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The History of the Soviet-Italian Movie The Red Tent (1969)

The Red Tent (1969) movie poster

The Red Tent (1969) movie poster

The Red Tent (Russian: Красная палатка, translit. Krasnaya Palatka; Italian: La Tenda Rossa) is a 1969 Soviet-Italian joint movie directed by the Soviet film director Mikhail Konstantinovich Kalatozov and starring world-famous actors such as Sean Connery, Peter Finch, Claudia Cardinale, and Hardy Kruger. The movie produced by the Italian Franco Cristaldi’s company Vides Cinematografica and the Russian Mosfilm was dedicated to Umberto Nobile’s tragic polar expedition to the Arctic in 1928.

As conceived by the scriptwriters, old General Nobile, suffering from insomnia, brings himself for imaginary trial, recalling the forty years ago events. Nobile summons in the mind's eye all the participants in that drama, as judges and witnesses. Both his friends and enemies, living and long-dead, looking the same as they did forty years ago, appear in the general's living room. They have to testify and then pass judgment on whether he is guilty of the failures and victims of 1928. Lengthy episodes revealing events related to the expedition itself, which constitute the main body of the movie, intersperse the trial.

Umberto Nobile's 1928 expedition to the North Pole in the airship Italia

Stolp, Pomerania - airship port of Seddin. Landing of the Italy airship. Photo by Georg Pahl

Stolp, Pomerania - airship port of Seddin. Landing of the Italy airship. Photo by Georg Pahl

On April 15, the airship Italia took off from Milan. Its destination was Kongsfjorden (Kings Bay), near the settlement of Ny-Ålesund on Svalbard. From there, Nobile planned three polar flights, each exploring a different area of the Arctic, with a return to Kongsfjorden between flights. Also, the support ship Città di Milano (City of Milan) was anchored there to ensure radio communication with the Italia.

During the sorties, there were sixteen people aboard the airship: General Umberto Nobile, the head of the expedition; Finn Malmgren, Swedish meteorologist, physicist; František Běhounek, Czechoslovak physicist; Aldo Pontremoli, physicist; Ugo Lago, journalist; Adalberto Mariano, navigator; Filippo Zappi, navigator; Alfredo Viglieri, navigator, hydrographer; Natale Cecioni, elevator operator, chief technician; Giuseppe Biagi, radio operator; Felice Trojani, elevator operator, aeronautical project engineer; Ettore Arduino, chief engine mechanic; Calisto Ciocca, starboard engine mechanic; Attilio Caratti, port engine mechanic; Vincenzo Pomella, rear-engine mechanic; Renato Alessandrini, foreman, rigger, helmsman. Nobile also took his dog, the fox terrier Titina, who accompanied him on all his trips.

The final flight started on the morning of 23 May. Following a route along the Greenland coast, Italia reached the North Pole nineteen hours later, at 00:24, on 24 May. Nobile had prepared a winch, an inflatable raft, and survival packs to lower some scientists onto the ice, but the wind made this task impossible. Instead, they circled the pole, making observations. Then, at 01:20, they dropped onto the ice the Italian and Milanese colors, as well as a wooden cross presented by Pope Pius XI and a religious medal from the citizens of Forlì. Next, Italia started back to base at 02:20, on 24 May.

The return journey took place in conditions of a stiff headwind. On May 25, at about 10:30 am, the airship began to fall at a speed of 2 ft/s (0.61 m/s). All attempts to remedy the situation had failed, and at about 10:33, the airship's control cabin hit the jagged ice and smashed open. Suddenly relieved of the gondola's weight, the airship's envelope began to rise, with a gaping tear in the keel and part of one cabin wall still attached. This airship's envelope with six people (Alessandrini, Pontremoli, Arduino, Ciocca, Caratti, and Lago - the so-called Alessandrini group) was blown east by the wind and was never found.

The rest of the crew remained on the ice. The mechanic Pomella - died in the crash. Nobile had a broken leg, right arm, and cracked rib, in addition to the wound on his head. Cecioni had two badly broken legs. Malmgren had an injured shoulder (possibly broken or dislocated) and was suspected, much later, to have internal injuries to his kidney. Zappi had severe chest pains from suspected broken ribs.

