in a
small one room hut, was Commander Richard E. Byrd. Alone with only a stove,
some food, scientific instruments and a few meager luxuries, Byrd hovered near
death. No human being had ever experienced winter in the interior of the
Antarctic. Byrd had realized another "first," but this one would nearly kill
In an age of heroes, Richard Byrd was one of America's greatest. He was an
aviation pioneer, the first credited to fly an airplane over the North Pole,
then first over the South Pole. He was an explorer, inventor, scientist. He
could be brave and bold; he could show great generosity and kindness towards
his men. On three separate occasions, New York feted him with ticker-tape
parades. But Byrd was also an egotist and a risk-taker. And doubts remain whether his fame was based on a lie.
Born into a prominent Virginia family, Byrd's first international trip was to
the Philippines in 1900--at the age of only twelve. During his year abroad,
the young Byrd came under fire from insurgents, saw volcanoes erupt, and
witnessed a judge sentence men to hang in a public square. His letters home
were published in the local newspaper, and he even came to the attention of the
"New York Times". By the time he was thirteen, he had tasted the two
things that would be the hallmark of his life: adventure, and the rewards of
publicizing his exploits.
In May of 1926, Byrd and pilot Floyd Bennett lifted off from Norway in
a Fokker T-Motor Aircraft and headed for the North Pole. Byrd had been
preparing for the trip for years, raising money from wealthy families and
corporations, and signing lucrative contracts for newspaper stories and
photographs. No man had ever reached the North Pole, and the entire country
and much of the world was anxious to see if Byrd could pull it off. He
returned to his base camp more than fifteen hours later, claiming to have
circled the Pole. Byrd's claim was questioned later, but not before he was hailed as an international hero.
Working to capitalize on his celebrity, Byrd announced the next year that he would
lead a scientific team to Antarctica, when he would attempt the first flight over the South Pole. The "New
York Times" called it "the greatest feat in the history of aviation and
exploration," and sent a reporter to accompany him. Paramount Pictures sent a
film crew. It was a journey filled with dissension, danger, risk, and success: Byrd did reach the Pole.
Byrd's near death experience in Antarctica only added to his myth. He would
never again reach the same heights of prestige and fame. But he had secured
his place as America's greatest polar explorer.