Adapted from Caroline Alexander's book, The Endurance tells the story of Shackleton's amazing venture into the white hell at the bottom of our planet. Neither Odysseus' attempt to get from Troy to Ithaca nor Jason's search for the Golden Fleece was fraught with as many challenges. In fact, in all of human history, perhaps only Job can claim to have faced a more daunting series of setbacks.
Shackleton was obsessed with Antarctica. He twice tried to become the first explorer to reach the South Pole, once getting within 100 miles before turning back and finally losing the South Pole honor to Roald Amundsen. That "first" denied, Shackleton then set out to lead an expedition on a 1,500 mile trek from the Wedell Sea to the Ross Sea, something no else had attempted much less accomplished. To say that Shackleton failed is somehow an understatement.
Sailing aboard the wood-hulled steamer Endurance on Dec. 5, 1914, from a whaling station on South Georgia Island, about the latitude of Tierra del Fuego, Shackleton and his men never got to the Antarctican landmass. Instead, after six weeks of navigating through the ice floes of the Wedell Sea, still 100 miles from the coast, they became jammed in the ice pack. And there they remained. It was Feb. 14, 1915. It was -20 degrees Fahrenheit. And their troubles had only just begun. The bottom of The Endurance stood in frigid water, the sides pinned on all sides by slabs of ice 5 feet thick, ice as an unyielding mass that was drifting, not toward land but out toward the open waters of the south Atlantic.
Butler and his team of filmmakers are able to tell this story with incredible authenticity because Shackleton had raised money for his expedition by selling rights to photographic images of the undertaking. To that end, he hired Frank Hurley who filmed the disastrous voyage, and after his film stock ran out continued to document the explorers' struggle for survival through a huge series of snapshots. Miraculously, like the voyagers themselves, much of that film footage, moving and still both, has survived and has been brilliantly edited by Joshua Waletzky. Eventually, though, the pictures stopped before the men did. And here, like the great Errol Morris, Butler has placed narrative above purity, resorting of necessity to dramatization. More power to him. This film has such grip we have to remind ourselves that we aren't watching the real thing. And that's exactly as it should be.
Because Shackleton and his crew were headed for an arduous journey across a frozen wasteland, they were well equipped to endure the first stages of their setback. They had warm clothes, lots of provisions and plenty of fuel. They had dog teams and good sleds. They were also capable hunters and supplemented their food supplies with seal and penguin meat. Thus Shackleton judged that his most immediate problem was not resources but morale, and he labored hard to keep spirits up. He ordered regular daily routines which included both labor and recreation. The men worked, but they also played soccer, put on skits, engaged in various contests and listened to gramophone concerts.
But months passed, and things only got worse. A mutiny was threatened and adroitly quashed without the loss of life. Then the ice began to press in upon their ship finally splintering and sinking it. They were left with only three salvaged life boats adrift on a vast flat iceberg. And things got worse still. After drifting north for over 1,300 miles, their pad of ice began to melt. Clambering into lifeboats, they now tried to row to a whaling station on Deception Island 150 miles away. And the worst was still yet to come.
The Endurance does not help early 21st century viewers adequately to understand why Shackleton and his men exposed themselves to such dangers for the presumably fleeting prestige of doing something no one else can claim. But this picture certainly leaves us dazzled by their grace under pressure, their ingenuity, their fortitude and their collective will. Few films that I know of testify any better to the indomitable transcendence of the human spirit at its best.