Soon, the survivors discovered a waterproof bag containing chocolate, pemmican, a Colt revolver, ammunition, and a flare gun. Biagi's shortwave radio was intact. So when he found material to construct a radio mast, he was able to erect an antenna, and within a few hours, began to send the first SOS signals.

However, the survivors were unable to establish radio contact for a long time. Discussions began as to whether they should attempt a trek towards land. Eventually, the polar explorers decided that Malmgren, Zappi, and Mariano would set off to try to summon help on May 30.

Meanwhile, several search expeditions were arranged in Italy, Sweden, and Norway in late May and early June. But without any information about the location of Nobile's camp, they did not have a strong chance of success.

The first who heard the SOS signals from the Italia was the Soviet amateur radio operator Nikolai Schmidt in the village of Vokhma on June 3. In the movie, we see him sitting on the roof of a wooden house. Schmidt listens to the broadcast with a radio receiver, with waves of his hands controlling an antenna, made as a kite, chased by a gang of rural children. In the movie, the radio receiver of Nikolai Schmidt is a finished device, but in fact, it was a model consisting of parts laid out on a table, connected by wires. But Schmidt was unable to intercept the exact coordinates of the survivors. Only on June 9, the radio station of the Città di Milano intercepts the coordinates of the Nobile's camp, and the search takes effect.

The news also reached Roald Amundsen in Oslo, under whose command Umberto Nobile on the airship Norge participated in a successful expedition to the North Pole in 1926. Nobile was the designer of the airship, therefore along with Amundsen, he was deservedly considered one of the heroes of the entire expedition. However, almost immediately after their return, a conflict arose between them. Each attributed the main achievements to himself and presented his opponent in an unfavorable light.

The film shows an episode when Valeria (fictional character) comes to Amundsen with a request to save Malmgren, who also participated in the expedition on the airship Norge and was the friend of Amundsen. Without answering anything definite, Amundsen flew in an airplane piloted by the French pilot Guilbeau in search of the survivors.

The real Amundsen, unlike the cinematic, did not need to be persuaded. As soon as on May 27, he was ready to lead a rescue expedition and began to search for the necessary funds.

On June 14, the Minister of the French Navy gave Amundsen a Latham 47 seaplane with a crew of five people. On June 18, Amundsen flew from Tromsø to Svalbard but did not arrive at his destination. The exact time and place of his death are still unknown. The circumstances of Amundsen's death, shown in the movie, are fictional.

The Soviet Union also could not stay away from rescue operations. The icebreaker Krassin left Leningrad on June 16. The movie shows a solemn scene of seeing off the icebreaker by a crowd of people to the sound of the march Farewell of the Slavianka (Russian: Прощание славянки, romanized: Proščanije slavjanki). But, for real, Krassin went out to sea at night, without crowded seeing off.

The first to reach the survivors' camp was a Swedish pilot Lieutenant Einar Lundborg. In the movie, he was another person whom Valeria turned to in despair for help. People in Kings Bay recommended him to her as a slashing fellow, almost the only pilot who, in bad weather conditions, can risk his own life. Lundborg agreed to fly and take Malmgren off the ice, but only if Valeria would pay the price for it. In fairness, it is worth noticing that the real Lieutenant Einar Lundborg, according to contemporaries, was a modest and decent man and was also married.

Einar Lundborg's plane landed on the ice at about 9 pm on June 23. Of course, the pilot did not ask questions about which of them was Malmgren since the rescuers had known for a long time that Malmgren's group, as everyone called it, had left the camp.

Lundborg persuaded Nobile to evacuate first because he had a directive to evacuate the General. It was supposed that Nobile, as leader of the expedition, could coordinate efforts to save the rest, including the Malmgren's group. In addition, the second injured Cecioni weighed more than 100 kg (about 220.5 lb), and to pick him up, Lundborg would have to leave the pilot Schiberg accompanying him, which he could not do. Also, the weather was favorable, and soon, Lundborg hoped to return alone, to take Chechioni off the ice and then everyone else. Probably, the combination of all these arguments seemed reasonable to the general, the opinion of his subordinates was the same, and Nobile succumbed to persuasion, which he regretted for all subsequent decades.

