A kind of cottage industry has formed around Shackleton's ill-fated mission, including an A&E miniseries starring Kenneth Branagh that aired earlier this month, as well as several high-profile books. Caroline Alexander's best seller The Endurance: Shackleton's Legendary Antarctic Expedition provides the source of this evocative documentary of the same name by Pumping Iron filmmaker George Butler.
In part, Shackleton's legacy benefits from the vogue for natural-disaster accounts like Into Thin Air and The Perfect Storm. But his voyage stays vivid to modern audiences thanks to expedition cinematographer Frank Hurley, who kept an extensive record of the ordeal on film and still photographs. Hurley's footage formed the basis of the fascinating 1919 documentary South, recently restored and re-released by the National Film and Television Archive of the British Film Institute.
South provides some of the raw material for Butler's The Endurance, which employs Hurley's most chilling shots and sequences. In the most memorable moment, the ship lists at unnatural angles and slowly caves in between massive sheets of ice, the masts collapsing around it. Though South conveys a silent awe in the face of the elements, Hurley's technical constraints can only reveal a fraction of the story, with the new documentary filling the gaps.
The Endurance is enriched with back-story from "polar historians" and the aged children of the crew, as well as letters, diary entries and early radio interviews with the expedition's survivors. Headshots of various crewmen help personalize the class conflicts, personality differences and even a moment of mutiny.
When the ship is trapped, the crew spends a staggering 10 months on islands of ice during months of near total darkness. The expedition's travails then include an arduous sea-voyage to blustery, inhospitable Elephant Island, and from there Shackleton and a handful of officers sail 800 miles to the nearest isle with human habitation. As narrator Liam Neeson describes such scenes, Butler's camera travels at low elevations above icy oceans, frozen beaches and groups of penguins, like beautifully desolate footage from IMAX nature films.
The Endurance credits Shackleton's unflappable leadership with keeping the crew alive, so it's surprising the film doesn't reveal more of his background. He made two prior attempts to brave Antarctica, but the documentary provides little information about them. Butler paints Shackleton as being calm and driven, reining in his own frustrations to keep morale up, but we never get inside the explorer's skin.
We get plenty of other details of the crew's predicament, though. The dozens of sled dogs make the film's most appealing subjects, and one crewman describes a pooch called "Shakespeare" "a leader in canine sagacity." Alas, when the team sets off to find land, the dogs are nearly all put down, and someone ruefully remarks how good they taste after months of seal meat. Later the men are reduced to one biscuit a day: "You looked at it for breakfast, you sucked it for lunch, and you ate it for dinner."
With its airy soundtrack music and Neeson's low voice-overs, The Endurance sets a level tone that's often hypnotic but occasionally dull. Yet, you can't deny its effectiveness at depicting the hardships: No matter where you see the film, you'll want to put on a sweater or two.
The Endurance crew returns to civilization like a group of Rip Van Winkles, The Great War having transformed the world they knew. In a bitter irony, several of the survivors would be killed within months in World War I. Occasionally the film refers to Shackleton by the term "adventurer," which sounds utterly antiquated to our ears. The Endurance shows that by bringing his crew back alive, he earned the title.
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