In the booklet included in the BFI’s South & The Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration on Film set, Bryony Dixon makes a good analogy, comparing the exploration of the Antarctic in the late 19th and early 20th centuries with the space race in the late 50s and early 60s, particularly the moon landing. On top of both seeming like impossible tasks of discovering new, unexplored regions, the two ventures both found images to be of vital importance to capturing the public’s interest.
The first moon landing, of course, is famous for the grainy TV broadcast of the event. As for the Antarctic expeditions, these initially took place in the so-called ‘Heroic Age’, between 1897 and 1922, the same time that moving pictures were growing in popularity. As such, film footage was well utilised in a number of the expeditions, on top of still photographs. Not only did this provide vital evidence of what was undertaken, but the films were useful fundraising tools, being used in lecture tours and sometimes turned into commercial features and shorts. These expeditions weren’t cheap, so the ability to make money from them afterwards was important.
Perhaps the most famous filmed account of such a voyage was South (a.k.a. Endurance). This is the centrepiece of this dual-format collection. To give a more detailed account of the whole period, the BFI have also included as many other surviving films, newsreels and audio clips they could find from the various expeditions that took place at the time. The most notable absence is the classic The Great White Silence, which documented Scott’s tragic 1910-13 expedition, but the BFI have already made this available on Blu-ray and have, in fact, re-released it to coincide with the release of this set.
Having greatly admired the similar historical document, The Epic of Everest, I requested a copy of the BFI’s new release and my review follows. I’ve done a separate short critique of South below, then my thoughts on the other films and special features follow that.
South – Sir Ernest Shackleton’s Glorious Epic of the Antarctic (a.k.a. Endurance)
Director: Frank Hurley
Starring: Ernest Shackleton, Frank Worsley, J. Stenhouse
Country: Australia, UK
Running Time: 81 min
Like his contemporary and sometime rival Robert Falcon Scott, Ernest Shackleton is perhaps more famous for the tragedy and failure of his later expeditions. Scott famously died on his way back from the South pole and Shackleton’s most famous journey, documented in this film, was pretty disastrous, to put it mildly.
Shackleton’s original goal for his Imperial Trans-Antarctic expedition of 1914–1917 was to make the first land crossing of the Antarctic continent. However, his ship, The Endurance, never even reached Vahsel Bay, where the land crossing was due to begin. Instead, it got stuck in the ice when the temperature dropped rapidly. The ship remained there for 8 months before the crew abandoned it, as it gradually began to sink, crushed by the shifting ice.
The team then remained in various camps nearby for several months, before eventually deciding to break up into two groups, one remaining on the ice whilst a smaller group manned one of the remaining lifeboats to reach civilisation and get help for the others.
Their efforts succeeded, with the boat party reaching a whaling station in Stromness and eventually, after several attempts, managing to rescue their stranded comrades back on the ice. Remarkably, not one man died during this ordeal.
Though you could argue the whole expedition was a foolhardy waste of resources and a great endangerment of human life, it’s hard not to be moved by the tremendous endurance and heroism of the men on that fateful journey.
The film does a great job of relating this story, with a mix of first-hand material and regular intertitles. Directing and shooting most of it all was Frank Hurley, an Australian cinematographer who had caught Shackleton’s eye with his account of the Australasian Antarctic Expedition in 1911-1914. Whereas many expeditions used inexperienced photographers or simply had crew members shoot material themselves, Hurley had a keen eye and great skill with a camera. His footage in South is fantastic.
Hurley’s shots of the Endurance cutting through the ice are particularly impressive, obtained by daringly positioning himself on the bowsprit (the pole that sticks out of the front of the ship, from what I can gather from a Google search). He also powerfully captures the heartbreaking moments when the masts snap on the Endurance.
There is one major stumbling block in South as a piece of narrative cinema though, and that’s the fact that there is no footage of what would ostensibly be the most exciting part of the film, the long journey from the wrecked Endurance back to safety.
