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SOUTH

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Sir Ernest Shackleton and the crew of the Endurance
Director:  Frank Hurley
Audio:  Dolby Digital Stereo
Video:  Standard 1.33:1
Studio:  Image Entertainment
Features:  Audio Commentary, Excerpt from Southward on the Quest
Length:  81 Minutes
Release Date:  August 1, 2000

Film ***

The true story of Sir Ernest Shackleton's attempt to cross Antarctica in 1914 was pretty much the Apollo 13 of its day.  The mission was an abject failure…yet despite impossible odds, the entire crew made it through the two year ordeal alive and returned home as heroes.

Director and cinematographer Frank Hurley has to be one of the pluckiest filmmakers whose work I've had the pleasure to see.  A native Australian, he jumped at the offer to film the legendary journey, meeting up with the crew of the British ship Endurance in Buenos Aires and taking the trip with them to the frozen, foreboding world of the South Pole.

Like many documentarians, there was no guarantee that the intended subject matter would pan out, but Hurley gave it his all just in case.  He established many remarkable shots, often putting himself in harm's way to get the best angle of the ship burrowing its way through icy floes and avoiding icebergs.  One shot in particular came from Hurley standing on the ice in front of the ship as she rammed with a full head of steam into some stubborn ice.  The ship made it through, and headed right toward Hurley, who, remarkably, didn't seem to budge an inch until the last possible moment.  Another of Hurley's remarkable images is that of the great “castle” iceberg that threatened the ship…this thing was MONSTROUS.  It made the Titanic iceberg look like a bath toy.

The voyage was doomed to failure, however, as sudden blizzards erupted to make travel impossible, and eventually leaving the ship totally frozen in by bars of ice.  The crew were completely stranded for eight months, hoping for the best.  In the ninth month, they got the worst, as the pressure from the ice began to cripple and buckle the great ship.  The Endurance was soon to be history, and as the crew scrambled to save supplies and set up camp on the ice, Hurley managed to capture the ship's death throes on film, as the giant masts cracked and toppled.

What followed was an incredible tale of survival, which unfortunately, could only be fragmentally recorded, as Hurley was forced to leave his movie camera behind and take only photographs for the remainder of the journey.  The men hiked across the frozen terrain until reaching South Georgia island, where they would have to wait patiently in the face of dwindling supplies as Shackleton and two men set out in a small boat and finally reached civilization.  Though it took four tries to get back to his men, he eventually did, and not a human life was lost in the drama that ultimately took two years to unfold.

What Hurley was able to capture and preserve for posterity is amazing.  Sadly, though, the need to make a commercial film to erase the debts of the expedition left a lot to be desired in the last half hour of the movie.  Though the crew returned in 1916, the film was not shown until 1919.  In the interim, Hurley volunteered to go back to South Georgia and get footage of the area where he and the men were left stranded and waiting.  He also, at the suggestion of the backers, returned with plenty of wildlife footage, which was always a crowd pleaser.  The drama of the story therefore abruptly halts while we watch cut after cut of seals, penguins, walruses and the like.  I don't fault Hurley for this derailment at all, but it's a shame the picture had to go this route.

It's also ironic, this desire to use animals in order to make a commercially successful film, which was evident from the get go.  Early on, we see plenty of footage of the 70 or so dogs that were kenneled on board for the Antarctic trek.  Big, smiling, friendly dogs, with crew members caring for and playing with them.  Somewhere in the second half of the film, you can't help but notice we haven't seen the dogs in a while.  The reason for this is explained in the commentary track:  sadly, when the situation grew desperate, it was necessary to shoot the poor dogs to conserve their food supply…then later, the dogs BECAME part of the food supply.

And speaking of the commentary track, I highly recommend playing the film with it on right off the bat.  Being a silent film, it doesn't interfere with any dialogue, and it actually mixes quite well with the accompanying piano score.  Luke McKernan of the British Film Institute has an amazing knowledge of the history of the events, and his comments alongside the images on the screen make the film more intriguing.

The crew of the Endurance would return to find the world still at war, and many would soon take part in the fighting.  Shackleton would return on an expedition to the South Pole in the late 1920's, and would sadly die there of a heart attack.  He remains buried on South Georgia, and his grave remains a testament to the courage of those who dared to put their lives on the line for the sake of doing the impossible.

Video **1/2

As far as a movie from the teens go, this is about as good as you can ask for.  Considering some 80% of all silent films have been lost to us forever, I'm certainly grateful this one survived for its future generations.  The print boasts the correct original color tinting.  It shows its age in the form of some nicks, spots, scars and debris, but overall, I'd say it's one of the better looking silents available on DVD.  The restoration job by the British Film Institute played a major part in that, I'm sure.  I actually noticed a singular instance of color bleeding, during a blue tinted shot of some penguins.  The birds all exhibited a rather prominent halo around their bodies!  Apart from that, there are no real complaints, and I found nothing about the transfer to cause a distraction from the overall enjoyment of the film.

Audio **

It's hard to judge the stereo soundtrack, which consists only of a piano score.  There are therefore no dynamics, no surrounds, no .1 channel to take into consideration, and of course, no dialogue to measure clarity and consistency.  It sounds perfectly fine and clean, with no noise or distortion.  I'll leave it at that.

Features ***

As mentioned, the disc boasts a terrific commentary track by a knowledgeable historian, one that markedly improves the overall enjoyment of watching the film.  There is also an excerpt from the film Southward on the Quest, the picture that documented Shackleton's final voyage to the South Pole, which would ultimately claim his life.  This latter feature is available with choice of accompanying piano score or a 1907 recording of Shackleton himself chronicling one of his earliest Antarctic journeys.

Summary:

South is a superb achievement in documentary filmmaking, and probably deserves to be remembered alongside movies like Lawrence of Arabia for being shot under the most harsh and grueling of conditions.  The short escapade into the animal kingdom near the end distracts somewhat, but not enough to belittle the incredible images masterfully captured by Frank Hurley of one of mankind's most memorable triumphant failures.