Fire & Ice

'The Endurance' is a stirring documentary of how Ernest Shackleton's quest to conquer Antarctica became a race to save his men.


April 26, 2002|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,SUN MOVIE CRITIC


**** (four stars)

Except for Last Orders, there is no more moving or artful movie in town now than The Endurance: Shackleton's Legendary Antarctic Expedition (opening today at the Charles). George Butler's documentary chronicles Ernest Shackleton's 1914 attempt to make his British team the first to traverse the Antarctic continent - and his struggle to bring them all back alive when the Endurance got stuck in ice a day's journey from the shore.

The urgent narrative multiplies meanings the way a shard of ice splits light into a spectrum. In celebrating what a historian calls the "inner fire" of Shackleton, the documentary dramatizes the nature of his leadership. He combined authoritarian spine and paternal warmth, unforgivingness and flexibility. His bone-deep commitment to the expedition and to safety - his absolute authenticity as a leader - meant more to his colleagues and followers than sentimental gestures.

Shackelton could persuade men to follow his decisions even when he made bad ones. Above all, he communicated to his crew, with dead certainty and without false emotion, that the survival of every one of them mattered more to him than crossing Antarctica.

The movie's depiction of the mental and physical extremities that tested their sanity is nothing less than majestic. Butler and his team encompass those extremities through the selective and inventive use of Endurance crewman Frank Hurley's still photos and 35mm footage (previously compiled in Hurley's own documentary, South), their own contemporary views of the spots where the ship and its crew faced peril, the ingenious use of other archival images (often augmented with animation), and the vocal testimony of sailors and scientists and their progeny and relatives. Even the soundtrack has a translucent, shimmery feel to it, subtly blending Tibetan and Celtic vocals with orchestral sounds to create an aural landscape filled with uncertainty and transcendence.

Whether in Hurley's black-and-white images or Butler's blue and white ones, the polar icescapes are instantly haunting: They simultaneously lift your spirits and spook you the moment you see them. But the tale has much more than what Shackleton himself dubbed "white warfare."

It's a saga of struggle against every kind of element: the dislocation of 24-hour days followed by 24-hour nights, the freezing spray of the sea when they sail to Elephant Island in small boats and when a sub-group sails for help to a whaling station on South Georgia Island,the dizzying obstacles of the mountains Shackleton and two others scale and conquer on that island when they land on the wrong side of it.

The movie salutes idealism in action. Those who joined the expedition did so to be part of a splendid accomplishment. They re-set their goals when that slipped through their grasp. The preservation of life - their own - became their mission. Butler does a savvy job of choosing the peak obstacles and setbacks in what became an endless series of challenges and delays. Sled dogs whose companionship and loyalty helped keep them human for months eventually are slaughtered, and some eaten; class and labor resentments rise up and are overcome. Shackleton must continually conjure a sense of movement and activity within stasis, so that the ice doesn't slowly crumple his men as it did their ship.

Amazingly, he does - and Butler makes the movie worthy of that achievement. He imbues this history of Shackleton's stop-and-go, life-and-death exploits with an epic sweep. Butler's film doesn't displace Hurley's South, which gave us visceral and immediate images unlike those in any other movie: The camera gliding with the prow of the Endurance as it hovers over ice-encrusted water; the frozen vessel glittering against the night in stark, haunting relief. But because he stayed behind on Elephant Island when Shackleton went on his two-part rescue mission, Hurley filled South out with elaborate footage of seals and exotic birds, and a midsection that amounted to an ode to canine prowess.

Butler honors Hurley's work (here it's beautifully restored and tinted). But he goes beyond it to achieve a complete emotional experience. The Endurance: Shackleton's Legendary Antarctic Expedition is a great adventure.

The Endurance

Directed by George Butler

Narrated by Liam Neeson

Rated G

Released by Cowboy

Running time 92 minutes

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