When Ernest Shackleton set off on his grandly named but ill-fated British Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition in 1914, he took a man called Frank Hurley along with him as photographer and cinematographer. 'South' is the result; a contemporary record of that terribly British story of heroic failure.
Hurley had come to Shackleton's attention with his earlier work, Home of the Blizzard, which had documented Sir Douglas Mawson's 1911-1914 Australasian Antarctic Expedition. Hurley was an incredibly talented photographer and cinematic visionary. He was an early practitioner of colour photography, and an innovator who stretched the limits of long-exposures, multiple exposures and magnesium flares to get the unearthly night shots of the film. (The Endurance looms like a ghost ship from the depth of the polar nights. There are moments of shocking beauty.)
The cameras he took on the trip include a square bellows stand plate camera, a Kodak Folding Pocket Camera Model 3A, a Vest Pocket Kodak camera and a Cinematograph motion-picture camera.
He would stop at nothing to get the pictures he wanted. And some of the shots in the film prove this: he was up and down the riggings, bouncing across the ice on dog-sleds, and lugging his cameras across mountains and ice-floes to get what you see on the screen. He was perched out on the prow of the ship as it broke through thin pack ice, his shadow dark over the shivering cracks and breaks in solid white. The crew of the Endurance were amazed by his dedication, calling him a "warrior with a camera".
The film is truly amazing. It gives a view of the expedition that would just not be possible through the revisionist filtering of history and heroes. You see the day to day life of the crew, on board ship and stuck in the ice, the puppies growing into fully-sized sledge dogs, the cold draw in and the layers of clothes thicken up. You see the crew failing to befriend penguins and struggling with the sleds and equipment. You can see how the stranded ship, is raised high on the unforgiving ice that trapped them for months. You get to watch the mountainous icebergs drifting alongside, tinted pale pink on the restored film. There are shots of the crew attempting to break the ice, push it out of the way with long poles, as if they were punting through the coldness.
Once the expedition had reached the point of no return, with the ship crushed by the pack ice, Shackleton ordered the crew to strip down their personal possessions to a mere two pounds each. They had to cross the ice on foot and the water, to Elephant Island in lifeboats. As the ship was sinking, Hurley stripped to his waist and dived into the freezing water to rescue as many of his photos as possible from the wreck. Hurley had to abandon his cameras at this point, but was allowed to hold onto some of his glass plates, photographs and film footage. They retained 120 glass plates, but smashed 400. Shackleton was worried that Hurley would risk everything to return to fetch them later if they were still intact. The saved plates and prints were sealed into metal tins to protect them on the final stages of the journey. For the remainder of the trip, Hurley had just three rolls of film and a handheld Kodak camera.
The film is much thinner after they have left the Endurance, for obvious reasons. Gaps are filled with paintings, and the odd photograph of the landscape that was added later, once the crew was safe again. There are no contemporary visual records of the epic voyage and hike across from Elephant Island to South Georgia.
The film gets rather surreal at this point. Later footage shows the frolics and jolly japes of the seals and sea elephants that inhabit the islands. The captions on the film and photos are oddly disturbing (especially with comedy piano music tinkling along). They are much along the lines of "See the cute animals! hahah! How we laugh as they sun themselves! Chortle as they cavort in their silly mating dance. Oh, we ate them. How tasty they were."
(Sadly, once the crew have set forth in the lifeboats, there is a complete lack of mention of the canine pals who have romped so gleefully in early footage. I suspect that the crew were far too English to eat their dogs. Or, at least, too polite to mention it.)
The Imperial Trans-Antarctic Film Syndicate company was set up to sell Hurley's still photographs and motion pictures as a way of raising funds for this and other expeditions. A first version of South was released in 1919, known as In the Grip of the Polar Ice and Shackleon used many of Hurley's still photographs to accompany his lecture tours. 'South' was re-released in 1999, in the UK, and shown at the National Film Theatre with live piano playing to accompany the silent film.
South has been released in the UK as "South: Shackleton's Expedition to the Antarctic" and in Australia as "In the Grip of Polar Ice"
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