The Ice Men Cometh

The Endurance and Shackleton's Antarctic trip remain frozen in time.

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The Endurance: Shackleton's Legendary Antarctic Expedition Narrated by Liam Neeson
An Endurance crewman enjoys some husky love.
An Endurance crewman enjoys some husky love.
In 1914, Sir Ernest Shackleton led an expedition designed to reach the South Pole. But the winter was unprecedentedly harsh, and his ship, The Endurance, was trapped for eight months before being destroyed by the ice. The result was a two-year ordeal of almost unbelievably bad luck, offset only by equally unbelievable determination and strength of character. What should have been a complete tragedy instead became -- in a spiritual sense, at least -- a remarkable triumph.

In The Endurance: Shackleton's Legendary Antarctic Expedition, filmmaker George Butler -- best known for Pumping Iron (1977), the bodybuilding documentary that first displayed Arnold Schwarzenegger's charisma and screen presence -- has taken on the considerable task of recounting the story with a minimum of staged footage. (In addition to this 95-minute film, Butler has made Shackleton's Antarctic Adventure, a complementary 40-minute IMAX movie. Both films use footage Butler's crew shot on two Antarctic expeditions in 1999 and 2000.) In short, Shackleton, having been part of Robert F. Scott's famous failed attempt to reach the South Pole in 1912, became determined after Scott's death to be the first man to cross the Antarctic on foot. He advertised for adventurers and put together a 28-man crew, which left England on The Endurance in August 1914. On December 5, the ship left South Georgia Island, the last settlement before the wilderness.

But in January, due to uncommonly harsh weather, the ship became trapped in ice, only one day's sail from Antarctica. There the ship remained for 10 months, and as the crewmen waited for the ice to shift, they kept busy playing soccer, staging plays, and romping with their dog teams -- anything to pass the time. Unfortunately, when the ice finally did shift, it did so in the worst possible way: Rather than The Endurance being freed, it was crushed, as were any plans to sail out of their predicament.

To his great credit, Shackleton dropped all ambitions to proceed with his initial explorations. Instead, he shifted his obsession to bringing his men back alive. After a number of false starts and, in hindsight, unwise decisions, Shackleton and his men manage to escape to Elephant Island in three lifeboats they had laboriously dragged across the ice. While this was an improvement, it was a remote locale, far off any shipping lanes. Shackleton and his best men had to set out in a lifeboat in hopes of reaching South Georgia Island, where they could get a ship to return to Elephant Island to rescue the others. Incredibly, everyone survived: On September 3, 1916, the crew finally returned to civilization after more than two years of near-hopeless isolation.

It's an amazing story, but in addition to its intrinsic interest, the Shackleton expedition has another remarkable draw: Crewman Frank Hurley had brought along not only still cameras, but a movie camera as well, providing us with an extraordinary record of the ship's voyage. After the return to civilization, Hurley assembled the footage into the 1919 film South, itself an amazing and gripping document that reveals the true heroism of a bygone age of exploration. (Hurley's film was restored by the British Film Institute in 1999 and is available on video and DVD.)

Butler makes heavy use of Hurley's movie footage, but it covers only the first half of the adventure. For obvious reasons, the men had other priorities when deciding what to carry with them as the ship was being crushed. It's amazing enough that Hurley briefly returned to the ship and waded into frigid water to retrieve any of his stored footage; even more amazingly, he then destroyed three-quarters of what he had shot, so that he would never be tempted to foolishly return and search for it.

Because of this, Butler must make more use of staged footage during the second half of the story. He keeps it to a minimum, instead reconstructing the men's journeys through new scenic footage of the locales and a heavier reliance on the still photos Hurley took with the one camera he saved. These are supplemented with a well-written narration, delivered by Liam Neeson; recent interview footage in which the now-elderly children and grandchildren of the crew remember the tales they heard from the participants decades ago; a few animated maps; and some old radio interviews with crew members. If none of this can match the immediacy of Hurley's original footage, it is still to Butler's credit that we barely notice the transition to the less-authentic segments.

The end is bittersweet. Almost like the Parkinson's patients in Awakenings, the adventurers find themselves returning to a world that has changed fundamentally in their absence. They had set sail just as World War I was breaking out; by the time they got back, the era of great explorations -- of grand, daredevil schemes for their own sake -- seemed hopelessly archaic. A decade earlier, they would have been feted as grand heroes; but now, though they were received excitedly, the world had moved on to a new standard for heroism. Most of Shackleton's crew signed up for the military as soon as their health permitted.

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