THE ENDURANCE: SHACKLETON'S LEGENDARY ANTARCTIC EXPEDITION
Hurley's photo of the ice-bound ship.
directed by George Butler runs Nov. 16-22 at Varsity
OK, OK, ENOUGH already. We get the idea. Sir Ernest Shackleton (1874- 1922) is the kindest, bravest, warmest, most wonderful human being we've ever known. Ever since Caroline Alexander's 1998 best-selling account brought him back to the public eye, the Antarctic explorer has been lionized in our adventure-besotted culture. He's also benefited from Into Thin Air mania, since he famously kept his head when ice trapped his ship, then brought all his 27 men home alive—unlike we modern, soft bunglers who pay for our thrills then reach for the cell phone when the weather turns against us.
What famously turned against Shackleton and his crew, of course, was the polar pack ice that stranded their ill-fated 1914-1916 expedition. Since then, traveling museum shows (as at the Burke right now), more books, and a slew of movies have chronicled every amazing detail of shipwreck and survival. In '99 we saw the original documentary South, shot by expedition photographer Frank Hurley, whose precious stills and motion picture footage adorn Alexander's book and each successive film. Currently, the Pacific Science Center is showing the abridged IMAX version of Endurance that director George Butler shot simultaneously in '99; it's mainly notable for its amazing polar panoramas. In the meantime, Kenneth Branagh will play Shackleton in a forthcoming BBC/A&E Channel miniseries, while The Perfect Storm director Wolfgang Petersen is preparing the big-screen version, with Mel Gibson mentioned for the leading role.
Had enough? Not for Shackleton fanatics—never! Here, Butler employs a Ken Burnsian approach to the familiar material, interviewing aging children and relatives of Shackleton's crew, panning and scanning over photographs, and mixing in impressive snowscapes from Antarctica and South Georgia Island. Liam Neeson manfully purrs the narration (mostly derived from Alexander's book; she was a co-writer on the project), making one wonder why poor Kevin Spacey was relegated to narrating the IMAX doc—too much of a sissy, perhaps?
You know the plot: ice, dogs, ice, courageous 800-mile boat journey, then still more ice. (Hurley praises one mutt as "a leader in canine sagacity.") Still, certain random, unfamiliar details do astonish: the ship turns around to retrieve an overboard cat; the voices of actual survivors recorded and preserved for a radio interview; laundry lines strung up at camp. Contemporary experts lend their admiring voices (again ࠬa Burns), but Stephen Ambrose is mercifully absent.
Where Hurley's powerful images run out, Butler supplies re-enactments to finish the tale, an intrusive but understandable device. At SIFF this spring (where Endurance took the popular documentary prize), he declared, "The story is Homeric. It's as good as The Illiad or The Odyssey." He's right, and his film capably conveys the greatness of that now-distant saga.