Frank Hurley’s South must rank as one of the most curious documentaries of all time. A professional photographer, Hurley was hired by polar explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton to capture on film his 1914 attempt at crossing the Antarctic. Owing to the circumstances of the expedition, however, he was unable to record the rescue mission that occurred once the team’s ship, the Endurance, had become trapped in the ice - a mission which has led to the ill-fated trek becoming so well known. What results, therefore, is strange entity whereby the film’s second half doesn’t truly exist, reduced as it is to a small number of stills and illustrations, and as such can’t help but appear anti-climactic. It is to Hurley’s credit, however, that he still decided to complete South as it contains some truly magnificent imagery. The film was initially screened on the lecture circuit where the cracks in the narrative could be papered over by Hurley’s speech, producing a more rounded recollection of the events between 1914 and 1916. Understandably, the BFI have been unable to release South with such a Hurley commentary, but what remains is still a wonderfully fascinating artefact.
Having identified that the audience of his day would have a full knowledge of Shackleton’s expedition, Hurley never treats his footage in narrative terms; whilst there would be the opportunity to invest the proceedings with an air of tension, as in Kevin MacDonald’s account of the 1972 Munich Olympics hostage crisis, One Day in September, for example, it has been declined. Instead, the intertitles serve to inform before the fact (we are told as the Endurance departs, for instance, that the crew would not return for two years) and Hurley presents his tale of the British stiff upper lip - or “pluck, self-sacrifice and indomitable courage” as he puts it - through other means.
Recognising that the drama is pretty redundant, South instead focuses on the day-to-day actions of the expedition, both at sea and on land (or rather ice) once the crew becomes marooned. As such it is through the details in which the audience learns of these men and their journey. The procurement of food and water, scientific research and the posing for a group photograph despite their circumstance all combine to create the bigger picture. (Hurley also builds on this by using the explorers’ lexicon in his intertitles - once again bridging the gap between the men and their audience.)
Slightly undermining the crew, however, are the other participants of the expedition. With South documenting the Antarctic, it was expected by audiences at the time that some of the local wildlife should be revealed. Bowing down to such popular demand, Hurley uses an extraordinary amount of the film’s duration presenting us with lengthy shots of seals, penguins and the like. The problem this creates is that South progresses at a very ragged pace; whenever things are expected to perk up (especially during the final detailing of the extraordinary rescue mission), events are interrupted by yet another montage of sea lions. Certainly, this does provide a modern audience with an insight into their counterparts’ tastes almost a hundred years ago, but it still remains a flaw.
In this respect, we should perhaps be glad that Charles Sturridge’s fine miniseries Shackleton is also available on disc. A dramatic interpretation of the events with Kenneth Branagh in the title role, it fills in the gaps that South misses out, or was unable to capture, and vice versa. As such it is recommended that for those who wish to be in possession of the complete picture purchase Shackleton alongside South, fascinating document though it is.
Given the conditions that South‘s negative had to endure for months on end whilst its filmmaker was stranded in the Antarctic, it is remarkable that it should emerge looking quite so good. The National Film and Television Archive have provided a restoration that removes the vast majority of damage as well as adding tinting according to Hurley’s original wishes. The applause for the fine visuals should be aimed mostly at the director himself, however. Given the icy, monochromatic landscapes, the images could have easily become indiscernible. As it is, this is never the case.
As accompaniment, two options are provided. There is a choice of either a new piano score by Neil Brand (presented in stereo and sounding absolutely superb) or a commentary by film historian Luke McKernan. Given his background, McKernan spends much of his time discussing the film’s production and Hurley’s career as opposed to Shackleton's achievements, though he does pay these lip service in a similar manner to the lectures that would have accompanied the film’s very first screenings.
The other extras see the BFI delving deep into the archives, a surprising move perhaps considering South is unlikely to sell little beyond the specialist market. We should be grateful therefore to receive almost 20 minutes of outtakes from the main feature and for the option of perusing 20 of Hurley’s photographs (some of which are not included in the film itself). Plus there’s footage from the other expedition (which would place supplies along Shackleton’s route in advance) and of Shackleton’s icy funeral in 1921. Elsewhere there is also a brief audio clip of the explorer addressing the press in 1909. This piece excepted, the majority of the extras are presented completely silent, though the footage of the Ross Sea Party expedition features a voice-over from polar historian Kelly Tyler. She also appears on a brief “animated map” featurette that explains Shackleton’s intended route across the Antarctic. In both cases she understandably divulges a wealth of information.
The remaining extras are more typical BFI supplementary features: a link to their website, plus sleeve notes. Also be aware that English subtitles are available for the extras (including commentaries) where applicable.