Gripping documentary “The Endurance” will greatly foster public knowledge and appreciation of the staggering survival tale lived by Sir Ernest Shackleton. Via old footage and new, the film creates an exceptionally vivid picture of the disastrous but ultimately heroic 1914 Antarctic expedition. Anticipated widespread interest in the subject is indicated by the fact that three more docus derived from the same source material — versions for TV and Imax screens, and a making-of — are due down the line. Readers who made a bestseller of Caroline Alexander’s book of the same name will form an avid initial audience for George Butler’s film, which possesses such strong narrative pull and distinctive visual elements that it should reach well beyond the normal commercial limits for docus, especially given the extensive built-in promotional opportunities and current frenzy for survival-themed fare.
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Fans of TV’s “Survivor” who considered some of the cast’s rigors at all daunting will be impressed and quickly sobered by what Shackleton’s crew faced when their ship, the Endurance, was trapped and, 10 months later, crushed by ice off the coast of Antarctica. The Anglo-Irish explorer and his crew of 27 found themselves more than a thousand miles across the world’s most treacherous seas from the nearest civilization.
Along with the sheer physical challenge of getting out of the predicament alive, the story carries with it a full slate of emotional/intellectual/historical components; not the least of its many morsels for thought is what made this group of (mostly) Edwardian-era Englishmen perhaps uniquely capable of mentally enduring nearly two years of such severe deprivation. One look at the pitiless environment of Elephant Island, where most of the crew spent four months waiting for Shackleton to return to rescue them, is enough to suggest that any contemporary “survivor” wouldn’t last a week there.
“Endurance” is preceded in the public consciousness not only by Alexander’s 1998 book — which is graced by the work of the expedition’s photographer, Frank Hurley — and the popular exhibition Alexander curated at the American Museum of Natural History, but by Shackleton’s memoir “South” and his original docu of the same name, which features Hurley’s extraordinary motion picture footage of the ordeal and was successfully released on the specialized circuit a couple of years back. “The Perfect Storm” director Wolfgang Petersen is developing a feature film based on yet another book, by Alfred Lansing.
Using much of Hurley’s visually stunning black-and-white material as well as majestic new color shots, Butler, who is best known for the “Pumping Iron” docus, properly tells the Shackleton story in straightforward fashion. It’s one of those yarns that remains spellbinding even when you already know the ending. Considerable secondhand accounts by the survivors’ descendants, as well as diary extracts from the many who recorded their experiences, bolster an approach that consistently finds the best way to dramatize the events under consideration — events that, the interviewees agree, their reserved, stoical ancestors never discussed.
Having been beaten to the South Pole by Roald Amundsen and eclipsed in fame by the English explorer Robert Falcon Scott, Shackleton embarked upon his third voyage to Antarctica in August 1914, just as England was marching into WWI. His intention: to become the first to cross the frozen continent on foot and thus claim this last remaining territorial outpost for his country.
But the following February, just 100 miles from the Antarctic coast, the Endurance became stuck in ice, and the crew spent nearly a year, some months of it in total darkness, waiting for Shackleton to work out the best course of action.
Amazingly, Hurley caught moving images of the ice finally squeezing the ship into splinters, making the men “the embodiment of absolute futility.” Fortunately, the ever-optimistic Shackleton didn’t see it that way, and his ability to maintain authority and boost morale under the most adverse circumstances stands as perhaps the most inspiring legacy of the journey; he kept spirits up with soccer games on ice, theatricals, hair-cutting contests and activities involving their 69 dogs. Far more crucially, he forged an egalitarian spirit by assigning everyone routine physical labor, regardless of class or previous shipboard job distinctions.
With the ice underfoot beginning to break up and three lifeboats at his disposal, Shackleton eventually set sail with his men (the dogs inevitably had to be shot and eaten, a detail that will reportedly be omitted from the Imax version to avoid offending certain delicate sensibilities). After braving killer whales, the 28 landed on Elephant Island, a mound of inhospitable rock that nonetheless represented their first glimpse of terra firma in 497 days.
Dedicated above all to saving his men from the peril in which he had placed them, Shackleton was then forced to make the extreme decision to sail one of the boats, the 22-foot James Caird, 800 miles to South Georgia, the nearest inhabited island. Leaving most of the men behind to eat boiled seal and endure frigid winds protected only by a hut made from the two other boats, Shackleton and five of the strongest sailors survived enormous waves and hurricane-strength winds (and were able to take only four sextant readings), making it to their destination in an amazing 16 days.
Even then, however, some of the worst was yet to come. The Norwegian whaling station was on the opposite side of South Georgia and the craggy interior had never been mapped, much less traversed. Going mostly on instinct, Shackleton and two companions traversed rocks, snow and ice before arriving at the station 36 sleepless hours later. It took another three months to find a rescue craft and return to Elephant Island, where all 22 were still alive and in decent shape. “Not a life lost, and we have been through hell,” Shackleton later observed.
Bitter postscript to the more than two-year ordeal is that Britain was far too preoccupied with the war, and with the ideal of noble sacrifice for king and country, to pay much heed to Shackleton upon his return, and that many of the crew quickly enlisted and were casualties of combat. As for Shackleton, he returned South in 1922 and died of a heart attack immediately upon arrival in South Georgia.
From a contempo perspective, Shackleton seems to set a standard of leadership; he knew how to handle his men and maintain authority, and put their welfare above the accomplishment of the original mission, thereby achieving a greater triumph out of initial failure. The leader and his crew are also positioned as the final exponents of the Heroic Age of Adventure; after this, the Great War and Freud introduced elements of doubt and inwardness that chipped away at the absolute confidence displayed by the previous era’s imperial adventurers and warriors. Watching the men in this film will provoke in every viewer questions as to how one might have done in similar circumstances, and pic’s subtext suggests that, mentally, people like this just aren’t made anymore.
Pic is immaculately made in all departments, and colorful readings of diary accounts by more than a dozen actors nicely complement Liam Neeson’s useful, unobtrusive narration.