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The Moving Image 3.1 (2003) 174-178

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90° South: With Scott to the Antarctic (1933). Herbert Ponting, Milestone Film and Video
South: Ernest Shackleton and the Endurance Expedition (1919). Frank Hurley, Milestone Film and Video
Shackleton's Antarctic Adventure (2001). George Butler, White Mountain Films and NOVA/WGBH, DVD and VHS through Image Entertainment
The Endurance: Shackleton's Legendary Antarctic Expedition(2001). George Butler, Cowboy Booking International
Shackleton's Voyage of Endurance (2002). George Butler, White Mountains Films, NOVA/WGBH

Ernest Shackleton was able to lead his men from hell to home. But can the new filmmakers lead us on a parallel journey from home to hell?

The sheer volume of extraordinary primarysource material—extensive motion picture footage and still photography by expedition photographer Frank Hurley and the detailed and introspective diaries of the men—tempts contemporary filmmakers to "re-create" the 1914-1916 Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition (ITA) of Ernest Shackleton, to bring it to life again. The success of these films ultimately depends on how the filmmakers take on the paradox inherent in re-creation—trying to make real experience from something that is not real. Previous reviews of these films have tended to focus on Shackleton's character, leadership, and the events of the expedition. However, and importantly, little has been said about the effectiveness of the aesthetics of these new documentaries. Archival film footage and photography are incorporated into the films in a design to meet the viewing expectations of modern audiences. But can the new films still [End Page 174] retain the power and emotional charge of the originals?

Eighty-seven years after Antarctic explorer Ernest Shackleton published his memoir of the failed ITA, three new and wildly popular documentary films seek to transport the viewer to the desperate, raw experience of Shackleton's epic voyage and his daring course of rescue. Shackleton's Antarctic Adventure (a giant-screen film), The Endurance: Shackleton's Legendary Antarctic Expedition (an independent feature documentary), and Shackleton's Voyage of Endurance (a NOVA/PBS documentary) are an ambitious trilogy of films shot simultaneously in the Antarctic region under the direction of George Butler as coproductions between White Mountain Films and NOVA/WGBH Boston.

The flood of current Shackleton books, articles, and films detailing his leadership skills for future generations opened with writer Caroline Alexander's popular new version of The Endurance: Shackleton's Legendary Antarctic Expedition (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1998) and the 1998 British Film Institute's restoration of Hurley's South, a silent film that accompanied Shackleton's lectures on the expedition. Unique to Alexander's book are the 140 exquisite, rediscovered expedition photographs by Frank Hurley, also the subject of the 1999 blockbuster exhibition at the American Museum of Natural History in New York.

Ironically, Sir Ernest Shackleton's expedition has become famous not for the achievement of its intended goal to cross the continent of Antarctica, but rather, as biographer Roland Huntford states, for its "splendid failure." Less than a day's sail from continental Antarctica, their ship, Endurance, with twenty-eight men, is frozen into the pack ice of the Weddell Sea. A seventeen-month struggle for survival begins in relative happiness as Shackleton elevates morale with soccer matches, dog sled workouts, and musical evenings. Doom comes all too soon; "What the ice gets, the ice keeps," says Shackleton, as Endurance succumbs to crushing pressures, and the castaways are forced to camp for five months on drifting ice floes. Hurley returns to Endurance to rescue his exposed film and glass plate negatives from a darkroom submerged in slush. To conserve weight, Hurley destroys his motion picture camera and some 400 negatives. He solders 120 remaining stills and exposed film into travel canisters. As seal and penguin supplies dwindle, Shackleton orders the men to destroy their most beloved companions, the sled dogs. Forced to flee their rapidly melting ice floe...


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