Restored 'South' survives Antarctic expedition
In the annals of man versus the elements, the restored 1919 documentary South stands a world away from such recent narratives as The Perfect Storm or the Everest disaster Into Thin Air. South is separated not only by eight decades but by a globe that itself seems utterly transformed. Frank Hurley's recording of Sir Ernest Shackleton's ill-fated Antarctic expedition evokes a bigger, deadlier planet than the one we know, a place with far more records to break and far fewer high-tech safety nets. There have always been and will always be harrowing, first-person accounts of folks who get on Mother Nature's bad side, but in Shackleton's day, the stakes for both glory and disaster seemed much higher.
A feat of remarkable heroism, Shackleton's Antarctic bid of 1915-1916 is an ironically legendary failure in the history of exploration. Shackleton's goal for the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition was to be the first to cross the southernmost continent, but his ship, the HMS Endurance, became trapped in ice floes, eventually marooning the crew in one of the Earth's most inhospitable places. Hurley served as the expedition's cinematographer, and his footage gives South both a thrilling immediacy and a viewpoint of unfortunate limitations.
South, restored by the National Film and Television Archive of the British Film Institute, offers a you-are-there glimpse of a major, post-Victorian journey into the wild, with Shackleton leading a team of 28 men and 70 canines (who turn out to be South's surprise stars). As the Endurance approaches the Antarctic subcontinent, it plows through the ice with scarcely a hindrance, with Hurley's camera making the ship seem unstoppable.
South is presented not entirely in black-and-white but uses tinted filters in some sequences. The chilly blue makes you want to bundle up just looking at it, and a couple of shots place a pale pink horizon over the azure, iced-over ship. Other color choices are more odd, like a sea-sick green for passing icebergs, or gold when the crew labors to chip and saw the ship free of the frozen waters. South doesn't have the, uh, glacial pace of many movies from the period but frequently lets the audience's eye linger on visions of icy beauty.
The Endurance is pinned in place for an astonishing nine months, and eventually the pressures grow so great that the ship is crushed. The ship is held tilting at unnatural angles, like a slow-motion Poseidon Adventure, and eventually the masts collapse, leaving it a crushed hulk compared to the symbol of triumph that left port. Shackleton's crew is left stranded on islands of ice, hundreds of miles from land.
Their hardship is scarcely imaginable — and that's a pity for a film of this era, with no sound recording and few possibilities for camera movement. You ache to be able to hear what they heard: the sounds of the wind, the noise of the ice, the groans of ship timbers. Hurley can offer no shots below deck, and apart from introductory close-ups of Shackleton and his officers, you scarcely see any faces of the crew beneath their hats and masks and can only imagine the desperation across their expressions. (In 1922 Robert Flaherty would have the luxury of staged scenes and retakes with Nanook of the North.)
Compared to the hunched, frozen- mustached guys being pulled on sleds, the puffing, tail-wagging dog teams look to be having the time of their lives. We learn some of their names (Hercules, Surly, Smiler), see other dogs fuss when a shipboard hound is treated for mal de mar and coo over puppies peeping from kennels carved of ice.
After the crew is stranded, South must, understandably, rely less on filmed scenes than still footage and even a few illustrations. Shackleton and five others take a small boat 800 miles to South Georgia Island — "one of the most wonderful feats of pluck and endurance ever recorded" — and upon the arduous trek to a whaling station, mount a rescue party. But Hurley could record very little of this, and the film's last portion relies heavily on footage of the island's indigenous wildlife.
As an example of early movie naturalism, South nicely records images of albatrosses, seals and flocks of penguin (with self-consciously droll titles like "South Georgia boasts more than one Charlie Chaplin"). But apart from such interesting trivia like the fact that some bull sea elephants have more than 70 wives, South's conclusion is enormously anticlimactic, withholding some of the most engrossing information for padded moments of animal photography.
South still qualifies as a landmark of cinema verité, and it seems miraculous that the film made it back to the mainland at all. While Hurley's footage has gaps in telling the story of Shackleton's bold expedition and subsequent rescue, South's surviving images will leave you far from cold.