MEN WANTED: For Hazardous Journey. Small Wages, Bitter Cold, Long Months of Complete Darkness, Constant Danger, Safe Return Doubtful. Honour and Recognition in Case of Success.—Ernest Shackleton
It's often called the greatest adventure that ever happened. A journey to the bottom of the world. The coldest temperatures on the planet. The land littered with the dead from failed attempts. Theirs would be a failure too, but where one objective is lost, another is found. Twenty-eight men left Europe, and all 28 returned. Alive. For 635 days, the men were trapped amongst freezing waters, starvation, and ice so powerful it tries to kill you in your sleep. This amazing true story of human determination and survival is a testament to the human spirit, and the undying resolve of pure endurance.
Facts of the Case
Ernest Shackleton, an Irish explorer/adventurer, had lost his prize to the Dutch of being the first explorer to reach the South Pole. So in 1914 he set out for another first: the first trans-Antarctic passage. With 27 other men from all classes of society, he left Europe at the verge of World War I. Shackleton offered his ship and services to Lord Winston Churchill for the war effort, but he declined with the word, "Proceed."
Many thought him foolish. The Pole had been reached, why bother with this trip? The world was changing too. The men on the voyage didn't know it yet, but the Europe they left would be gone when they returned, nearly two years later. A new age was coming, and this was to be the last adventure of the old world.
An unusually cold season had brought the ice fields off the coast of Antarctica farther out than ever previously recorded. Surrounded by ice four feet thick on top of water 8,000 feet deep, they cut and rammed their way forward, closer and closer to the shore. One day's sail from the coastline, the ice attacked, surrounding the ship and trapping her. Beset by freezing temperatures driving below -20 degrees Fahrenheit, the ship was unable to break free, and the ice slowly killed it, plank by plank. Eventually, the ship was torn asunder, and sank below the ice forevermore.
The men, marooned on their icy home, had drifted along with the currents hundreds of miles away from the coast with their ship before it finally succumbed. Now without proper shelter or provision, the ice was beginning to melt, and they were in grave danger to escape the hungry ocean. Using the small lifeboats, they managed to sail from one small godforsaken island to the next, hundreds of miles away, in the vain effort to stay alive. Mutiny, starvation, and worst of all, low morale, loomed overhead at all times, threatening to ruin them all at any time. But Shackleton was unwilling to give up.
It was decided that Shackleton and a few other men would brave a perilous journey across the ocean to a small island with a whaling station to try to find help. The rest of the men waited on a piece of rock inhabited by penguins, seals, and ice in the hope of their captain's return. After a grueling oceanic ordeal, they reached the island with the station, but landed on the opposite side on the only safe location they could find. Most of the men were deathly ill, only three marginally fit for continued travel. In a marathon 36 hours, the three men, Shackleton among them, marched through the uncharted interior of the island over unnamed mountain peaks rivaling the worst the Himalayans, Alps, or Rockies could muster, and reached a depot, slightly better than abandoned.
Finally, more than ten weeks overdue, the men left behind on the island spotted a ship off in the distance, and raced to the shore. They saw their captain. On the ship, Shackleton peered through binoculars and counted his men. All that he had left were still left standing on the shore. They would all return back home.
As documentaries go, this one has a surprising element for being nearly a 90-year-old story: video footage. As part of financing his expedition, Shackleton sold the film rights before he left port in Europe, and brought with him film equipment and cameras, both still and moving. Until the destruction of the ship, most of the activities on board were captured on film and saved by the crew when the ship went down. Of the remaining still photography, over a hundred shots were preserved, but many more of them sank to the icy depths. A single Kodak camera accompanied the crew during their island-hopping adventure until salvation arrived. This footage was restored by the British Film Institute and is shown during the first half of the documentary, bringing the story much closer to home. Intercut with the real footage is shots of the ice and islands shot with today's technology, serving as a backdrop to for the storytelling.
Based off the book by Caroline Alexander, The Endurance features interviews with decedents of the original 28 person crew as well as first-hand accounts from the surviving crew, some as recent as the 1940s. Liam Neeson (Schindler's List, Star Wars: Episode 1) provides narration, tastefully done and only sparsely used.
The first half of the story is more visually engaging to watch, comprised of the original footage and photographs of the era. As the film progresses, more and more modern day shots of ice floes and desolate icy waters fill the screen, while the story is told to the viewer like someone reading a book. The video of the modern day shots is clean and sharp, with little haloing or edge enhancement distracting the viewer. The restored original footage can't compare to the new, but is strongly presented in monochromatic hues of blue and orange. There are heavy amounts of dirt and grain at times, but considering its age, the restored video is in surprisingly good condition.
The music in the background is a haunting, ghostly score, perfect for the mood and setting of the film. Presented in Dolby Digital 5.1 sound, the audio is primarily centered in the three forward channels, but the music does creep around the back speakers every so often. Very little directional effects are present, but there aren't any scenes where they are needed either.
The extra content begins with an audio commentary by director George Butler and another version of the movie with an isolated musical score. The director's commentary is filled with historical content and background information. An interesting listen. The isolated score version presents the haunting score in the forefront, which perfectly accents the visuals in a chilling manner that makes you feel like you are accompanying the crew through the ice and snow. The four featurettes round out the information on the Endurance's tale and the people involved. None of them is fluff, and of the four only one is redundant. The first one, "Tale of the Endurance," rehashes the entire movie and doesn't give any new information, but it does compress it down to under 20 minutes. The remaining three look at the behind the scenes aspect of making the documentary, examining the original expedition film and photography, and a gathering of the decedents of the crew today. All are presented adequately as one would expect without audio or visual impairments. To wrap up the extra content are some trailers for The Endurance, Anne Frank Remembered, and Vertical Limit.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
At 97 minutes, this documentary drags on at spots. They can only mention how the captain and crew tried to stave off boredom so many times. Keeping the viewer interested and focused with the same shots of ice and water over and over again is a bit tiring as well. They chose to forgo using reenactments with actors to depict the story, so the photographs and seascapes are forced to carry the weight of the viewer's gaze. It avoids cheesy acting and bad dialogue this way, but it also places the film in a higher intellectual presentation requiring the astute attention of the viewer. You probably won't want to watch this film on a Friday after a long day of work.
This may be considered "the greatest adventure ever," but it can still be dull and ponderous to watch at moments. If you want thrills and spills, this isn't the documentary for you. Try Alive instead.
As amazing as the expedition was in its feats of survival, I can't recommend buying this disc. The technical merits, while good, are nothing special, and the story presentation doesn't warrant repeated viewings. I'd recommend renting this disc if you can find it, otherwise check out your local library for a copy. A good reference, but not a must have DVD.
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Scales of Justice
• Commentary by Director George Butler
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