Adrift and on film

Film captures Shackleton's adventure

Posted: Thursday, May 10, 2001

Documentary filmmaker Frank Hurley joined explorer Ernest Shackleton's expedition to cross the Antarctic continent in 1914. But instead of documenting a successful crossing, he participated in a grueling, two-year struggle for survival in the pack ice and violent storms of the Weddell Sea.

He lived to chronicle the adventure and in 1919 released the film, "South: Ernest Shackleton and the Endurance Expedition."

The film has been recently restored and the Juneau Arts and Humanities Council will show "South" this weekend at 2, 7 and 8:30 p.m. Saturday, and 2 and 7 p.m. Sunday at The Goldtown Nickelodeon Theater in the Emporium Mall.

Documentary and travelogue films were popular from the very beginning of motion pictures in the early 1900s. Shackleton initially enlisted Hurley with the hope that a film about the trans-Antacrtic expedition would be a commercial success and help offset the cost of the trip.

At the time, adventure documentaries were enjoying a heyday. Two contemporary films, Edward Curtis' "In the Land of the Headhunters" and Herbert Ponting's "With Captain Scott to the South Pole," were financial and critical successes.

Shackleton and 28 men set out in 1914 to cross the Antarctic continent but never reached the mainland. Instead, Shackleton's ship, the Endurance, drifted out of control and locked in sea ice for nine months before being crushed. The party abandoned ship and made camp on the pack ice. Eventually they launched their small boats and sailed to Elephant Island, northeast of the Antarctic Peninsula.

Leaving most of his men on the island, Shackleton and five men sailed a 20-foot lifeboat to South Georgia, 800 miles away. It was a remarkable feat of navigation and endurance. They reached a whaling station, where Shackleton arranged for a boat to go back and get the rest of his men, including Hurley, still marooned on Elephant Island. It took Shackleton four tries before he was able to reach his stranded crew and save them.

Hurley later returned to Elephant Island and filmed additional scenes. The film was finished in 1919 and Shackleton used the film, as well as slides and photographs, on his many speaking engagements. Hurley went on to a successful career as a photographer in Australia and made a number of other documentary films before his death in 1962.

The original film "South" has been restored, with some additional footage added. Because "talkies" were not invented until 1928, it is a silent film with a piano score.

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