Jan. 5 marks the 80th anniversary of the death of Sir Ernest Shackleton, one of the last great explorers of the 20th century and a man whose most famous expedition almost ended in disaster.
It was known officially as the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition, and Shackleton's stated goal was to be the first to cross the Antarctic continent from sea to sea. (Norwegian Roald Amundsen had been the first to reach the South Pole, three years earlier.) Shackleton and a crew of 27 stouthearted men set sail from Plymouth, England, on Aug. 8, 1914, and after stopping in Argentina for supplies, headed off for Vahsel Bay, Antarctica, on Dec. 5. They were sailing the three-masted wooden ship Endurance, its name drawn from the Shackleton family motto: "By endurance we conquer." Little did he realize as he headed south towards the treacherous Weddell Sea just how much those words would apply over the next two years.
"The Endurance," narrated by Liam Neeson, chronicles the many problems the ship and crew encountered along the way, starting with dangerous pack ice that froze the ship in place just a day's journey from its destination. So began a series of death-defying survival tales, involving travel by ice floe, navigation in lifeboats, a steady diet of seal and penguin meat, and a final 800-mile open-boat journey through stormy seas that remains one of the most celebrated in history.
Part of the reason this expedition is remembered is that Shackleton brought along the famed Australian photographer Frank Hurley, whose gorgeous black and white photographs of the adventure, along with some extraordinary 35-millimeter movie footage, brings the whole distant adventure to life.
This documentary, directed by Frank Butler ("Pumping Iron"), is clearly a celebration of the human spirit and of man's capacity to survive under the most daunting of circumstances. But most of all, it is a salute to Shackleton himself, whose calm and grace under extreme pressure helped guarantee that not a single crew member would be lost. "The Endurance" opens today on the heels of the companion IMAX film, which recently ended its run at Navy Pier. The IMAX film is the more impressive visually, because the vistas of ice floes and frozen wastelands lend themselves better to the massive IMAX screen. But "The Endurance," which has its own share of splendid cinematography, is a far more complete record of the journey, filled with back story and assorted diary entries that discuss some of the in-fighting and intrigue among members of the crew. (If you are interested in even more information about this expedition, pick up a copy of "The Endurance: Shackleton's Legendary Antarctic Expedition," by Caroline Alexander, who also co-scripted the film.)
By the time the crew of the Endurance returned to England in 1916, the world had changed forever. World War I had taken a huge toll on the British populace, and the definition of "heroism" was quite different than it had been when Shackleton first set sail. But if Shackleton's adventure was to be the swan song for those 19th century explorers whose exploits stirred the imagination of young men around the globe, it was a magnificent way to say farewell.
3 stars "The Endurance: Shackleton's Legendary Antarctic Expedition" Directed and produced by George Butler; written by Caroline Alexander and Joseph Dorman, based on Alexander's book; narrated by Liam Neeson; photographed by Sandi Sissel; edited by Joshua Waletzky; music by Michael Small. A Cowboy Pictures release. Opens Friday at the Music Box Theatre. Running time: 1:33. No MPAA rating. Excellent for children, though younger children may find the stories of survival disturbing.