In what turned out to be one of the greatest stories of sheer human will power, Ernest Shackleton and a crew of 21 men set sail in 1914 to claim the vast territory of Antarctica for England. The goal was to be the first to cross the frozen continent on foot. During the twilight years of the Age of Discovery, it was considered the last great conquest.
However, the journey became a 635-day odyssey that drove the crew to the edge of sanity. When all was said and done, the mission itself failed. However, their quest is still talked about 87 years later simply because of what the crew endured.
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Narrated by Liam Neeson, The Endurance: Shackleton’s Legendary Antarctic Expedition brings to life this incredible voyage with new footage shot in the Antarctic and new interviews with relatives of the crew, along with amazing original photographs and movies shot by the expedition’s photographer, Frank Hurley.
A companion piece IMAX film is also currently making the rounds and the striking landscapes are suitable for that screen’s format, but this feature-length documentary takes far greater advantage of the real attraction: Good, old-fashioned storytelling. It’s the ultimate drama of man’s struggle to survive against all odds.
If it weren’t true, it’s the kind of adventure that would otherwise be considered farfetched.
At the heart of the saga is Shackleton himself. An Irishman and a restless soul, he acknowledged he was at his happiest when he was out on his adventures. At home, he felt of no particular use.
Shackleton’s family motto was, “By endurance we conquer.” Not only did those words inspire the naming of the vessel he would travel on, they also became the key words for the entire journey.
From the outset, this was not to be a typical expedition. Shackleton placed a newspaper ad that did nothing to stir images of fortune and glory. The ad made no qualms about full disclosure as it mentioned the bitter cold, small wages, and doubtful outlook for a safe return. Even so, there were more applicants than positions available.
Stuck in a Moment
With penguins waddling about on the snowy terrain of their destination, at times even the new footage looks like it’s shot in black and white. The only betrayal: The neon blue of the ice reflecting light below the surface of the sea.
The crew would go on to spend three months trapped in this frozen Sahara as ice surrounded the Endurance. That ice would ultimately shatter the boat’s wooden frame. From there, the odyssey would lead from one unbearable setback to another and the mission turned away from the glory of the British Empire to staying alive and keeping the hearts and souls of the team from the clutches of madness.
In comparison, their ordeal makes the events of Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air (and its IMAX counterpart, Everest) look like a hollow expedition focused on rich people playing where they don’t belong. The team in Krakauer’s trek had all of today’s modern conveniences at their disposal and had plenty to make their adventure relatively comfortable if only their egos hadn’t gotten in the way.
The men of the Endurance would eventually have little else but the Burberry tunics on their backs and a couple lifeboats. They spent 17 months without sight of vegetation and even when they did return to terra firma, their adventure was far from over.
Having made it to Elephant Island, which offered no additional resources in their quest to get back home, Shackleton and five crew members took off for South Georgia Island – 800 miles away – in search of assistance. Landing on the “wrong side” of the island, they then had to make a three-day hike across 22 miles of snowy mountains and glaciers to reach Stromness Station.
But even then, completing the rescue of the remainder of his team left on Elephant Island suffered its own setbacks and challenges.
There are so many moments of poignancy, heroism, and selflessness in this tale that it actually restores faith in mankind. And yet, with a team of 22, this expedition has many stories still left untold. Shackleton’s life alone would be worthy of a documentary.
If you’re not familiar with Shackleton’s journey, so much the better. Go and absorb what the flame burning within man can accomplish.
And, even if you have seen the IMAX edition, this version is well worth seeking out. Here, the people are fleshed out in greater detail and their story is augmented by their own paintings, drawings, and words.
When Shackleton and his crew returned to England, they found themselves in a different world. Shackleton was no longer considered a hero. The new heroes were those who died defending the homeland in the early days of World War I. Having been gone for nearly two years, those were days of which Shackleton and his crew knew little about.
Still undaunted, many of the crew went on to fight the good fight.
This tale of the human spirit is not to be ignored. In many ways, their story of survival is even more relevant now than when it happened.