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Directed by George Butler (2001, White Mountain Films)
Narrated by Kevin Spacey, Starring Conrad Anker, Reinhold Messner, and Stephen Venables

The amazing journey that Shackleton survived across Antarctic ice, open ocean, and ice mountains.



3+ stars

January 13th, 2002 on the IMAX screen

    An incredible story of the triumph of man, wrapped in a pretty nice display package.  I enjoyed this very much.

While the film did have its shortcomings, they were unusual ones, and probably more subject to the complaints of an IMAX film rather than to any other type of film.  The main problem I had was with the old footage.  While it was terrific to see the actual ship, the footage was grainy -especially on such a giant screen.  I don't know if there is any other way to show that footage, either, because it would not have been the same if it was shown as a small square, as has been done on other films. 

In short, Ernest Shackleton hired on a crew for "long hours, terrible living conditions, low pay, and low chance of survival."  He was going to Antarctica, in 1919 (or then-abouts).  Two teams had beat him to the south pole, so he wanted to be the first person to traverse it.  I don't know what he was planning to do when he got to the other side, maybe come back to his ship.  Or maybe he would have the ship go around the continent and pick him up.  But they could have waited a long time if the ship was encased in ice.

As it turned out, the ship Endurance was trapped in the ice much sooner.  The ice closed in around it far from the destination continent, and from their starting point.  So they made camp on the giant ice flow, exercised their dogs and themselves, waiting for spring to arrive.  But instead of freeing the ship, the warmer weather sent more ice flows up against the ship, destroying it.  The images of the ship falling apart were haunting.  The giant ice-cradled masts breaking as if they were twigs was horrifying, not just as they watched their way home sink, but it had also served as their home for many months.  I can't even imagine accepting the situation as it was, living on the ship for so long, waiting for warmer weather.

Taking aboard the three lifeboats all that they could afford to take, they spent days rowing, sometimes ending up going backwards because of the tide, instead of forwards, hopefully towards home.  The story doesn't tell what happened to the dogs, but I suppose they were forced to kill them rather than let the dogs to fend for themselves, where they would have certainly died from starvation, cracking ice flows or freezing.  I wonder if such a valuable source of meat was left behind (better not to dwell on that, I suppose).

The weather conditions were terrible, as to be expected in the open ocean.  The waves were as tall as skyscrapers (or seemed that way).  I don't know how they survived.  For five or six nights, they slept in the lifeboats, under the sleet and above the waves.  Incredible!  Finally, they made landfall on Elephant Island, a large island north of Antarctica, populated only by penguins and seals, but with no other life.  Just rock and ocean.  Yuck.

Shackleton took five other men with him on an 800 mile open ocean voyage on a single modified lifeboat, catching the wind on homemade sails.  After a long time at sea, somehow, miraculously, they made it back to their starting point.  Unfortunately, they were on the wrong side of the island, and their lifeboat was unable to made another trip in the water.  They spend their last night at sea in a hurricane!  Nature's cruel joke, in sight of land, but with waters too rough to risk trying to get to it.  

Once they landed, Shackleton and two other men made a thirty-six hour trek across uncharted and extremely rugged terrain back to the harbor where they began the journey, almost 18 months before.  There, he hired out a ship, rescued his other three trans-ocean mates and went to pick up his remaining crew on Elephant Island.  I was dreading what they would find there, but every single member of the 27 person crew survived, healthy!  Absolutely incredible.

Most of the story is recreated by actors, and I don't know how much of it they filmed at the same locations.  Probably not the southern-most spots.  But still, it was probably a very accurate representation.  I would not have wanted to participate in the recreation, much less the actual events.  I guess I'm not a true explorer.  Out in the Northwest Territories, above the tree line on the archipelago, I became very sick and just wanted to lie down and get it over with.  Thankfully, I had good friends with me, and a ski-doo with a covered sled on the back.  It was nothing, absolutely nothing, like what Shackleton and his crew faced. 

It takes a special leader to do what they did.  I wonder if there was dissent in the group, because like the dogs, it was never mentioned.  I have to believe there was friction; as the narrator says, the men began to lose it.  But because this is a story about victory, it does not do an even job with the negatives also.  That's alright, it's probably better that way.  Shackleton must have been a charismatic person, taking the lead like he did, making those life and death decisions.  He must have been a truly amazing person.

My first reaction to the music of this film was that it was terrific, with a really epic sort of feel to it.  But that worked against it, too.  Whenever Shackleton was approaching a victory over nature, overcoming another obstacle, the music foreshadowed it, letting us on to the secret just a little early.  But it was still very nice to listen to.

The scenery was also terrific.  There were breathtaking views of the ice, gigantic icebergs, crashing ice flows, dark blue skies, and don't forget Elephant Island, a chunk of rock that was amazing to look at because it looked like there were ants crawling all over it -but those ants were penguins, little dots from a long shot.  Even the old footage showed us some incredible sights.  But I wonder how they managed to record the ice-breaking tactics the ship was put through -the camera must have hung well out over the prow of the ship, perhaps with the cameraman there behind it!

The story was really amazing.  The way it was told was also very well done.  The movie was well made, with visuals and music that brought life to the icy settings.  That this is a true story only makes it more amazing.  This was quite a journey.


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