Lundborg took Nobile off the ice with Titina to the Swedish airbase, and the next day Nobile reached the Città di Milano. A couple of hours later, Lundborg, already without Schiberg, flew out to the Red Tent, but during the second landing on the ice floe, Lundborg's plane crashed, turned over, and became unusable. Lundborg himself joined the inhabitants of the Red Tent. Swedish pilots evacuated him on July 6. They also intended to rescue the other survivors, but changing weather conditions caused them to change their minds.

On July 11, Soviet pilot Boris Chukhnovsky from the icebreaker Krassin spotted Mariano and Zappi, still trekking across the ice. Because of the fog, Chukhnovsky could not find the icebreaker and made an emergency landing on the ice. They sat down successfully, but at the very last moment before stopping, the plane ran into a low hummock, broke the landing gear, and damaged two propellers. Chukhnovsky radioed to Krassin that he was refusing help until the Italians were rescued.

Krassin rescued Mariano and Zappi on July 12, but Malmgren was already left behind almost four weeks prior. His body was never found. The five remaining Italia survivors were rescued by the icebreaker later the same day. On the way back to Kings Bay, Krassin picked up Boris Chukhnovsky and his four crew.

After Nobile returned to Italy, the press began to accuse him of the crash. They specifically blamed him for leaving his crew to save himself first. In addition, Nobile had an uneasy relationship with some influential fascists. Later, the general was brought to trial. Nobile was rehabilitated only after the fall of Mussolini's regime, and his rank and awards were recovered.

Stolp, Pomerania - airship port of Seddin. General Umberto Nobile in the gondola. Photo by Georg Pahl

Stolp, Pomerania - airship port of Seddin. General Umberto Nobile in the gondola. Photo by Georg Pahl

Preparing for the shoot

The idea of making a movie about the tragedy of Nobile's polar expedition arose in the mid-60s. The head of the West German company MCS-film KG Rudolf Travnicek was attracted by the opportunities that the Nobile story opened up for the spectacle. However, he saw the need for a reliable partner with authority over the political territory covered by the ice. For this reason, he made contact with the representatives of Soviet state cinema. The story of the airship Italia and the epic coming together of various forces in the rescue effort was a perfect theme for an international film. It had adventure, drama, moral questions, and a high degree of spectacle. In addition, there was an opportunity to emphasize the Soviet decisive contribution to the happy resolution of that drama. For all these reasons, Mosfilm accepted without hesitation the offer to set up a co-production based on the story.

In February 1965, MCS-film KG and Mosfilm signed a preliminary agreement for the 70 mm color film production. The agreement set that MCS would supply the technical equipment for the shoot and post-production, and Mosfilm would provide a director, all technical staff, an airship, and an icebreaker.

The famous Soviet film director Mikhail Kalatozov got an offer to direct the movie. He was best known for the 1957 movie The Cranes Are Flying (Russian: Летят Журавли, translit. Letyat Zhuravli), the only Soviet film that won the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival. And the talented Russian writer Yuri Nagibin was commissioned to draft the screenplay, which was to be edited by the German playwright Hans Meter. But the script did not get into MCS until January 1966, shortly before the start of the shoot.

The failure to keep to schedule led the Germans to postpone a full-blown coproduction agreement until they received a script modified along the lines indicated by them. But Mosfilm, which by the summer of 1966 was eager to conclude the matter, violated the confidentiality of negotiations and distributed the treatment to other German and Italian production companies. However, they rejected the project because of the high cost and the inferior by western standards screenplay.

As a result, the MCS refused to participate in the project. And Mosfilm was already negotiating with the Italian film producer Franco Cristaldi, the head of the Vides Cinematografica by the last months of 1966. Cristaldi was interested in cooperation, and on June 29, 1967, Mosfilm and Vides signed the co-production contract.

From the start, there was a decision to make two versions of the movie, which was to be shot in English, like all joint productions, aimed at the broadest possible distribution. It would have to be approved by both parties.

To provide the movie with the broadest possible audience worldwide, they gave each other leeway to implement various post-cut movie adaptations. However, it was not supposed to change the content, essence, or spirit of the movie. Therefore, the first challenge was to complete an agreed scenario that met the different requirements and left room for possible follow-up interventions.

