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Shackleton’s Antarctic Adventure

After earning high marks on the fest circuit with "The Endurance: Shackleton's Legendary Antarctic Expedition," helmer George Butler now offers a kind of big-ticket, mass-audience companion piece to his 93-minute documentary feature.

The Endurance: Shackleton's Legendary Antarctic Expedition

After earning high marks on the fest circuit with “The Endurance: Shackleton’s Legendary Antarctic Expedition,” helmer George Butler now offers a kind of big-ticket, mass-audience companion piece to his 93-minute documentary feature. “Shackleton’s Antarctic Adventure,” a 40-minute Imax-format pic, more than compensates for its inevitable compression and simplification with panoramic views of harshly beautiful Arctic icescapes that are, quite literally, awesome. Just as important, “Adventure” still conveys enough of the stirring true-life drama recounted in Butler’s other Shackleton docu to satisfy ticketbuyers who demand substance even in larger-than-life entertainment.

Polar explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton set out in 1914 to be the first to traverse the Antarctic continent. He led his 27-man crew aboard the Endurance — the ship he named after his family motto, “Fortitudine Vincimus,” or “By endurance, we conquer” — from South Georgia Island toward Vashel Bay. For six weeks, the Endurance avoided — or smashed through — floes before becoming trapped in pack ice.

Drawing upon the diaries of crew members and the extraordinary still photos and movies shot by legendary photographer Frank Hurley, “Adventure” offers a concise but fascinating account of day-to-day life aboard the immobilized ship. After 10 months, however, the Endurance was crushed by the pressure of the ice, and the men were forced to pitch what they dubbed Camp Patience for five months on a massive ice floe.

Then the real problems began. When the ice began to break up, the Endurance party crowded into three lifeboats and set out for the relatively safe haven of Elephant Island. From there, Shackleton — determined that every man under his command would survive — joined five of his most able-bodied sailors aboard a retrofitted boat for a perilous voyage to South Georgia Island, braving enormous waves and hurricane-force winds in the process.

Cunningly exploiting the dimensions of the Imax screen, Butler lucidly underscores the terrible isolation and elemental forces faced by the ill-fated explorers. Occasionally, Butler inserts snippets of Hurley’s meticulously preserved footage (recently seen in the resurrected docu “South”) within the much larger frame, in effect “positioning” Shackleton and his men in the middle of the Arctic desolation. New footage by Reed Smoot and David Douglas is sensational.

Butler also incorporates footage of three modern-day mountaineers — Reinhold Messner, Stephen Venables and Conrad Anker — who retrace the route across mountains and glaciers taken by Shackleton and his men, who landed on the wrong side of South Georgia Island. Natch, the contempoy adventurers are much better equipped, which only serves to increase their respect, and the audience’s regard, for Shackleton’s accomplishments.

Despite its brevity, “Adventure” vividly conveys the character and courage of Shackleton, one of the last great champions of the Heroic Age of Adventure. Butler glosses over a few unpleasant details in this telling of the story — for the sake of school-aged sensibilities, he was requested to refrain from showing how crewmen were forced to kill sled dogs for food — but the story remains gripping nonetheless.

“Adventure” employs actors to read excerpts from the crew’s diaries and offers a few re-enactments to facilitate his storytelling. (Hurley did not accompany Shackleton on the voyage to South Georgia Island, so there is no actual footage of that part of the adventure.)

Kevin Spacey’s narration is effectively understated for the most part, with a few appropriate touches of dramatic emphasis.

Shackleton’s Antarctic Adventure

  • Production: A Morgan Stanley Dean Witter presentation of a White Mountain Films and Nova/WGBH Boston co-production. Produced by Susanne Simpson, Scott Swofford, George Butler. Executive producer, Susanne Simpson. Co-producer, Louise Rosen. Directed by George Butler. Screenplay, Mose Richards, Crystal V. Spijer.
  • Crew: Camera (color/B&W, IMAX), Reed Smoot, David Douglas; editor, Stephen L. Johnson; music, Sam Cardon; sound, Michael McDonough. Reviewed at Wortham Imax Theatre, Houston Museum of Natural Science, Feb. 28, 2001. Running time: 40 MIN.
  • With: Narrator - Kevin Spacey
  • Music By: