Even though the world was on the verge of war, Shackleton and his ship, the Endurance, were wished well on their journey to the South Pole in 1914. Having tried twice before to be the first to traverse the icy continent, Shackleton was determined this time to succeed. Unfortunately, after six weeks at sea from their last port and just a day's journey from their ultimate destination, the Endurance became lodged on a drifting ice cap, and Shackleton and his crew were stuck there until spring--10 months away. It became clear that his new goal was to get his men home alive.
As the ice shifted and buckled, Shackleton gave the order to abandon ship, and from their new camp several days' walk away, they watched the Endurance succumb to Mother Nature. Amazingly, her demise was recorded on celluloid for posterity by ship photographer Frank Hurley.
The men traversed the floating ice island, their lifeboats in tow, until they reached its outer limits, where it was melting and breaking up into pieces, which they now navigated through by sea. The boats tied together, Shackleton and his crew headed out to the open ocean, praying the killer whales they sometimes spotted wouldn't choose to leap through the air between the vessels, dragging them all by the tow ropes into the freezing depths. Eventually, they reached the uninhabited Elephant Island and camped there until Shackleton and a select few fashioned a sailboat and aimed for civilization.
Remarkably, they landed--a misreading of one degree by the navigator would have steered them irrevocably off-course--but the adventure continued. They had beached on the opposite side of the island from the port and thus had to traverse its uncharted, mountainous interior. When Shackleton finally arrived on the other side, he was unrecognizable to the man who had wished him well on his journey months before Finally, after two failed attempts, Shackleton returned to Elephant Island and rescued the remainder of this crew, all of whom ultimately survived the nearly two-year ordeal.
Inarguably a fascinating tale of human potential, Shackleton's journey would become almost tedious in its melodrama if it weren't all real, as he conquers one insurmountable challenge only to encounter another, but director George Butler still manages to break up the man-versus-nature conflict with details about the individual personalities of the men on the crew, from the irritating, snobby Thomas Orleas, who wouldn't row but would do anything to save a person's life, to the carpenter McNeish, whose involvement in the building of the sailboat failed to extinguish his attempted mutiny.
Butler has compiled an impressive assortment of materials, especially the surviving celluloid, but it's difficult to weigh the aesthetic of an authentic-looking photo with the knowledge that the dust specks could easily be Photoshopped out. Still, the footage--all hand-cranked by Hurley--of the Endurance buckling under the pressure of the shifting ice is an image one will not soon forget. Narrated by Liam Neeson. Directed by George Butler. Written by Caroline Alexander and Joseph Dorman. A Cowboy release. Documentary. Rated G. Running time: 92 min.