‘Endurance’ Retraces Perilous Journey
It started, so the story goes, with a small ad in a newspaper: “Men wanted for harsh journey, small wages, bitter cold.” It ended with one of the 20th century’s most astonishing adventure yarns, a story excellently detailed in “The Endurance: Shackleton’s Legendary Antarctic Expedition.”
Not surprisingly, the tale of the 20-month battle for survival Sir Ernest Shackleton and the 27-member crew of the Endurance waged between 1914 and 1916 against the furious cold and numbing waters of the South Pole is one that has been told before. Co-screenwriter Caroline Alexander’s book on the subject has been translated into 15 languages. And Frank Hurley, the expedition’s official photographer, turned his motion picture footage into a theatrical feature first released in 1919 (and recently reissued under the title “South”). There has been so much interest in the explorer, in fact, that he got a mention in Entertainment Weekly’s “It Issue” as “It Dead Subject.”
Yet this new film, directed by George Butler (“Pumping Iron”), easily holds its own in this crowd. For one thing Butler has shrewdly combined numerous elements to make his version as compelling as possible. And for another, Shackleton’s story remains a quietly astonishing one that, like a kind of modern legend, gains in power through increased repetition. No matter how often we hear it, we can’t believe it’s all true.
Shackleton himself is an intriguing figure. Though an indifferent husband and father, he was by all accounts a peerless morale builder. “Not your 9-to-5 commuting man,” as someone says in a bit of an understatement, Shackleton wasn’t much good at anything except being in command in the wilds.
A veteran of previous Antarctic voyages, Shackleton wanted to be the first man to cross that continent by foot. Despite the scorn of government officials such as Winston Churchill, who felt “enough life and money has been spent on this sterile quest,” Shackleton had a ship built and named after his family motto (“by endurance we conquer”) and signed on a crew of 27. They left for the south in August 1914, just a few days before the outbreak of World War I.
To say that things did not go as planned would be quite an understatement. Less than a day from reaching the Antarctic’s shore, the Endurance saw temperatures suddenly drop from 20 to 70 below, causing polar ice to close around the ship like a vice. “What the ice gets,” Shackleton said, with ominous foreboding, “the ice keeps.”
The commander’s first task was to keep his men occupied and content during the 10 long months till the ice would thaw. Determined to bring everyone back alive, Shackleton used the force of his will as much as anything else to keep them from cracking. Dealing with the elements, he was to say, was not the hardest job; “dealing with the human spirit is very difficult.”
When the Endurance was destroyed just before the thaw, Shackleton and his men embarked on a complex journey of several parts that included a legendary open-boat crossing across “800 miles of the world’s most dangerous ocean” in a 22-foot lifeboat. Every time the captain and crew succeeded at surviving one ordeal, an even more unnerving challenge inevitably took its place. Truly, as one of the men wrote, “fate seemed absolutely determined to thwart us.”
Butler used several elements to make this story come alive, starting with that vintage Frank Hurley footage, whose rescue from icy waters is in itself something of a miracle. Nicely complementing this is the film’s vivid color photography (Sandi Sissel is the cinematographer) that shows how those godforsaken locations look today.
“The Endurance” is equally inventive aurally. Aside from Michael Small’s fine score and a narration briskly read by Liam Neeson, the film utilizes radio interviews with the actual survivors, excerpts from their journals read by a range of actors, and, most intriguing, interviews with their descendants. Many of these folks say that their progenitors never discussed their ordeal, never let them read those journals while they remained alive. It’s not difficult to see why.
Ironically, these plucky survivors got no hero’s welcome when they returned to a Britain shell-shocked by the catastrophic killing levels of World War I. That neglect is more than being made up for today, with director Wolfgang Petersen reportedly considering a Shackleton feature and Kenneth Branagh said to be working on a four-part television miniseries. Even if those films come to pass, they’ll have to go some to equal the effect of this fine documentary.
Unrated. Times guidelines: intense subject matter.
‘The Endurance: Shackleton’s Legendary Antarctic Expedition’
A White Mountains Films production, presented by Morgan Stanley, released by Cowboy Booking International. Director George Butler. Producer George Butler. Executive producers Edward R. Pressman, Terrence Malick, L. Dennis Kozlowski, Caroline Alexander, Mike Ryan, Paula Apsell for NOVA. Screenplay Caroline Alexander, Joseph Dorman, based on the book by Caroline Alexander. Cinematographer Sandi Sissel. Editor Joshua Waletzky. Music Michael Small. Narrator Liam Neeson Running time: 1 hour, 37 minutes.
In limited release.