Cristaldi set the condition that among the main characters in the script should be at least one female. So one of the central plotlines of the movie was the beautiful and sad love story of nurse Valeria and Swedish polar explorer Finn Malmgren. This story was utterly fictional. In real life, Finn Malmgren had a bride in Sweden, Anna Nordenskjold, and a wedding was expected shortly after the expedition.

Cristaldi engaged the scriptwriter Ennio De Concini to modify the original screenplay. The collaboration with Kalatozov on the re-write began in early 1967. But it took about a year to settle all the details. However, Cristaldi was still dissatisfied with the screenplay completed in early 1968 and felt that the plot should be more spectacular and international. Then, through chief representative Fernando Ghia, he managed to contact the English writer Robert Bolt.

Bolt worked on the screenplay in the final months of 1968 and proposed substantial changes. In particular, he increased the role of Amundsen and changed the scenes of the trial, which necessitated extra shoot or re-shooting existing sequences. But the director Kalatozov was reluctant to accept variations in the screenplay, which led to tension between the producer and the director. In addition, the tension between the two parties was due to differences in the way they worked. Cristaldi was used to western economic criteria and bureaucracy, and it was torture to him to be subjected to Soviet-style disorganization and failure to keep to time.

However, the joint Soviet-Italian movie was released, despite the difference between Western and Soviet working methods and other difficulties, such as political ones.


Peter Finch as General Umberto Nobile and Hardy Kruger as Lt. Einar Lundborg. Screenshot from the movie

Peter Finch as General Umberto Nobile and Hardy Kruger as Lt. Einar Lundborg. Screenshot from the movie

For the leading role of General Umberto Nobile, Cristaldi invited the famous Australian actor Peter Finch. He had by then received his first BAFTA Award for his role in A Town Like Alice in 1956. Also, Finch played Oscar Wilde in The Trials of Oscar Wilde in 1960. For this, he received, among other awards, Moscow International Film Festival Award for Best Actor in a Leading Role.

For the role of Valeria, Cristaldi approved his wife, the famous Italian actress Claudia Cardinale. She started acting in movies soon after winning a competition for the Most Beautiful Italian Girl in Tunisia in 1957, during the Italian Cinema Week in Tunis. And in the late 60s, Claudia Cardinale was at the peak of her acting career. In 1968, Sergio Leone's epic western Once Upon a Time in the West was released, in which she starred in one of her best-known roles as former prostitute Jill McBain.

Claudia Cardinale as Valeria. Screenshot from the movie

Claudia Cardinale as Valeria. Screenshot from the movie

Another leading role in the movie was the role of Roald Amundsen. The producer approved the well-known English actor Paul Scofield for this role. But when it came time to start filming, Scofield refused for political reasons. The fact was that on August 21, 1968, the joint invasion of Czechoslovakia by four Warsaw Pact countries (the Soviet Union, Poland, Bulgaria, and Hungary) began, officially known as Operation Danube.

It was urgent to find another actor for the role of Amundsen. Franco Cristaldi began calling suitable candidates for this role one by one. And, one by one, they all refused for the same reason.

Quite unexpectedly, even for Cristaldi, the Scottish actor Sean Connery agreed. At the time, he was a world-famous actor and had already starred in five James Bond movies. Sean Connery became famous for the image of James Bond, but he believed that agent 007 was killing the actor in him. In the 60s, he tried to prove to everyone that he could play roles of a completely different plan, and in the intervals between Bond movies, he starred in deep drama films. So he decided to star in the role of Arctic and Antarctic explorer Roald Amundsen in The Red Tent.

Sean Connery as Roald Amundsen. Screenshot from the movie

Sean Connery as Roald Amundsen. Screenshot from the movie

The well-known German actor Hardy Kruger starred as Swedish pilot Lt. Einar Lundborg. Before, Kruger worked in numerous European and American films, including the leading role in the Oscar-winning Sundays and Cybele (1962) and the role of the German engineer in the original 1965 version of The Flight of the Phoenix.

Other European actors in the movie were German actor Mario Adorf (as Sgt. Biagi) and Italian actors Massimo Girotti (as Capt. Romagna) and Luigi Vannucchi (as Capt. Zappi).

