True story of race to the South Pole

Mobil's ``Masterpiece Theatre'' launches its 15th season on public broadcasting with two glorious but hazardous sprints through icy Antarctica, led by Scott and Amundsen. The Last Place on Earth (PBS, Sunday, Oct. 20, 9-11:30 p.m.; thereafter for five succeeding Sundays, 9-10 p.m., check local listings) is an adaptation from Roland Huntford's book of the same name, which tells the true story of the 1911-12 race to reach the South Pole.

Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen and British Navy Capt. Robert Scott braved the frozen Antarctic wasteland for the glory of their countries -- and, it seems, their egos. It was a time when, regardless of indigenous peoples, European nations believed ``unexplored'' territory belonged to the country that first planted its flag upon it.

The six-part series stars Martin Shaw as Scott and Sverre Anker Ousdal as Amundsen, with Susan Wooldridge (Daphne in ``The Jewel in the Crown'') as Scott's wife and Max von Sydow (of many Bergman films) as Amundsen's mentor. ``The Last Place,'' written by Trevor Griffiths and directed by Ferdinand Fairfax, is a harrowing but enlightening as well as entertaining experience.

Anyone who is familiar with the political maneuvering that preceded Columbus's voyage to the New World is already aware that explorers never simply packed their supplies and explored. This series investigates it all -- from the political and financial manipulation in England and Norway to the private personality conflicts of the leaders of the expeditions. And viewers will not be able to escape several hours of the harrowing dog-sled treks through the ice and snow and across glacial mountain ranges. Yo u may have the urge to snuggle by the fire as the winds whistle across the tundra and snap at the flaps on the explorers' rugged tents.

Every schoolchild knows the story, which has become legend -- the fact that Scott reached the South Pole only to discover Amundsen had been there a month earlier; then the unfortunate Scott froze to death on his return trip. Perhaps, after this truth-seeking tale of obsession and ``grand'' adventure, Scott may not seem quite so much a hero and martyr to British schoolchildren.

It should be pointed out that in December 1983, CBS beat PBS to the icy wastelands with another legendary competition: ``Cook and Peary -- The Race to the Pole,'' with Richard Chamberlain and Rod Steiger. Of course, it was the North Pole rather than the South Pole, but it seemed just as cold and resistant to man's survival there.

``The Last Place on Earth'' is a series about man's curiosity, obsession, competitiveness, strength -- and, in the long run, weakness. Impeccably acted and directed, it photographs gorgeously the majesty of glacial lands and life in the wilderness. You may learn more of the intricacies of dog sledding than you ever wanted to know. But you will also learn a great deal about human nature at the same time.

``The Last Place,'' a Central Television production presented by WGBH, Boston, gives host Alistair Cooke a chance to expound on still another aspect of Edwardian England. It proves to be an exciting adventure in adventure, in its own way an expos'e of the ``joys'' of early voyages of discovery, a harrowing classic of exploration drama.

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