Saturday, 25 January 2014

Call of duty… South (1919)

One question kept on being repeated as I watched this film with a room-full of friends and family: “why are they doing this?” The “what were they trying to achieve?” is perhaps more easily answerable, yet there always lingers a bigger question: “what kind of person would put themselves in such danger?”

This was the golden age of polar exploration and there were compelling motivations of national prestige and personal glory that drove Ernest Shackleton and his team to the South Pole and, when all went wrong, they proved to have remarkable qualities above and beyond mere pride.

Under conditions of incredible hardship, when their ship looked doomed and they were many hundreds of miles from help across impossible terrain, the crew kept on functioning: scientific tests were run, the dogs were exercised and order was maintained. Most significantly, for us at least, Frank Hurley’s camera kept running, documenting the hardships and also the hopes of the crew who, under what must have been almost intolerable pressure, kept their discipline and trusted in the energy and invention of their leader.

Sir Ernest Shackleton
Ernest Shackleton had previously been on two missions to the South Pole, once as third officer on Captain Scott’s expedition from 1901-04 when his health failed and he had to return home early and the next time as commander of his own Nimrod Mission in 1909 when his team got to within 97 geographical miles of the Pole: a record which earned him a knighthood.

After Scott had narrowly lost the race to Amundsen in late 1911, the biggest challenge remained the crossing of the Pole from shore to shore, from one sea to the other. It was this that Shackleton set off to achieve in 1914 as part of the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition referring to the transcontinental route as the "one great object of Antarctic journeyings".

One ship, the Endurance, would take the team from South Georgia through the Weddell Sea to Antarctica and then, after a crossing of 1,800 miles they would join up with supplies left by a second ship, the Aurora, which would then take them to New Zealand, completing an epic journey from the South Atlantic to the South Pacific… in one mind-boggling, map-defying stretch.

On 8th August, just five days after the outbreak of the First World War the ship set sail and a few weeks later, Shackleton joined them and the show really got on the road. In the circumstances the team had naturally asked British officials whether they should go on but the answer came: “proceed”. The hope was that it would all be over by Christmas after all...

As with Scott’s expedition of 1911, Shackleton’s was a miracle of fundraising with a commercial eye on the future so, just as Herbert Ponting was to record Scott so Frank Hurley was nominated to do the same for this latest adventure. Interesting in this case that a film about so much British pluck was led by an Irishman and filmed by an Australian… let’s just say that this was a film about pluck full stop not to mention discipline and courage.

Breaking the ice...
Hurley’s camerawork is stunning, far more mobile than you might expect and none more so than when he keeps his film rolling on the bough of the ship as it cuts through the icy waters. But he also pans across and upwards to show the depth and range of this forbidding landscape and, through use of close-ups and point of view, places the crew and consequently the watcher in the heart of this deadly landscape.

Unlike Ponting, brave though he was, Hurley was in the middle of the main drama itself – he too was stranded and in peril - yet he kept on working.

The film follows the Endurance as it makes its way south to the Antarctic landmass, smashing its way through ice and passing by enormous ice bergs. It looks unstoppable, reinforced steel providing an extra cutting edge for the spring ice floe: this is the best modern science can offer and surely nature will not be able to stand in its way.

Frank Hurley at work
The film proudly shows us the packs of dogs who were to be the expedition’s backbone once they landed and there’s a typically British fascination with animals both domesticated and wild throughout with a long section on penguins and seals near the end (eat your heart out Herbert P!).

We are provided with various members of the crew including Shackleton himself and you search each line and every nuance of expression for a clue to his character: this is what a brave man looks like… even if the close-ups were taken after the event with him in uniform ready to do his bit in the War. Before the Endurance was able to make land it became trapped in the ice in mid-January 1915. At first this seemed just a temporary setback but then the predicament became much clearer and much more serious. The crew tried many times to hack a channel through the ice to enable the ship to make progress and to break through to clear water but this wasn’t to be.

After some days they were resigned to a long wait for the ice to thaw and they kept themselves busy with research, hunting and football matches. Obviously we only see what’s on film and what Hurley edited and was perhaps allowed to show but clearly the command from Shackleton was strong and effective: moral appears to be high. They knew they had a long wait ahead… until the arrival of the arctic spring later that year.

Yet, when the thaw did start in September 1915  a far more serious challenge arose as the force of the shifting ice started to compromise the Endurance’s hull and the ship began to be lifted from the water. Hurley’s shots of the stricken ice-breaker are amongst the most iconic of the whole journey especially those he shot at night using dozens of magnesium lights… it’s haunting, not just because of the eerie phosphorescent glow but also because you realize that the men could be watching their best hope of survival being crushed and sunk.

The stricken Endurance shot in the dark
Shackleton had the men strip everything of use from the Endurance before she finally sank in November and he established a camp using tents, shacks built from the ship’s timbers and upturned lifeboats. One of these, the twenty foot James Caird, with some major adjustments from the team's carpenters, was used to make Shackleton’s heroic journey from Elephant Island to South Georgia. Before that the crew had had to use the boats to make their way from the melting ice floes to land an epic adventure in itself.

That Hurley’s film survives is one thing but that it survives in such good quality is another. Apparently he buried film canisters in the snow during parts of the escape in order to preserve them in the event that things didn’t quite work out…

The James Caird is prepared for launch
When Shackleton departed on that final stage, Hurley remained behind with the rest of the crew. The gaps in the story are made up of illustrations and then later footage of both the forbidding ice wall Shackleton and his men had to climb in order to reach help.

Hurley later remarked that the earlier Australian expedition he had been on was a means to a scientific end whilst the British focus was on the adventure first with science as an added bonus. Be that as it may, there was certainly great domestic interest in viewing the strange creatures of the South as Ponting’s film had already proved and there’s some twenty minutes of crowd-pleasing wildlife footage once it’s clear that the men survived.

The crew of the Endurance
In the end Shackleton returned with help and ensured that every one of his crew returned safe: the greatest survival epic of the golden age of polar exploration at a time when far less was known about these still treacherous waters… As I write there are two ice-breakers currently trapped in the ice, a Chinese ship sent in to rescue a Russian.

Whatever the merits or otherwise of Shackleton’s motives you cannot doubt his leadership and courage nor that of the men, like Hurley, who followed him come thick and thin ice.

I watched the BFI DVD which is available direct or from Movie Mail. It comes with a stirring score from Neil Brand which perfectly captures the spirit of the times and of adventure as it used to be: indomitable, brave and with the passion to overcome all obstacles - they endured!


  1. In those days before our world was sold
    And country mortgaged for tiny gain
    These brave men did risk the cold
    To bring back glory through their pain

    1. Eloquently put Sir Gawain: Sir Shackleton's impulse to act was gleaned from glorious dreams...