In August 1914, just as World War I was beginning, British explorer Ernest Shackleton set sail from Plymouth, England, with a 28-man crew and a ship presciently called the Endurance. Having failed in previous attempts to be the first to reach the South Pole, Shackleton was now determined to be the first to cross Antarctica on foot. He and his crew were a breed of romantic stoics that would vanish once the needless slaughter of the incipient war began to sink into the general consciousness.
Meanwhile, there was still a premium placed on proving one’s mettle, and life-threatening danger was viewed as an adventure, awesome but not horrific. Even during the expedition’s first major setback, one of the crewmembers writes back to his family saying that he will likely be home soon after this minor glitch is surmounted, at which time he plans to head for the front. One is lucky to be alive in such “glorious times,” he writes. The opportunity to be put to the test in the frozen middle of nowhere or under the gun in a bloody war — what more could you ask for?
The expedition would take almost two years and would fail — but it was the kind of spectacular failure that was much more fascinating than any imaginable success.
Very near Antarctica, the Endurance becomes trapped in a gigantic ice floe when the temperature suddenly drops 40 degrees overnight. At first determined to sit it out, Shackleton and his crew are forced to abandon the vessel after 10 months when the ice begins to squeeze the ship to death. From this point, the story becomes a survival tale of an intensity that would be ludicrous if it were fiction; again and again, just as things seem to have reached their lowest point, they get worse.
The film, directed by James Butler, makes excellent use of footage made by crewmember Frank Hurley, an Australian photographer who had recorded previous Antarctic expeditions. The earliest material is film, surprisingly well-preserved; at some point after the ship becomes trapped, Hurley has to resort to still photographs; still later, when events become more dire, a record survives in the form of drawings. Butler has blended all this with some judicious use of talking heads, a voiceover by Liam Neeson, contemporary footage of the original sites and some well-integrated re-enactments.
And though Shackleton’s goals may now seem like a grand folly, his tale remains an engrossing testament to the persistence of life.
Opens Friday exclusively at the Maple Art Theatre (4135 W. Maple, W of Telegraph). Call 248-542-0180.