screenplay by Caroline Alexander and Joseph Dorman, based on the book by Alexander
directed by George Butler
by Walter Chaw If there seems to be a glut of information lately on Sir Ernest Shackleton and his ill-fated voyage across Antarctica, thank Caroline Alexander, who almost single-handedly revived interest in Shackleton's travails by unearthing Aussie photographer Frank Hurley's astonishing archive of photographs and short films after eighty years. Inspired in part by the death of legendary polar explorer Robert Falcon Scott, Shackleton and his crew of 28 set sail in August of 1914 in a three-masted barkentine dubbed "The Endurance." Their quest, the last great trek of the age of exploration, was to be the first to cross Antarctica on foot, but The Endurance was trapped by pack ice about one day's sail from the continent.
Marooned among the shifting ice floes and scattered islands, Shackleton guided his men through natural and emotional pitfalls with an even hand and an unerring quality of leadership. After nearly two years in the most inhospitable place on Earth, the most astounding thing about an astounding tale is that not one of the men on The Endurance lost his life during the ordeal. The great irony of Shackleton's deed--an endeavour that ultimately was more impressive than a successful completion of the original intention of the mission--is that their return in 1916 found England in the midst of a WWI and uninterested in the triumphs of "gentlemen" explorers.
Beginning in 1999, documentary filmmaker George Butler (Pumping Iron) set out to interview the descendants of the original 1914 expedition and, more ambitiously, to retrace the steps taken by Shackleton and company in the frozen wastelands. The result of his determination and courage is a pair of films: Shackleton's Antarctic Adventure (an IMAX release), and this feature-length documentary, The Endurance: Shackleton's Legendary Antarctic Expedition. His are not the first films to incorporate Hurley's photography, however: 1919's 80-minute South is a silent narrative that just surpasses in quiet eloquence, if not breadth, Butler's works. Still, there can be no arguing that The Endurance is the height of the traditional documentary form, a professional and compelling mixture of archival footage, interviews, new shots of the relatively unchanged Antarctica landscape, and simple and evocative narration (read by Liam Neeson).
The timing of Butler's film couldn't be better as the rise of the "everyday" hero (the firemen, the police, the mayor) and the simple need for faith in essential goodness and competence in the midst of unimaginable catastrophe looms large. It has even been noted that the bleak, skeletal image of The Endurance trapped in the ice that will destroy it functions as a ghostly echo of the shell of the World Trade Tower rising from the blasted ruin of Lower Manhattan. However far you carry that analogy, The Endurance: Shackleton's Legendary Antarctic Expedition is a documentary that instructs as it entertains. Hurley's images have been digitally cleaned and restored to a brilliant crispness, and Butler's footage is breathtaking. Originally published: August 7, 2002.