In the past few years, there has been a curious revival of interest regarding the disastrous 1914 Antarctic expedition led by the Irish adventurer Sir Ernest Shackleton. Under the original plans, Shackleton was to lead his company in a trek across the Antarctic continent. However, his great wooden ship The Endurance became permanently trapped and then destroyed by the powerful pack ice of the polar waters, forcing the expedition to flee across the ice and then sail through merciless waters. Nearly two years would pass before rescue was achieved.
“Endurance: Shackleton’s Legendary Antarctic Expedition” is a less-than-compelling new documentary which retraces the doomed journey, offering an uncharacteristically sympathetic view of the reckless Shackleton. This is a curious example of taking a hair-raising story and draining the drama from every corner, leaving it a bit flat and ultimately forgettable.
To its credit, the film acknowledges the expedition was thoroughly useless since the South Pole had already been discovered by a Norwegian expedition. As a glory hunter, Shackleton’s timing was way-off since he plans were being launched simultaneously with the start of World War I, which obviously commanded greater public attention. There was also the question of his track record: Shackleton had been part of earlier British attempts to conquer Antarctica, none of which came close to success, so it was to his credit as a fast-talker that he could secure funding and manpower to help chase his icy dream.
Constant poor judgment by Shackleton resulted in the Endurance becoming a prisoner in the ice, and a foolish lack of dynamite among the ship’s provision sealed its doom. Shackleton’s leadership decisions actually kept his party on ice longer than they should have been and it is a miracle that all members eventually came home alive. But after returning safely to England, Shackleton vindictively prevented three members of the expedition from receiving royal honors because they briefly questioned his command during their long exile in Antarctica.
While the Shackleton adventure is a stunning story, “Endurance: Shackleton’s Legendary Antarctic Expedition” is a fairly average documentary which is often too sedate and ordinary for the story being told here. (The film was co-produced by folks behind the PBS “Nova” program and it bears that series’ trademark style of being distinguished yet slightly dull). The film relies heavily on Frank Hurley’s stunning silent movies and still photography from the expedition, which have been used frequently in other Shackleton films beginning with the 1919 classic documentary “South.” But since Hurley’s photographic record came to an abrupt halt when the party was forced to flee Antarctica and sail for safety on distant Elephant Island, the filmmakers of this documentary continue the story via seemingly endless shots of the skies and waters and barren lands which occupy the southern polar territories. Vintage radio interviews with several of the expedition survivors and occasional on-camera interviews with the survivors’ families dot the film to keep the narrative moving somewhat and Liam Neeson provides a polite narration.
Yet the film curiously treats Shackleton as a hero, despite his endless mistakes which nearly drove his crew to death by starvation and cold. It is never quite clear why Shackleton commanded the endless respect of his men, since it was obvious in retrospect that he was clearly improvising madly and almost always creating bigger mistakes. The men of the expedition come across here like ciphers…we never get to know them or go inside their minds, aside from a few diary segment which seem suspiciously taken out of context to support the notion of Shackleton as a great man.
Perhaps someday an enterprising Hollywood type with bucketfuls of money can mount a big-budget film version of the Shackleton story. It is surprising that none have been made yet, considering the film offers more drama and thrills than nearly everything currently playing. Until that film gets made, we are stuck with “Endurance: Shackleton’s Legendary Antarctic Expedition.” And not unlike the Shackleton expedition itself, this production wasn’t such a good idea.