The role of Dr. Finn Malmgren went to the Soviet actor Eduard Martsevich. In addition to him, Otar Koberidze (as Cichony), Grigori Gaj (as Prof. Rudolf Samoilovich), Nikita Mikhalkov (as Boris Chukhnovsky), Nikolai Ivanov (as Nikolai Schmidt), Boris Khmelnitsky (as Viglieri), Yury Solomin (as Trojani), Donatas Banionis (as Adalberto Mariano) represented the Soviet Union in the cast.

The filmmakers could not find a suitable actor for the role of František Běhounek for a long time. Someone advised them to pay attention to the well-known Soviet bard and poet Yuri Vizbor. He was a great fit. Moreover, he was familiar with Běhounek and even corresponded with him during the shoot. Also, Vizbor was a former radio operator in the Soviet Army and had the experience of participating in expeditions to remote regions of the Soviet Union.


Shooting for The Red Tent began in early 1968. In his book The Last in the Credits, Boris Krishtul, who worked as an administrator on the set of Red Tent, described the difficult conditions in which the film crew worked. He also noted that the slightly ironic initial attitude of the Soviet film crew towards world-famous foreign actors had changed — everyone had understood what hard work this fame had been gained.

Initially, the shooting took place in Tallinn and then continued in Moscow Oblast, on the territory of the Klyazminskoye Reservoir. A working airship model, 20 m (about 65.6 ft) long, filled with helium, was made for filming.

The first foreign star to come to the USSR to shoot the film was Claudia Cardinale. She (as Valeria) and Eduard Martsevich (as Malmgren) were supposed to play a couple in love: rode in a sleigh and played in the snow.

The film crew was worried that it would be difficult for the Italian actress to act in the conditions of the Russian winter because she was born in Tunisia and was not used to the cold. But she tolerated the cold surprisingly well. Also, Claudia Cardinale proved to be a professional actress. She was collected and incredibly efficient. When the snow crammed in her boots, and the director offered her to take a break, the actress replied, "The winter day is short: there is no time to rest - we have to work."

Then the film crew went to the Leningrad region, to the village of Repino. Most of the foreign and Soviet actors involved in the film gathered there. After these shootings in USSR, the studio scenes in Rome took place, which finished by mid-June.

Then, in early August, the film crew went to the Arctic on Franz Josef Land. But foreign actors were not allowed there since there were Soviet military installations there. An exception was made only for the Italian actor Luigi Vannucchi. But the team was joined by consultants, a glaciologist (glacier), a bear defense shooter, and stand-in climbers.

The filmmakers rented for shooting the diesel-electric ship Ob and the icebreaker Sibiryakov disguised as Krassin. The real Krassin was overhauled in the GDR in 1956 and, after modernization, had little resemblance in appearance to the icebreaker that saved the Italian polar travelers in 1928.

Also, for the shoot, a helicopter was provided under the command of the Hero of the Soviet Union, test pilot Vasily Petrovich Kadashenko. He was the only helicopter pilot who agreed to work with them because the Ob's helipad was 16x22 m (52.5x72 ft), and MI-4 required 50x50 m (164x164 ft).

Filming in the Arctic was fraught with real dangers, one of which was polar bears. It was allowed to shoot them only as a last resort since they are rare animals. Once, the actor Nikita Mikhalkov even had to run away from the bear.

Yuri Vizbor later recalled the polar bears, "People say, 'Animals are afraid!' They were afraid of nothing! They live at their home. Those were us who came to visit. We tried to drive these bears away because there was equipment on the set, part of the film scenery, to which the animals showed exceptional attention. We threw some lighted papers at them, fired flare-guns. Our helicopter was the only thing they were afraid of."

However, the main danger came not from polar bears but the unpredictable Arctic weather. Once, the filmmakers built the scenery on one ice floe three days before the shooting, but during this time, the ice floe drifted for three miles from the Ob, breaking the cables of the ice anchors. The helicopter took actors to this set, then flew off for the operators. After that, the weather had deteriorated sharply. A blizzard had begun. The actors were left alone without water, heating, and food. Though, Yuri Solomin had a toffee in his pocket, which they decided to divide equally in case of hunger. The actors waited an hour and a half until the blizzard ended. Then a helicopter arrived with the operators, and they finally had shot the desired scene.

