Movies » Movie Review

Mother Nature's Cold Heart




Rating *** A must see

Directed by Frank Hurley

By Fred Camper

In 1914 Sir Ernest Shackleton, veteran of two previous expeditions to the Antarctic, set out on a third--an ill-fated trip that would become a famous exemplar of heroism. Amundsen had reached the south pole in 1911, so Shackleton undertook "the first crossing of the Antarctic continent, from sea to sea via the Pole," as he wrote in his prospectus for the trip. He left Britain on the Endurance, a ship "especially constructed for Polar work," which was supposed to bring him to the continent's coast; another ship was to meet his party on the other side. One of his 28 crew members was photographer and filmmaker Frank Hurley, a young Australian who'd already made a film of an Antarctic expedition and who came equipped with still and movie cameras. Indeed, funds were raised for the expedition on the promise of revenues from the film, making Shackleton's expedition an early example of the kind of media-driven outing so common today.

In terms of its stated goals, the expedition was a total failure. While meteorological readings were taken and geological and zoological specimens gathered, the party never even landed on the Antarctic continent. Their ship got stuck in the ice of the Weddell Sea in January of 1915, and the crew could do little but drift helplessly, hoping it would break free before the Antarctic autumn. But it was unusually cold, and they remained stuck until late in the fall of 1915, when the ship was crushed by pack ice--not a single sheet but many floes and some bergs moving in reaction to ocean currents and wind. Recovering what they could of their provisions from the ship--Hurley grabbed his glass negatives from the ship's refrigerator, where they were floating undamaged in sealed containers despite the mushy ice water that had already risen--they proceeded to make camp on the ice with their dog teams and three lifeboats. They spent five months on the ice before escaping to uninhabited Elephant Island; finally, a smaller party made a heroic journey to South Georgia island to summon aid.

In 1919 Shackleton showed Hurley's completed film--which included stills from the glass negatives he'd rescued--in fund-raising lectures in London, narrating it himself to half-full houses; 75 years later the British Film Institute restored it, making judgments based on different surviving versions and approximating the original hand-tinting in the new prints. Six years later, the Film Center is giving the restoration its local premiere, beginning Friday and continuing through Thursday, January 27.

It's impossible to watch Hurley's film with the eyes of its original viewers. For better or worse we've all seen the slick nature documentaries of today, with motorized cameras swooping low across water, dramatic helicopter shots, extreme telephoto close-ups of bird or beast, and calculated editing that seamlessly matches animals' movements or gives a constant sense of forward propulsion--films that can seem kin to video games.

The expectations created by such films might make Hurley's seem "primitive," but South recalls a time when film itself was still a source of wonder, and when a sense of awe before nature was translated into direct, fresh images by cameramen amazed by what they saw rather than by the ways the camera could transform it. In his book South, published the year that Hurley's film was completed, Shackleton expressed the same sense of wonder found in Hurley's images, writing that "man fights against the giant forces of Nature in a spirit of humility."

Hurley expressed his awe through the simplest of cinematic means. On several occasions he uses multiple pans to try to encompass a scene, as in an image of the glacier on South Georgia that Shackleton and two others crossed on foot, seeking help. Presumably his tripod allowed only such lateral or vertical movement, but the shots look almost like choreographed attempts to depict a scene too awesome to be easily encompassed. Earlier, when the icebound Endurance had begun to list--a sign of its coming destruction--Hurley pans across and up it, a sequence of similar images in which he seems to be gazing incredulously at the spectacle of the ship's ruin. To be sure, Hurley's film is solidly within the tradition of early travel films (and of the 19th-century paintings, photographs, and panoramas that preceded them), offering grand presentations of remote corners of the globe. But even the color tinting, intended in other silent films to distinguish night from day or to enhance the emotions of a scene, is less an attempt to provide meaning here than a way of adding visual pleasure to an otherwise monotonous landscape of white.

Though part of what's powerful about South is its sense of the camera bowing to the power of nature rather than trying to tame it, letting the ice itself speak, it's also true that this is a film informed by the attitudes and ideologies of its time. Consider the final intertitle, which tells us that this expedition's "glorious epic...will be remembered as long as our Empire exists," and the film's final spectacular image, the open ocean glistening in sunlight. Of course, the sun has long since set on the British Empire, but Hurley's image of a sun-drenched sea is a sobering reminder of Britain's main avenue of conquest. The shot's triumphal nature is also reminiscent of earlier images in the film. Among the most stunning are some taken from the front of the ship, the camera often mounted on a special platform Hurley built, offering views of the prow pushing floes aside or breaking them as if by magic. Shackleton in his book tells us that such splitting was usually achieved only after several runs at the floe, a detail the film virtually ignores: Hurley's images of movement forward through the ice are themselves images of conquest. So it's not hard to understand his later, almost incredulous pans of the trapped, listing ship--how could our expedition have come to this?

