It’s hard to imagine the trials and tribulations that must have befallen Ernest Shackleton’s expedition to reach the South Pole in the early 20th century. Thanks to some remarkably prescient filmmaking, no imagination is necessary, as the Endurance expedition of 1914-16 was filmed and has now been remastered in 2K by the BFI National Archive.
What started as an exploration to be the first to travel across Antarctica via the pole transformed into an even more amazing tale of survival and rescue. The film takes us through the initial boarding at the expedition’s starting point in Argentina, showing the onboarding of provisions and resources including a large number of sled dogs taken along for eventual overland travel. From there, the crew head south and attempt to reach land in Antarctica in order to continue overland to the pole. Unfortunately, the ice that the ship initially carves through like butter quickly becomes an unyielding force, trapping the ship before crushing and sinking it four months later.
The men are able to survive for months in tents on the ice, but with no end game facing them other than inevitable death, Shackleton and a handful of his crew risk a daring rescue gambit. They set sail in a small lifeboat over the roughest seas in the world, hoping to navigate 850 miles using only a sextant to reach a small island named South Georgia. From there, they intend to recruit and mount a rescue mission for the rest of the crew. None of this leg is filmed, but is recounted in the title cards deployed throughout the film. Astoundingly, not only does Shackleton’s gamble pay off, he returns to find all of his men still alive and gets them all home unscathed, 1 ½ years after the start of their adventure.
Due to the lack of any strong directorial hand or narrative flow, the footage largely comes off as watching someone’s vacation movies, albeit a vacation in an endlessly fascinating environment. Shackleton and crew set up the camera and just let it run for a few minutes per scene as they go about their business, whether it’s barrelling through the ice in their ship, letting the dogs out to frolic on the ice, or recording interesting fauna they encounter along the way. There’s no attempt to keep a chronological diary recorded at regular intervals, as weeks and even months pass without any filmed activity. However, the fact that we have any footage of this legendary expedition is mind-blowing enough on its own.
The picture quality is good but not great, as it doesn’t appear to have had a thorough restoration. Scratches and debris are still present, and contrast and brightness are passable if unremarkable, although judder seems to have been corrected to rock-solid stability. Oddly, scenes are presented in different hues without explanation, with a red scene followed by a blue-tinted scene, then green, making for a bit of visual variety if nothing else. Although the film is silent, a pleasant 2.0 stereo orchestral score has been added, and seemingly new title cards keep us well informed about the happenings on screen.
Multiple bonus features are included, but they mostly fall into the category of deleted scenes as well as audio recordings of Shackleton. The one exception is an informative half-hour documentary from 1999, Shackleton’s Boat Journey, that adds much valuable context for the footage included in the principal film.
Adding even more relevance to the new Blu-ray, the Endurance was rediscovered earlier this year at the bottom of the Weddell Sea, still in good condition and now and forever designated as a protected historic site and monument to the adventurous spirit of Shackleton and his crew.