There is a very good reason for this though. Hurley was forced to leave his cinecamera behind with the wreck of the Endurance. There was no way they’d be able to carry that and any spare film during the trek back to civilisation. Thankfully, Hurley salvaged the footage already gathered (diving into the icy water to retrieve the sunken canisters) and took a stills camera and film. Shackleton allowed him to carry this due to the importance of documenting the fateful voyage.
During the final portion of the film, the story is told through intertitles mixed with photos, paintings and some shots of the final destination of South Georgia. This latter footage, which fills much of the final 20-odd minutes of the film, was shot a year later, at the request of Hurley’s sponsor, The Daily Chronicle. This lengthy portion, largely made up of cute animal shenanigans, slows the drive of the film’s narrative unfortunately, but there’s some lovely material there. The footage helped sell the film to audiences at the time who didn’t have the same access to affordable travel or regular nature documentaries on TV that we are blessed with today.
So, whilst there may be large gaps in the footage of the expedition, the film remains a remarkable story of endurance in the face of great peril and little hope. It also brings the story to life through some striking photography from a time long gone.
South & The Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration on Film is out on 28th February on 3-disc Dual Format Blu-ray and DVD, released by the BFI. The picture quality varies between the films. South, generally, looks remarkably good for its age, particularly when you consider all the material went through to get to the screen. There are signs of damage but, otherwise, the image is incredibly detailed and clear. The Home of the Blizzard looks pretty good too, though it shows more wear than South. Most of the other films haven’t enjoyed quite the same level of restoration, or at least aren’t in as good shape.
The stills used in this review are screengrabs from both South (above and one below) and Australasian Antarctic Expedition Films (bottom two).
On South, you get a choice of Neil Brand scores, with both his original 2002 piano accompaniment and his new small ensemble score included, the latter in both 5.1 and stereo formats. I watched with the 5.1 mix of the new score and loved it. Rich, varied and melodic, it’s never overblown or cliched and enhances the film substantially.
The other shorts largely have ambient library music as accompaniment, though, strangely, Australasian Antarctic Expedition Films is completely silent. I find watching films like this uncomfortable (even back in the 1910s, films would have been accompanied by music or at least commentary) so, I must admit, I put an ambient album on in the background through my stereo. It actually worked remarkably well! It was State Azure’s Painted Skies, in case anyone’s interested.
Here are full details of what you get on the discs:
– Antarctic Expedition: Sir George Newnes’ Farewell to Officers and Crew (1898, 1 min)
– Departure of Shackleton’s British Antarctic Expedition from Lyttelton, NZ, 1st Jan, 1908 (1908, 8 mins)
– Nihon nankyoku tanken (1910-12, 19 mins)
– Fram’s South Polar Expedition (1910-12, 22 mins)
– Australasian Antarctic Expedition Films aka The Home of the Blizzard (c1916, 68 mins)
– Pathé’s Animated Gazette No. 140 (extract, 1911, 45 secs)
– South – Sir Ernest Shackleton’s Glorious Epic of the Antarctic (Frank Hurley, 1919, 81 mins)
– Topical Budget – Dogs for the Antarctic (extract, 1914, 1 min)
– Dogs for the Antarctic – Sir Ernest Shackleton’s dogs in quarantine at Beddington (extract, 1914, 45 secs)
– Australasian Gazette – Captain Davis returns to Sydney… (extract, 1917, 26 secs)
– The Late Sir Ernest Shackleton Bathing Query (extract, 1922, 2 mins)
– El Homenaje del Uruguay a los Restos de Sir Ernest Shackleton (1922, 11 mins)
– Shackleton’s Funeral (extract, 1922, 4 mins)
– Shackleton South Georgia Birds (1920, 13 mins)
– South audio commentary by Luke McKernan (2002)
– Neil Brand on Scoring South (2022, 15 mins): the composer on his approach to the new score
– Neil Brand’s 2002 score for South
– Map of Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition with commentary by Kelly Tyler-Lewis (2002, 2 mins)
– Ross Sea Party (1917, 9 mins): footage shot by Aubrey Howard Ninnis, the Aurora’s purser, and Alexander Stevens Chief Scientist presented with Kelly Tyler-Lewis 2002 narration
– Additional footage from South (1919, 19 mins)
– My South Polar Expedition (1910, 4 mins, audio): Shackleton recorded a week after returning to New Zealand
– Shackleton Speaks (1910, 1 min, audio): recording of Shackleton naming his Nimrod crew
– **First pressing only** Illustrated booklet with new essays and credits for all content
Some of the short films included in the set aren’t all that exciting, merely showing a minute of handshaking in one example, or a brief clip of an expedition’s dogs in another. All are of historical value though, and the menus handily include descriptions of everything, grouping the footage into expedition-themed sub-menus, to better make sense of it all.
