The Endurance: Shackleton's Legendary Antarctic Expedition Review

In 1914 Sir Ernest Shackleton set out with a crew of 27 men, including filmmaker Frank Hurley, on an expedition to cross Antarctica. The resulting film was South, released in 1919 though it wasn’t until the late nineties, when Hurley’s footage was restored by the British Film Institute, that its reputation as a magnificent example of the documentary bloomed. Indeed, in attendance at the premiere of this restored version was George Butler, best known as the director of Pumping Iron and its superb, if little seen sequel Pumping Iron II : The Women, who was in turn inspired to make two documentary films. The first, entitled Shackleton’s Antarctic Adventure, was a 40-minute IMAX venture narrated by Kevin Spacey; the second, which appears on this disc, has Liam Neeson on voice-over duties and occupies a feature length in its retelling of Shackleton’s famed expedition.

Butler’s decision to do is understandable as Hurley’s film was only able to capture part of the story. The crossing turned out to be an ill-fated one, with the Endurance (the crew’s ship from which this documentary takes its name) becoming iced-in and the crew having to stage a torturous and daring rescue mission. One of the side-effects of this was that Hurley had to abandon his camera and as such South lacks any moving picture record of what is, dramatically at least, the most exciting part. The Endurance, however, has no such problems and its use of talking heads and archive footage (from radio interviews to, of course, South itself), as well as various diaries, memoirs and letters, is able to present a fuller, more complete picture of the events which occurred between 1914 and 1916.

Since Butler finished production on The Endurance, however, audiences have twice been able to revisit Shackleton’s expedition. Firstly there was the two-part Christmas serial entitled Shackleton which starred Kenneth Branagh and was directed by Charles Sturridge, and secondly we had the BFI’s superb DVD release of South which provided various commentaries, outtakes and other rare footage. So is The Endurance to be considered the definitive version? Certainly, Shackleton had all the drama, whilst South in disc form contained all the academia. A combination of the two would, of course, therefore be preferable, yet in its desire to be as mainstream as possible, Butler’s venture somewhat misses this mark.

What this means primarily is a focus on adventure, as the IMAX title suggested, and an assumption that the vast majority of its audience will be unfamiliar with South, perhaps even the expedition as a whole. As such The Endurance skips through many of the early stages in the crossing, stages which were vital to Hurley’s film as it was here where much of his footage was captured, and yet is also highly reliant on this other director’s work. On the one hand it gives us chance once again to marvel at his magnificent camerawork (the excerpts are take from the beautifully tinted BFI restoration), but on the other means that The Endurance suffers from the same problems which blighted South. Once Hurley’s footage dries up, Butler’s film understandably seems lacking; his own material (the director went to various sites of the expedition in order to gather some marvellous shots, primarily for his IMAX version) simply cannot match the frisson of actually seeing Shackleton and his men coping in the bleakest of circumstances, and as such the second half – though the more dramatic in narrative terms – feels somewhat weaker.

That said, The Endurance still offers many pleasures to behold. If we accept it as a gap filler rather than the definitive article, then it certainly proves its worth. We get the darker underbelly which South did not offer – class tensions between the ranks; the tale of one unnamed crewman went on a seal killing spree with an axe upon reaching land – as well as some wonderful tiny details. Whilst iced-in, for example, the men took part in a hairdressing contest, and there’s also a great quote with regards to the food shortage and the daily biscuit: “Look at it for breakfast, suck it for lunch, eat it for dinner.”

In spite of its darker undercurrents, however, The Endurance is a wholly mainstream work and takes Shackleton himself as a means of communicating its tale. Throughout we are told of his “daring”, of how “heroic” he was and the expedition was his “last chance” (Shackleton was 40 at the time of the Endurance’s departure). Plus we find Butler at pains to emphasise his outsider or loner status inherent in his personality. Indeed, this focus on what he sees as a square jawed hero makes for an intriguingly American take on a very British subject and the result is an interesting, if flawed documentary. Those who haven’t should check out South before tracking this particular title down (and the same could be said for Shackleton as well), but The Endurance does add other dimensions and serves as a worthy companion piece.

The Disc

The Endurance arrives on disc in the UK in identical form to the US Region 1 edition. Thus we get an anamorphic transfer (at a ratio of 1.78:1) plus a handful of worthy, informative extras. With regards to the picture quality, this is largely agreeable. The South footage is, as said, taken from the restored BFI version (though Butler at times has cropped it to fit the 1.78:1 frame), whilst the newer Antarctic-shot material is equally stunning. Only some of the talking heads appear a little grainy, though this may be the result of film stock on which they were shot, rather than a fault in the disc’s authoring. As such the only difficulties are intermittent signs of artefacting, though these are too minor to prove distracting.

As for the soundtrack, the film comes with a Dolby Surround mix which ably copes with Neeson’s narration, Michael Small’s overly lachrymose score and Margaret Crimmins’ impressively atmospheric sound design. Any technical faults certainly didn’t make themselves known to these ears, whilst those with an appreciation for Small’s score will also welcome a DD2.0 track devoted solely to it.

The extras contained on the disc amount to a commentary by Butler and a quartet of featurettes (plus the obligatory trailers, of course). The former is an agreeable affair, with the softly spoken director constantly in awe of Hurley’s work and divulging his own difficulties in filming in Antarctic conditions. Of course, these where nothing to the problems which Shackleton faced, but it makes for an enjoyable listen nonetheless.

Watching some of the featurettes is also akin to listening to another, albeit briefer, commentary. The first has Caroline Alexander (who wrote the book of the same name from which the film is taken) talking over re-edited footage from the film and divulging a few more details not included in the finished work. As it is her rather Neeson doing the talking it’s a more academic affair, though still makes for interesting 16 minutes. The second featurette focuses more closely on Butler’s Antarctic shoot. Again we have re-edited footage from the film, though here it is combined with various behind-the-scenes photographs in order to give a sense of the director’s (and his crew’s) undertakings in capturing their footage.

The remaining featurettes take a different tact. The first concentrates on Frank Hurley through interview footage with his two daughters. They make for an engaging pair, though anyone who has seen the BBC4 documentary Frank Hurley : The Man Who Made History will find its brief 11-minute duration far too short. More pleasing is the final piece, ‘Past and Present’, which follows various descendents (children, grandchildren, cousins) of the Endurance’s crew as they peruse a New York exhibition mounted by Alexander. Again, it is perhaps a little too short at only 10 minutes, but it’s a welcome addition nonetheless.

Unlike the main feature, all extras come without optional subtitles, English or otherwise.

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