After filming on Franz Josef Land, Franco Cristaldi decided to shoot a real glacier calving (as glaciologists call the birth of icebergs). Even in documentary films, such shots are rare. For this purpose, the film crew went to Norway. The episode lasted for several seconds. The producer wanted to show the power, greatness, and beauty of the Arctic in these seconds.

In the spring of 1969, Sean Connery arrived in Moscow for filming. Boris Krishtul, who met Sean Connery at the airport, said that while he was waiting, he met the most famous in the Soviet Union bard, poet, and actor Vladimir Vysotsky, whom he knew. It turned out that Vysotsky was waiting for his wife, French actress Marina Vlady. When Vysotsky found out who Krishtul was waiting for, he asked to introduce them. While waiting for Connery's luggage, Krishtul introduced Vysotsky to him. They were waiting for luggage for about thirty minutes, and during this time Marina Vladi, who had flown in from Paris, joined them.

All this time, they were in the center of attention of those around them. At first, people examined them from afar. Then some girl angrily pushed her companion, and he timidly approached, awkwardly holding a postcard in his hand. Connery immediately took out a pen, but the guy handed the card to Vysotsky, then to Marina Vlady and, having received their autographs, walked away. The Scottish actor was taken aback.

Then, a line of people dreamed of getting their flourishes on envelopes, magazines, newspapers, photographs of children lined up for the spouses. Someone reached with a ten-ruble note and someone with a passport. No one paid attention to Sean Connery. He stood stone-faced, studying the space above the heads of the stirring crowd. The famous actor was very frustrated. He calmed down only after receiving an explanation that James Bond movies were banned in the Soviet Union, and therefore no one here knew him by sight.

The organizers offered the Scottish actor to arrange a tour of Moscow and showed him a list of planned activities. Sean Connery indifferently scanned the list, put it aside, and asked them to show him Tarkovsky's movie Andrei Rublev.

Connery's request not only amazed the organizers but also very much puzzled. For three years, the confrontation continued between Tarkovsky and the party censors, who insisted on many amendments to the movie, but the director did not accept. Therefore, in 1969, no one could get a copy of the film, including Tarkovsky himself. However, Kalatozov managed to get permission, but on the condition that only Connery and an interpreter could be present in the hall during the demonstration.

Nevertheless, the filmmakers violated the secrecy of the viewing by the invitation of the captain of the USSR national hockey team Boris Mayorov with his wife, as they had long been promised to show this banned film. After watching, Sean Connery first thanked the organizers for the opportunity to see the excellent Russian movie and then, suddenly, said that he recognized the great Russian athlete who was also in the hall. When the organizers warned him not to tell anyone that Boris Mayorov, too, was in this room, Connery replied gravely, "My name is Bond, James Bond," and winked.

Release and Reception

Based on the footage, two different versions of the movie were made, which, among other things, differed in the soundtrack. The famous Italian composer Ennio Morricone wrote the music for the Italian version, while the Russian version used the music of the Soviet composer Alexander Zatsepin as a soundtrack. In addition, an international distributor Paramount also edited the original movie when worked on the English version.

The Italian premiere took place on December 23, 1969, in Rome. General Umberto Nobile attended the premiere. He said that the movie was beautiful, but the creators lied a little. He later admitted to reporters that he was very offended by the words about the hot bath. In addition to General Nobile, at least three other participants in those events were still alive at the time of the film's release: the navigator of the airship Viglieri, the Soviet polar pilot Chukhnovsky, and Professor Běhounek.

Four months later, on April 24, 1970, the premiere took place in the Soviet Union. And on July 29, 1971, in New York, the American version of the movie, edited by Paramount, was released.

The movie had a mixed reception, and it was not a box-office success. But The Red Tent is worth watching at least for stunning music, high drama, gorgeous Claudia Cardinale with an impeccable haircut, and the snow-white Arctic mesmerizing with its unapproachable, harsh, and pure but dangerous beauty.

Also, The Red Tent is an excellent psychological thriller. It is not only about courage but also about a thin, almost invisible line between truth and betrayal. Later movies try to simplify such things to fit the mental level of the average viewer because otherwise, the latter may not understand anything. The Red Tent does not force the viewers to think about where this line is. The viewers have to decide it for themselves.

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