South - Sir Ernest Shackleton's Glorious Epic of the Antarctic

South - Sir Ernest Shackleton's Glorious Epic of the Antarctic


Reviewed by: Amber Wilkinson

Swashbuckling is all the rage in cinemas right now, with Guy Pearce hamming it up in The Count of Monte Cristo and Anakin being lightsabertastic in space. But if you want to marvel at a real tale of heroism, then this restoration print of film from Sir Ernest Shackleton's ill-fated attempt to cross Antarctica will certainly do the trick.

Following Amundsen and Scott's race to reach the South Pole, Shackleton couldn't resist trying to go one better, by crossing the frozen wastes of the south. He concoted an ambitious scheme to land on the Weddell Sea coast and to cross Antarctica via the Pole to the Ross Sea, where he and his crew would be met by a relief party based on that side of the continent.

His dream was not to be, however, as 80 miles from land his ship, The Endurance, became lodged in the pack ice and drifted helplessly north for nine months before it was ultimately crushed by the ice and the crew were forced into a gritty fight for survival.

Photographer Frank Hurley was an experienced polar traveller in his own right, having already made his name on a previous Antarctic expedition with Douglas Mawson. He was hired to accompany Shackleton, largely for fiscal reasons. Polar exploration is a costly business, but film was in its infancy and pictures from the frozen wastes would guarantee large cinema audiences and, consequently, money to help pay off the trip. This fiscal consideration explains why there are plenty of loving shots of the cutesy dogs who accompanied the explorers - though, it is sad to see their photos stop after a while when the crew, running low on supplies, were forced to kill and eat them.

Hurley has a keen eye for a good picture and often put himself in dangerous situations just to get the image he wanted. There is a shot of him on the prow of the ship, where he took film of Endurance breaking the pack ice and, later, as they tried to free the stricken vessel, he stands on a fragile outcrop, as the ship ploughs towards him.

The downside to the film is that it only takes you so far into the story. Once the ship began to sink, each crew member was only allowed a small pack, as they attempted to forge their way across ice to land, meaning that Hurley's cine camera was left behind. It is down to luck that any of the images survived at all, because bad weather forced Shackleton and his men back to the remains of the boat and allowed Hurley to retrieve most of the film. He dove into the freezing water to retrieve it, putting his life in jeapordy in the process.

Once the cine camera is jetisonned, the intervening months of film are shown as stills, taken by Hurley as they travelled in search of land. The heroic tale of Shackleton's trek to find help is somewhat glossed over in favour of a selection of wildlife shots on South Georgia to make the film more attractive to the public. While the scenes of men stripping blubber from a whale make fascinating viewing, even for a modern audience, many of the others are less so.

While this film may run out of steam, Shackleton's bravery and that of his crew didn't and this is an undeniably fitting testimony, offering a rare and personal insight into the struggle that these men faced.

Reviewed on: 12 Jun 2002
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South - Sir Ernest Shackleton's Glorious Epic of the Antarctic packshot
Footage from Shackleton's expedition.
Amazon link

Director: Frank Hurley

Writer: Luke McKernan, Kelly Tyler

Year: 1919

Runtime: 80 minutes

BBFC: U - Universal

Country: UK


CFF 2007

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