Heroes can be fools, yet remain heroic. What was heroic about explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton assembling a crew of 27 men and 69 Canadian sled dogs to make a trans-Antarctic quest to the South Pole in 1914, despite that destination having already been conquered by another explorer? Not much. It seems foolhardy and vainglorious, and in the sub-zero conditions, as dangerous as anything someone could imagine in that age.
The heroism came when the mission failed. A story of vanity became one of survival. It was Shackleton's third expedition. English polar explorer Robert Falcon Scott had died in a recent attempt. Naming his ship "Endurance," after his family motto, "By endurance, we conquer," Shackleton was brutally honest when he advertised for a crew in a London newspaper in 1914. "Men wanted for hazardous journey. Small wages. Bitter cold. Long months of complete darkness. Constant Danger. Safe return doubtful. Honor and recognition in case of success."
Hollywood directors like Wolfgang Petersen have wanted for years to make an event-scale movie of the story of the two-year expedition's increasingly bitter rewards. Whether because of prohibitive cost, lousy scripts or because of locations that would be too far from good restaurants, no studio movie has been made. And there is a very good reason any such attempt would be pathetically superfluous. Shackleton partially financed his dream by bringing along Frank Hurley, a gifted Australian photographer and cinematographer. Despite abandoning a large number of his negatives when the wooden ship was crushed in a frozen sea, more than 100 survive, and, most thrillingly in George Butler's documentary The Endurance: Shackleton's Legendary Antarctic Expedition, there is extensive 35mm motion picture footage of the travails of the men. (Butler has also made an IMAX version called Shackleton's Antarctic Adventure, with a different narration and narrator, and an earlier documentary, South, was composed almost entirely of Hurley's footage.)
The Endurance, partly financed by Morgan Stanley and WGBH/NOVA, is a punishing chronicle of epic misery. We see handsome men whose faces seem timeless, rugged of face, ready to face the fickle cold. Excerpts from their diaries and interviews with the men's middle-aged grandchildren and elderly children bring the legend to life. There are also glimmerings of the last century's dawn of modern communications, with additional footage drawn from newsreels and radio interviews with several of the men years later. They traveled from Plymouth, England, to the dangerous seas south of Chile, in their three-masted wooden sailing ship -- a type with the lovely name "barkentine," designed to withstand collisions with ice and the pressure ice-packs exerted on the hull when the ship was temporarily trapped.
But they were soon trapped for good: the ice never parted. They waited weeks, months. Winter came. The ship slowly, surely, listed and came to pieces. During the nearly two years they were lost, the men resorted to all but cannibalism, and were near death at the end. The pack dogs were eaten. Eventually, they crossed the world's most treacherous sea in a 22-foot lifeboat. Five of the men took 17 days to sail 800 nautical miles and to walk across 256 miles of mountains and glaciers before reaching the whaling station on South Georgia Island from which they had set sail. The images are coldly beautiful. Isolated from a world at war, packed in ice, surrounded by white and radio silence, the men and their fragile vessel are slowly, agonizingly punished with visions of beauty and likely death.
They held brave hopes. One of Shackleton's men declared, "I hope to return in 19 months and go straight to the front. What a glorious age we live in!" Their respective fates afterwards were not as pretty as one would hope after all they suffered, and Butler and his collaborators, particularly those who composed the coursing, cascading score and sound design, calmly examine a kind of drenching, day-to-day horror few of us could imagine. All the men survived; there's no tension lost in revealing that fact, as the documentary does. Butler's accomplishment is capturing the lost spirit of exploration and discovery from centuries past, which none of us, bound to a known earth, can know today.
The Endurance shows at The Met on Wednesday, Dec. 5, and Thursday, Dec. 6, at 5:30 and 8 pm. Tickets: $7; $6 students/seniors. Call: 624-4644.