WWI in Classic Film — South: Ernest Shackleton’s Glorious Epic of the Antarctic

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This post is part of the WORLD WAR ONE IN CLASSIC FILM Blogathon hosted by Movies, Silently and Silent-ology. Click HERE to see posts by other participants.

Ernest Shackleton’s Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition, which was supposed to be the first to traverse the continent of Antarctica, is one of the great survival stories of all time. It shares a close anniversary with Great Britain’s declaration of war against Germany at the beginning of World War I. The expedition ship, Endurance, set sail from London on August 1, 1914. War was declared on August 4. After discussing it with his men, Shackleton offered the ship, supplies, and men to the war effort.

He received a telegram from the Admiralty with a one word message: “Proceed.”endurancecuttingice

One of the crew members was Frank Hurley, an Australian photographer and filmmaker. After the failure of British explorers to reach the South Pole first (including Shackleton and Robert Falcon Scott, who died during an attempt to beat Roald Amundsen to the Pole) there were great hopes pinned on this endeavor by both the government and the British people. King George V presented Shackleton with a Union Jack flag, and the royal family gave other tokens to him and his crew members. The photographic and film records of the journey were of prime importance, in part because the film and photo rights were presold to finance the expedition.

The objective of the mission was never achieved. Locked in by ice in the Weddell Sea, the expedition could not reach landfall. They were forced to camp on ice near the trapped Endurance. Several months later, the ice crushed the ship and sank her.

For weeks after the ship sank, supplies that had been left on board were recovered. These included Hurley’s cameras and photographic plates. (There are stories that Hurley saved the film by boarding Endurance before it was crushed by the ice.) After they were recovered, Hurley smashed all but 150 of the plates. Remarkably, the cameras, film, and plates survived two years until the crew members were rescued from Elephant Island, where they had managed after many harrowing events to land.

Hurley_shackleton_at_campOf course, it’s also remarkable that all 28 members of the expedition survived the two-year ordeal. Shackleton achieved this by taking an 800 mile sea journey (part of the way during a hurricane) to South Georgia Island in a reinforced life boat called the James Caird. When they landed the side of the island opposite to where there was a whaling station, he and two others walked across the island with no maps or supplies. (In fact, they became the first to ever traverse South Georgia Island. To this day, the route they took is considered one of the most difficult land treks in the world, even with maps and supplies.) After three failed attempts to reach his men stranded on Elephant Island by ship, he was finally successful, reaching them on a Chilean tugboat called the Yelcho.

In 1919, Hurley compiled the footage and photographs he recovered into the movie South. (This is also the title of the book Shackleton published, which is mostly entries from his diary of the expedition. There are many, many books on the subject, but if you read only one, it should be South. It’s fascinating to read the day-to-day account in Shackleton’s own words.)

Not surprisingly, the movie plays a bit like PR for Shackleton and the crew, with lots of positive images of the men working and playing together. Most of the film is of the mission before Endurance sank. Some of the events afterwards–i.e. the voyage of the James Caird–are depicted with drawings. Hurley may have even staged some images, such as the one when the Yelcho arrives to rescue the crew on Elephant Island. The final third of the film is almost like a nature film, with a lot of footage of birds and mammals native to the Antarctic.

The images of Endurance slowing moving through the ice before it becomes trapped are stunning. Hurley took them from the crow’s nest view, and you can see the person in the crow’s nest hanging out over the ice. He also recorded attempts by the crew to free Endurance from the ice.endurancepuppies

The film spends quite a bit of time on the expedition’s dog teams (including a litter of puppies born on Antarctica). What’s interesting (and maybe understandable, since this is a rah-rah positive account of the expedition) is that the film never mentions the ultimate fate of the dogs. As the situation became increasingly dire, and it was more and more obvious the only possible escape was at sea in three small life boats, Shackleton was forced to order them put down. The crew, subsisting now almost entirely on seal and penguin, ate the dog meat.

The film also skips over the brief mutiny lead by ship’s carpenter Harry McNish, who deeply resented Shackleton ordering that his cat Mrs. Chippy also had to be put down. Later on McNish not only modified the James Caird for its long sea journey, he was also one of the men to accompany Shackelton on the voyage. However, it seems Shackleton never forgave him for the mutiny. McNish was one of four crew members he refused to recommend for the Polar Medal.

The nature footage in the film is kind of jarring after the compelling story of the expedition. I can only guess as to why it was included. Perhaps because in 1920, the year the movie was released, most people had never seen these animals. But it feels like filler, and that may be exactly what it is, since a good portion of the story did not make it on to film.

