Waaaaaay Down South

PBS airs a documentary on Ernest Shackleton's doomed yet celebrated Antarctic expedition

Mar 20, 2002 at 4:00 am
"Men wanted for hazardous journey. Small wages, bitter cold, long months of complete darkness, constant danger. Safe return doubtful." This was the ad posted for what became one of history's most celebrated failures: Ernest Shackleton's Antarctic expedition of 1914-16, the subject of a new NOVA documentary, Shackleton's Voyage of Endurance.

Shackleton, a veteran of two other failed Antarctic endeavors, managed to find 28 takers for his grim proposal. His intent was to ship them to Antarctica and then lead the first expedition to cross that continent, a goal he abandoned fairly early in the journey when their vessel, the Endurance, became hopelessly mired in the frozen Southern Ocean and finally disappeared into it after being crushed by the surging, grinding ice.

Not one man went down with the ship. With one dream sunk, the fame-thirsty Shackleton saw a new ambition camped with him atop the frozen sea: He could become the first Antarctic explorer to return without losing a single life. Unbelievably, he managed to do so by repeatedly dividing the party and skirting a bewildering number of sure deaths, the most famous being the navigation of 800 miles of the Earth's roughest open ocean in a 22-foot improvised vessel during a series of sleet storms.

It's good of PBS to air this film on the verge of spring, and viewers will thank nature (or the havoc man has wrought upon it) that the winter has been mild. But you'll still shiver in your slippers as you watch all the footage of wet men freezing almost to death and slogging onward for more than 14 months before their rescue.

About that footage -- it's the crowning glory of the expedition, which included a filmmaker, Frank Hurley, who dived into the icy cold to save his film before the ship went down. Then he had to fight Shackleton to keep it, despite its uselessness to survival, each time the commander forced the crew to lighten its load. Hurley shot this documentary's most compelling footage, and he is the artistic ancestor of the NOVA team that made the film. Hurley is praised in passing but, oddly, not spotlighted, though he deserves the highest praise. His camera work, even when fragmented and treated as raw material (as it is here), reveals an eye for the cruel beauty of the ice and the haunted courage of the men marooned in it.

The filmmakers are simply not Hurley's equals, which explains why they don't honor and appreciate him properly. Hurley's silent film of the expedition, South, is a masterpiece of gesture and composition -- yet NOVA made the unforgivably bad choice to dub sound (e.g., dog barks, the crunch of boot on snow) onto Hurley's footage. It feels like some present-day college kid dubbing maracas over a transcendent Charlie Parker solo.

But South by Frank Hurley is not coming to you free of charge on Tuesday. Shackleton's Voyage of Endurance is, and it's worth your time. But South is something this film is not, a genuine work of art, and you should seek it out -- maybe when the weather warms up a little.