Frank Hurley’s documentary “South” feels like a movie out of time.
One that by modern standards, uses limited tools to amazing ends when World War I was erupting in Europe, and the demise of RMS Titanic was still recent news. As such, only by use of still and hand-cranked cameras, Hurley’s “South” proves a riveting — if imbalanced — silent documentary of British explorer Ernest Shackleton’s 1914 bid to navigate the South Pole.
For the record, they never made it — as Shackelton’s vessel “Endurance” became icelocked, forcing his crew to abandon ship, subsisting on seal (and dog) meat, thawed ice, and whatever else they could salvage for two years. This, mind you, in days long before Gore-Tex, GPS, or other modern survival gear. Yet from a larger scope, “South”
is better a two-pronged story of Shackleton’s resolve to save his crew, and Hurley’s fearlessness in recording their voyage, often shooting from atop “Endurance’s” mast, and diving–as we learn in “South’s” fine, but light DVD audio comment–into its half-sunken lockers to retrieve extra film canisters.
These asides of Hurley and Shackleton are the real historical fangs behind “South,” each man a real-life Indiana Jones whose stories could make a feature on their own. But unfortunately, “South’s” dramatic drive later screeches to a halt when it lurches into several bulky minutes of wildlife footage filmed by Hurley after the fact, and that have nothing to do with the “Endurance” story. This, we find, was done by “South’s” British producers to appeal to a public clamoring to see penguins in their natural habitat. In a way, this added footage is interesting — a silent forerunner to “National Geographic” TV specials. But its placement in “South” is so badly arranged that it derails the flow of Hurley’s otherwise landmark film.
Released in Australia–where it met equal success–as “In The Grip of The Polar Ice,” “South” is nothing short of a historic picture. Yet best of all, it should inspire us to investigate harder facts about the “Endurance” story, and wonder if Hurley and/or Shackleton couldn’t have whipped a certain Dr. Jones in any contest of guts.