Hurley's film follows the expedition narrative up until the Endurance was abandoned, though with notable omissions. Entering the Weddell Sea ice pack late in 1914, Shackleton first thought he could make his way through the ice to shore. Even after becoming trapped, he kept looking for openings in the ice that would allow him to continue to sail, until it became evident that the ship would remain icebound through the coming winter. The crew lived on the Endurance until it began to be crushed in October; by November, when it sank completely, they were hoping to make for open water across the ice, transporting their lifeboats on sledges. At this point Hurley abandoned his heavy cameras, as well as the majority of his exposed glass plates, to save weight on their difficult journey, and thus the documentary narrative ends here, two-thirds of the way through the film.

Finding that the ice was too hazardous for much travel, the men mostly drifted on floes until April 1916, when their general movement north took them to open water. After a quick voyage in their lifeboats to Elephant Island, Shackleton left the bulk of the crew there, taking five of the strongest men with him on a hazardous 800-mile journey across the world's stormiest waters, the Southern Ocean, heading for a whaling station on South Georgia island, from which they hoped to secure a larger ship. The rescue took four attempts in four different ships, but Shackleton got his crew out without the loss of a single life--at considerable personal risk--a fact that has long since marked him as a hero.

The film offers a scanty version of this story in a few intertitles and drawings: most of the final third is made up of touristy images of the wildlife on South Georgia taken much later. But the shots' placement before the final scenes of the crew's welcome in Chile, where their rescue boat ultimately took them, creates the illusion of representing Shackleton's arrival on South Georgia. Perhaps Hurley, Shackleton, or both wanted to make their film more entertaining, because the overly cute images of birds and other animals seem at odds with the expedition narrative.

This latter hypothesis might also explain the film's many excisions, which border on misrepresentation. Shackleton's book makes it clear that the crew's time on the ice was one of grave difficulty. Splitting floes posed a constant danger, and killer whales surfaced all around them. At one point a floe split directly under a man's tent, and Shackleton, spotting him still in his sleeping bag in the water, managed to lift him out just before the ice closed up again. They came to dread warm weather because this often meant sinking waist-deep in slush. Usually there was no sun, so it was nearly impossible to get one's clothes or sleeping bag dry--Shackleton describes walking about for days in wet socks and boots. Since each wore a single set of clothes for months, many developed severe skin rashes. Others were frostbitten, and the crew's youngest member eventually lost toes. A number had what we would now call nervous breakdowns, whether from psychological or physical causes or both, and became near invalids. Almost none of this is in the film.

But in addition to the wonders of snow and ice South does give us plenty of animals; images of furry critters were doubtless as fetching to 1919 audiences as they are today. We're shown seals and told that some were killed to provide meat for the dogs. We also see penguins--much cuter than seals--walking about; one early intertitle introduces a shot of three penguins waddling away from a man by stating "For some reason or other they refused to make friends." And there are many shots of the expedition's numerous sled dogs, including a few newborn pups, with intertitles emphasizing their liveliness, skill, and faithfulness.

What the intertitles don't tell us is that it wasn't only seals that were killed for food, and it wasn't only the dogs that ate them. Realizing that food would be scarce once they were trapped in the ice, the men killed as many seals as they could--and as many penguins too, which makes the filmmaker's bafflement at the penguins' refusal to be friends seem disingenuous at best. Perhaps Hurley understood that hearing about penguins being killed in a book would be easier than seeing the killings on film. Furthermore, as the expedition's hardships grew, the men shot their dogs. At first they killed only the sick ones, to save the meat needed to feed them, but by the end they were shooting--and eating--the last of their teams. Once the rescue party reached South Georgia, whose birds are shown so charmingly on film, they took a number of albatross chicks directly from their nests and found them delicious.

I'm not criticizing these actions. Even if I were vegetarian I wouldn't begrudge these men taking the same actions animals would in order to save their lives. Nor was it easy for the men to kill their dogs. The point is that the film offers us a sanitized version of the expedition, glossing over its more gruesome aspects. Doubtless this was but one of many partially told narratives whose excisions helped make the British Empire possible.

Certainly the defense of Britain's causes had its costs, and not only among the conquered. After Shackleton's crew and the crew of the ship that was to have met them on the other side of Antarctica returned to England, almost all the men enlisted and fought in the Great War, where three of them were soon killed.

The print of South that I saw in preview had no sound track, but Neil Brand's piano score has been added to video copies of the film, and the Film Center will play it along with their gorgeous print. Unfortunately I found this track rather irritating when I watched the video: by smoothing over discontinuities, it lessened the images' power. The worst moments come in the scenes on South Georgia, when the music often imitates the animals' movements in a cloyingly cliched manner. But even with the music the film remains a fascinating and seductive paean to nature's splendors. It's also a glorification of human mastery over them, and in that sense, perhaps, the music is appropriate, making animals seem to dance to human tunes.

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