Last night we watched the recently restored footage that crewmember Frank Hurley shot during the epic Endurance polar expedition of 1914. The one with the year on the ice, and the whole deal where a malnourished and dyssentry-ridden Ernest Shackleton and two other guys ultimately rode in a dinky open lifeboat across 800 miles of stormy ocean, landed on an inhabited island but on the wrong side, then became the first people to climb that island’s mountains, in order to, finally, reach the whaling station on the other side and at last get a hot cup of soup. I bet nobody at that whaling station looked very good but Shackleton must have looked like absolute hell. “Boys, it’s me, Shackleton, and I’ve eaten nothing but raw penguin for 14 months” “Good Lord, Shackleton, we thought you were dead” “Nothing a bit of good Scotch whisky won’t fix right up” “Well done old chap, my god there’s British pluck for you! THREE CHEERS FOR SHACKLETON, BOYS! AND GOD SAVE THE KING”
Anyway, it turns out they lugged a 1914-era film camera all that way! Across the ice, sleeping in tents on ice floes that cracked and floated away during the night. Schlepping a huge camera.
The footage is AMAZING. Hurley was an artist! You can tell that he was interested in filmmaking for its own sake, not just for documentary evidence. There are some truly exceptional shots. There are shots taken head-on and right up close, of the Endurance breaking through pack ice, and it’s hard to imagine how the shot was achieved. There is a beautiful scene shot from the crow’s nest, looking down at the bow of the Endurance as she pokes through the ice, the ship’s shadow etched on the white snow, great leads of water opening up before her, a man sitting at the very tip of the bowsprit (?), legs dangling. There is footage of the ship’s masts cracking and falling apart as Endurance is crushed by pack ice!
The soundtrack that comes with the DVD is predictably terrible—some dumbass silent film buff noodling around on a piano, why do they ALL sound the same, it’d be one thing if it was historically accurate but it’s not?? We turned off the sound and instead listened to Ralph Vaughann Williams’s “Sea Symphony,” a more or less period- and nation-accurate composition that caused many delightful sync points, like a flock of glorious penguins leaping dramatically into the water right when the choir shouts “BEHOLD!”
I had hoped there would be footage of the 70 sled dogs the team brought along with them, and later ate. The fate of the explorer’s trusty dog is a routinely poignant and ambivalent one; the dog gives his all, works hard, and is devoted to the explorer, and in return the explorer usually kills and eats the dog, albeit with regret. This relationship is piquantly turned on its ear in Jack London’s excellent short story “To Build a Fire,” in which the dog knows the man is a fool for going out in weather this cold, and at the end when the man tries to grab the dog so he can kill it and plunge his frozen hands into its belly à la Han shoving Luke into the dead Taun-Taun the dog is like NO THANK YOU, and instead sits and watches the man die and then trots back to civilization like a normal person. Anyway, I really wanted to see those sled dogs, and I wondered if Hurley bothered filming them or if they were considered just part of the baggage.
Turns out, Hurley was OBSESSED with the dogs, and with animals in general! By far the longest uncut shot in the film is of the dogs in their onboard kennel. He intercuts titles telling their names (Hercules, Sue) and commenting on details of their behavior and care. There was so much dog footage that I briefly forgot this was a documentary of the Endurance. Dogs getting fed! Dogs pulling sleds! A litter of pups born on the boat, held in the burly arms of a ship’s mate who grins into the camera as he jostles them! Close-ups of the brand-new baby pups’ faces. A hilarious shot of the ship’s smallest crewmember wrasslin’ with the ship’s largest dog. I think it’s clear that those damn dogs are the only reason everyone on board did not go instantly insane. The psychological uplift of watching a goofy dog rolling around in the snow or of fondling a precious newborn pup must have been huge.
The film’s focus on dogs—the filmmaker’s clear interest in and appreciation for the dogs—made the knowledge of their future slaughter and consumption even harder to bear. I wondered if the film would dwell on that aspect of the expedition, but it did not. The last we see of the dogs, they are being unloaded from the sinking ship onto the ice, via a large canvas slide that the men just kind of shove them down. Out on the ice, they run and frolic. Then, presumably, Hurley ran out of film, and/or was too demoralized/focused on literally surviving to continue filming, and/or maybe actually just took the film cannisters and left the camera behind, because anyway there is no footage of the rest of the ordeal, the months on the ice, the months on Elephant Island trying not to die of frostbite. Instead we just see a couple still shots of the men’s harrowing months floating around on the ice, and then an artist’s rendering of Shackleton and the two other dudes’ legitimately unbelievable 800 mile rowboat trip, and then a picture of the island with the whaling camp where they finally landed and found succor. Not even an intertitle mentioning that, oh by the way, those dogs I lovingly filmed? We murdered them and skinned their bones. I guess you do what you have to do to survive, also there was probably nothing to feed the dogs, but still, that’s pretty rough stuff if you ask me. And honestly, I’d always wondered if men like this felt bad when they ate their dogs, but I feel like the language of the film reveals that they probably did. They loved those dogs!
(Also it is poignant to watch 100 year old footage of people playing with dogs. It’s like, some things never change; you can imagine the exact same scene 200, 500, 1,000 years ago. The dogs all act the same way and the people act the same way. Everybody knows you scratch a dog behind his ear just so; everybody has that urge to ruffle up a dog’s neck feathers; every dog does that soft-mouthed joyous biting thing on your arm to tell you he loves you. God bless and keep all dogs)
BUT THEN, after a title being like “thank god, the men were rescued finally” there is literally a 15 minute sequence of the film that is just shots of various arctic animals doing things. We think Hurley just came back later, after it was all over, and got all this footage of elephant seals and penguins. More animals! It’s very very weird, it goes on for so long that you do actually forget about Shackleton, until, seeming to reveal an anxiety about this very issue, Hurley suddenly cuts in a title that’s like “Shackleton ate a lot of these seals during his journey” or something, but you can tell that’s not what Hurley is interested in. He just wants to film those seals! And the footage he gets is truly amazing—with no zoom lens, you realize, he’s just standing 3 feet from an enormous elephant seal who is yelling at him in anger. He could have been killed! He gets footage of emeperor penguins shoving their babies underneath them, adopting an orphan, playing on the ice. He’s, like, standing amongst them. Jonathan Franzen would shit his pants!
There is also very disturbing footage of men sawing the blubber off a vast whale. Also, a shot of the entire crew walking a mile dragging a rope and then you realize they’re pulling up a giant net they dropped through the ice to try to get scientific specimens off the sea bed. What on earth!
The film is amazing, touching, emotionally stirring, and also really drives home the fact that Western culture is absurd and terrible. I highly recommend it. We wanted to watch it while drinking that recreated version of Shackleton’s scotch they made but it’s $149 a bottle and we would have had to drive to Cape Cod to buy it, so we didn’t.