Watching ‘South: Sir Ernest Shackleton’s Glorious Epic of the Antarctic’
I went to the BFI last week to see “South: Sir Ernest Shackleton’s Glorious Epic of the Antarctic”. Billed as “An extraordinary story of survival in the wastes of Antarctica” it is made of director Frank Hurley‘s footage from Shackleton‘s 1914-1916 expedition to the South Pole, and as shown it attempts to re-create the movie that was screened in theatres in the late 1910s/early 1920s on a lecture tour by Shackleton trying to raise funds for his next adventure.
It is incredible that so much footage survives, given the perilous nature of the journey, and the temperatures that the equipment had to operate in. Despite being silent – there is a new score to the film by Neil Brand – it is considered to be the world’s first documentary feature, and manages to tell a very human story. It isn’t just spectacular shots of the Antarctic, it is about the people, and the dogs, on board the Endurance.
Ah, the dogs. I like to imagine that at one point director Hurley had a very awkward conversation with his Executive Producer.
“So did you get any footage of the ship being crushed by the ice and sinking?”
“The long march across the ice to safety?”
“The ultimate rescue?”
“Not so much”
“OK, but I see here we have five minutes of footage of some puppies playing in an ice kennel that the men had dug for them?”
“That is correct, sir.”
In fairness to Hurley, when they abandoned the ship – or rather when the ship abandoned them – he had to leave loads of his equipment behind, so it is understandable that the film doesn’t cover the journey back.
It is fascinating thinking about his process too. There is a whole series of absolutely spectacular shots where the camera, and cameraman, is dangling right off the bowsprit shooting down as the Endurance is used as a battering ram to smash through the pack ice. There’s shot after shot of this, presumably because with the technology of the time they could never be quite sure what they’d managed to capture. And every shot you think “Oh god, he’s going to fall off when this impacts.”
You also wonder how popular the film-making process was with the crew. With cameras still being so rare they can’t have been used to being on film. And there are several shots of the Endurance from a distance which presumably involved Hurley having to convince people to get off the ship and trudge over the treacherous ice in order to set up the shot, risking their lives in the process.
But Hurley filmed the men and the dogs a lot. A LOT. There were twenty-eight men and seventy dogs about the Endurance. Can you imagine the smell and the noise and the sheer chaotic energy of just having that many dogs on a ship? There are some great sequences where the camera is obviously off the back of one sled, filming right into the faces of the dogs pulling the sled behind.
Clearly looking after the dogs was something that gave the men work and purpose and FUN during the voyage. And then puppies arrived! It is just fascinating to see these hardened explorers from over a century ago smoking pipes while they carefully cuddle and play with puppies. Who doesn’t love puppies?
With the lack of footage from the end of the expedition, the movie was incomplete, so Hurley later headed to South Georgia to film some additional clips of the wildlife there, that could be interspersed into the plates explaining how Shackleton had reached there and found a rescue party to get all the men home.
It is one of those interesting dilemmas with restoration projects like this. The footage itself is an important part of cinematic history, and marks one of the first times there was a “natural history documentary” crew so far south of the equator. It must have been incredible for audiences to see the fauna and flora from so far away at the time. But, it is 2022, and I know what penguins look like, so that chunk of the movie is considerably less interesting to the modern eye than the actual clips of life on board the Endurance.
The sequence where the Endurance is slowly lifted up out of the ice by the pressure building up underneath it is incredible, and once she eventually sinks, there are clips of the men just sawing up the wood and trying to salvage anything that might be useful from the debris that has been left on top of the ice where her masts and rigging are just strewn about. It is incredible that this has survived. And it really brings home the feeling there must have been to watch your home be crushed by the ice, and to now realise you are stuck in the Antarctic with no means of getting home and no shelter.
Anyway you know the end of the movie. They do get rescued and they get a heroes reception in Chile, which is also captured on film. People didn’t half love a hat in 1916, didn’t they? Anyway, the movie is on at the BFI for the next month or so, and I do recommend it. The middle section where they are stranded is just compulsive viewing.