The longer films were of more interest to me. Nihon nankyoku tanken is more rough-around-the-edges than the other films, partly down to the shape of the print, but also down to less carefully shot material and some fairly rapid editing. It’s still an interesting document, though it contains some rough treatment of the animals that the team come across.
Fram’s South Polar Expedition is in better shape and more carefully shot, though it doesn’t reach Hurley’s standards. It’s quite an enjoyable film as you get to see the crew entertaining themselves on the voyage, with some acting, dancing and cross-dressing. There’s some playful interaction with the animals too, though they still whack and poke some seals. One is cut open to make use of its blubber too, so those sensitive to such material might be wary.
Most impressive of the ‘extra’ films though, is the Australasian Antarctic Expedition Films a.k.a. The Home of the Blizzard. This, like South, was shot by Hurley so, as you’d expect, contains some stunning footage. There’s a lot of animal footage (to keep the cinema patrons happy) but also some interesting shots of the crew at work. It’s a remarkable document of the expedition, with some wonderful material on display. With its strong focus on nature, it gives David Attenborough a run for his money too.
Looking at the special features, Luke McKernan’s commentary is absolutely vital listening. Incredibly well researched, it tells a fuller story of the expedition, filling the many gaps in the film. Most notably, you get more information about the arduous voyage back to civilisation, which wasn’t filmed. On top of this, you get to hear fascinating stories of how the crew stayed sane during their long time stuck in the dark, icy wasteland. He also tells of Hurley’s heroic efforts to save his film footage and stills, as well as the sad fact that the dogs had to be shot as food supplies were dwindling.
There are a few long pauses in the commentary, particularly towards the end, but it nevertheless adds a huge amount of value to the package and you’d be missing a great deal if you were to pass over listening to it. I’d even say, if you don’t have time to watch the film twice, just watch it with the commentary. You still get Neil Brand’s wonderful score in the background (the 2002 piano version).
Brand’s interview is a gem too. He explains how he originally scored the film on solo piano and wanted to reapproach it now with a small ensemble. You get to see a little of the recording session too, which is a nice touch.
The extra material linked to South is welcome too. The main ‘Additional footage from South’ is the highlight, providing some great shots left out of the film. I enjoyed seeing the team playing football on the ice during their long stint stuck by their sinking ship. There’s some impressive dogsled material too.
The Ross Sea Party short film with commentary provides a fascinating subplot to Shackleton’s story, as you hear about the team tasked with travelling around the Antarctic coast to drop off supplies for the Endurance. Their work ended up being in vain, as Shackleton’s ship never got that far, but they ended up having their own share of problems en route.
The lengthy booklet is also a valuable resource, giving further information on all the expeditions covered in the films included in the set.
It’s a fine package overall then. It’s largely of niche interest perhaps, but I’m not much of a history buff and still appreciated learning the fascinating stories behind this period of grand adventure. The two feature films are the biggest selling point, but all the extra bells and whistles add a lot, to make this a package that comes highly recommended.