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After the nature footage, there are some shots of the surviving Endurance crew getting a hero’s welcome in Punta Arenas. Shackleton is not seen because he was already on his way to the other side of Antarctica to rescue the crew members of the Aurora, the other ship in the expedition. Their job was to outfit the rest stations along the route the Endurance crew was supposed to take across Antarctica. They also became trapped in ice. Three members of the Aurora crew were lost before Shackleton arrived to rescue them. He tried to find two of them, who were missing after walking across some ice that was beginning to melt. Eventually, he reached the conclusion that they died falling through the ice.

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For close to two years, the members of the Endurance and Aurora crews were completely cut off from the rest of the world. They had no idea the war was still raging. Many joined the military after returning home. Even Shackleton, though too old and already in ill health, was keen to serve on the front. Instead, he was tapped for diplomatic service in Argentina and Chile, with the objective of persuading them to join the war. He did not succeed.

Several Endurance crew members joined him for another expedition in 1922. Sadly, just before that expedition began, he suffered a fatal heart attack. He is buried on South Georgia Island.

Frank Hurley became a war photographer with the Australian Imperial Force. From his early career as a photographer, he was always willing to take risks to get the images he wanted. He got into a bit of trouble for creating composites (to convey the dramatic element of war) and was even accused of faking images. He would return to war photography during World War II.

Three members of the Endurance crew were killed in the war. After surviving two years trapped in Antarctica, Seaman Timothy McCarthy died only three weeks into his service with the Royal Navy Reserve. Five other members suffered war injuries.

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Another casualty of the war was the story of the expedition itself. War news dominated so much that it eclipsed the remarkable tale of survival in the Antarctic. Very little notice was taken of the rescue in the newspapers, and while the crew members didn’t exactly slip into obscurity, they didn’t get the recognition and honors they might have received otherwise. It took over forty years for the story to truly capture the public’s imagination. To this day, Hurley’s film footage and photographs are an important part of keeping the legacy alive.

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12 thoughts on “WWI in Classic Film — South: Ernest Shackleton’s Glorious Epic of the Antarctic

  1. I read the book of Shackleton’s voyage when I was in 5th grade. What these men went through was astonishing. I love any true survival stories. I recently wrote a blog post on this, also. Thanks for your post, and the pictures add to it immensely.

    1. I have seen the Branagh miniseries. My only complaint about it is it spent so much time on Shackleton’s private life (his affairs and problems with his brother) that it forced them to truncate the rescue scenes. Other than that, it’s very good. I especially remember the scenes of Hurley photographing Endurance and rescuing the film, as well as smashing the plates with Shackleton, as among the standout moments.

      I hadn’t heard of the other documentary until I started researching this article. I will definitely check it out!

  2. Thanks so much for joining in with this intriguing review. I am inclined to agree with you, the nature shots were likely included to increase the wow factor for contemporary audiences. Very interesting to see the way narratives and myths are built simply by careful editing and selection of footage.

  3. Great review, Debbie… one of my favorite men, and a true hero who always put his men’s welfare first. The thing about Mcneish was that he was a troublemaker, which was why Shackleton took him with him on the epic journey from Elephant Island to S.Georgia, even though he could have done with someone more reliable among the three men with him in the tiny boat. He felt if he left him behind, he would stir up trouble and undermine the other men’s morale.
    The dog thing was always a problem for the English – Amundsen sped to the South Pole first by using dogs to tow their sledges, and then eating them, but Scott couldn’t bring himself to do to.this – and may have cost them their lives, worn-out and starving. in a blizzard, only ten miles from food and safety…

    1. Thanks, I’m glad you enjoyed reading it!

      True, McNish was a troublemaker, but on the other hand, the James Caird would never had made it without his skills and he took the same risk on that perilous voyage. (He also kept the Endurance from flooding, possibly saving the film.) Maybe if Shackleton had lived longer, he would have forgiven him and recommended him for the medal.

      Shackleton is also one of my favorite heroes, but he was a flawed and complex individual–which makes him a model for me when I write my own heroes. I don’t object to the miniseries, for instance, bringing up his affairs and family problems, only that they spent more time on them than necessary.

      Another interesting factoid: the Aurora crew did not put down their dogs and later claimed without the dogs more of them would have perished.

  4. What a wonderful angle to take on the war. I have read about Shackleton and this expedition and it is a wonderful story of courage. I suppose the Royal Navy told him to proceed because they didn’t know how long the war would last. Thanks for sharing this with us.

    1. Thank you so much!

      I think one reason they wanted Shackleton to proceed was to help keep up morale at home. They probably felt if he succeeded it would be a big boost to national sentiment.

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