Global warming aside, the North Pole and the South Pole are hot these days, subjects of numerous books and documentaries. As every nook and cranny of our planet fill up with people, many of us are looking back to a time when the Arctic and the Antarctic were as remote and unreachable as the moon ' the so-called Heroic Age of Exploration, when guys like Robert Peary and Robert Scott went in search of the very ends of the earth and didn't necessarily come back. The expeditions always had some sort of scientific rationale for heading off to the middle of nowhere, but the real reason usually boiled down to "because it's there." That, and "because it will hurt like hell to get there." Instead of "no pain, no gain," it was "no pain, no fun."
One of the interesting things about Sir Ernest Shackleton's Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition, which is the subject of an amazing historical document called South, is that, while Shackleton and his 27-man crew endured enormous amounts of pain, the gains were all but nonexistent. Having been beaten to the South Pole by Norway's Roald Amundsen in 1911, Shackleton cooked up the scheme of traversing the continent, from the Weddell Sea to the Ross Sea, and passing through the South Pole along the way. If only symbolically, this would have represented the Anglo-Irish Shackleton's staking a claim to Antarctica, making it that much more difficult for the sun to set on the British Empire. The problem is, Shackleton never made it across the continent. Not only that, he never set foot on the continent.
Instead, his ship, the hopefully named Endurance, got stuck in the ice of the Weddell Sea in January 1915. There followed several months of more or less sitting around, after which the ice, applying millions of tons of pressure, essentially swallowed the Endurance, leaving the crew stranded 346 miles from the nearest land. A camp was set up on what appeared to be a solid block of ice, but this was not a long-term solution to the problem. So a march over ice to open water was begun, after which the crew set off in lifeboats for Elephant Island. Both uninhabited and uninhabitable, this also was not a long-term solution. So Shackleton and five of his men got back in their lifeboat and set off for South Georgia Island, some 800 miles away. And not just any 800 miles, but one of the stormiest stretches of water on the face of the earth.
And that's not all. Once they arrived at South Georgia Island, Shackleton and one of his men had to scale a vertical sheet of ice and make their way across the island's mountainous terrain without the benefit of tents or sleeping bags. Then and only then could a whaling ship be sent back to Elephant Island to collect the rest of Shackleton's crew. All in all, Shackleton's expedition lasted almost two years, and it's not stretching a point too far to describe it as one of the most successful failures in the history of exploration, right up there with Christopher Columbus' I-was-really-looking-for-India discovery of America. For Shackleton, though rather oblivious to the dangers his expedition would pose, had taken a precaution that would revolutionize the Heroic Age of Exploration: He brought along a movie camera.
He also brought along Frank Hurley, an Australian photographer and cinematographer whose images of the Shackleton expedition would both memorialize the perilous journey and lift it into the realm of legend. As crisp and clear as the terrain they depict, these stunning shots, which were lovingly restored by the British Film Institute in 1994, are like a doorway into history. There's none of the speeded-up motion we often associate with silent film, and none of those annoying scratches on the print. Instead, it's as if the whole thing happened yesterday. There's a mesmerizing shot from above of the Endurance's bow as it plows through the ice like a battering ram. And there's a haunting shot of the ship at night, frozen and desolate. "Like an imprisoned bird," Shackleton wrote at the time, "she lies in the hands of her captor."
Not for long, of course. Hurley faithfully recorded the Endurance going down in a tangle of masts and riggings, and we can't help but think of the Titanic, which had its own rendezvous with the bottom of the ocean three years before. The thing is, South doesn't leave you with that sinking feeling, in part because Shackleton's entire crew survived their ordeal and in part because they didn't seem to consider it an ordeal. This isn't just Britain's trademark stiff upper lip we're talking about but what seems like an almost suicidal joie de vivre in the face of danger. Although we can't hear any of them talk, Shackleton's men appear to be having a wonderful time, especially carousing with the sled dogs, who may be the real stars of South. To watch a panting dog's condensed breath dissipate like smoke is to confront the grinning ephemerality of life.
And to watch a flock of penguins wobble across the ice and dive into the water is to realize that some species are adapted to this environment and others aren't. South doesn't stint on the obstacles Shackleton's men were up against, but it does stint on what they had to do to overcome those obstacles ' the wholesale slaughter of seals and penguins, for one thing, the meat set aside for a rainy, or at least a less icy, day. Even the sled dogs were sacrificed, first the sick ones, then the healthy ones, the latter eaten by the crew, several of whom suffered nervous breakdowns while stranded on that floating slab of ice. South doesn't mention any of this, although Shackleton did mention it in his book of the same title. Perhaps he didn't feel there was a place for such carnage in what is essentially a travel film.
And perhaps he didn't want the movie's patrons to take too close a look at what was essentially Ineptitude on Ice. We catch only glimpses of Shackleton in South, but he's generally considered to have been a flop as an explorer ' ignorant about how to survive on the polar continent and not terribly interested in enlightening himself. Robert Scott, Shackleton's mentor and competitor, was ignorant as well, if we are to believe Roland Huntford's book, Scott and Amundsen. It seems that while Shackleton and Scott were dipping their toes in the Antarctic, relishing the possible frostbite, Amundsen was methodically making his way to the South Pole. Still, Shackleton, who loved to sing and dance and tell jokes, was considered a good leader. And once back in England, he took immense pride in the fact that no one had died under his command.
If they had, it would have added a frisson of gloom and doom to South, Ã la Titanic. Then again, most, if not all, of Shackleton's men are dead today, and that provides all the gloom and doom anyone should require. As the crew lines up for a group shot on its raft of ice, we're overcome with a reverence for the pastness of the past, for the crazy things people feel compelled to do. "The Shackleton expedition will be remembered as long as our empire exists," the movie proclaims, seemingly unaware that the empire was already on its last legs. And maybe that's how we should view the expedition today, as a metaphor for that other successful failure, British imperialism. Or maybe, at a time when nobody goes anywhere without a camera crew trailing along behind him, we should think of it as the lost episodes of "Survivor."
Whatever it is, it's a thing of aching beauty, the past frozen in time forever.