Chaps in trouble

We’ve got to 1919. The officer class over-reaches itself and gets stuck on the ice. It’s a disaster but it all works out in the end.

Every year’s top-grossing movie, since 1913, reviewed. Part seven.


It’s not an adventure, most of the really dramatic events are missing, there’s far too much penguin footage and we never get to know any of the main characters – but it’s an astonishing document of Ernest Shackleton’s catastrophic 1914 expedition to the South Pole anyway.

The record we have of this wildly unsuccessful mission and the truly heroic recovery orchestrated by its leader only exists because of the photographer sent along on the boat. Frank Hurley was already an Antarctic veteran when he signed on for the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition, so he knew something of what to expect.

He took with him a huge amount of absolutely state-of-the-art kit – in the present day he’d have taken crates of drones and GoPros and some kind of virtual reality rig. Everything would have been 8K for the IMAX release (there’d have been a partnership with Apple or the BBC). Hurley’s kit included his bulky ‘cinematograph machine’, a chunky 6-3/4 x 8-1/2″ plate camera and some smaller Kodak cameras, along with various lenses, tripods, and chemicals to process the film.

When Endurance finally sank, Hurley found himself wading into the icy slush that was filling the ship to rescue his exposed plates. And it gets worse: later he had to leave most of his work behind – smashing hundreds of precious glass negatives on the ice so he couldn’t change his mind about which ones to keep. That anything at all survived the arduous journey home and that we have this film to watch is another tribute to Hurley – he seeled his exposed motion picture film and all those glass plates into a tin can and soldered it shut for the journey across the ice and the Southern Ocean.

Four sepia-toned stills from 1he 1914 Shackleton film South. From top left to bottom right: Ernest Shackleton, leader of the expedition; Captain of the Endurance Captain F. Worsley, Lieutenant J. Stenhhouse, Captain of the Ross Sea vessel Aurora; Captain L. Hussey, mateorologist and banjo player

Right at the beginning of this film we meet these four sepia-toned gents. Shackleton himself, the already-famous polar explorer and leader of the expedition to cross the Antarctic (at top left) and three of his senior crew. These gorgeous, fine-grained portraits (made nearly 110 years ago) promise an encounter with the upper-class adventurers aboard Endurance. We’re set up to meet the insouciant officer class tested in the cold. But it never happens.

Hurley wasn’t a storyteller. He had no script and only a reluctant cast. Locations were provided for him by the unfolding disaster of the expedition. He was there to make a high-tech document of the triumphant high-tech crossing of the Antarctic and he plugged on, as the mission collapsed, as the beautiful ultra-modern vessel they relied on was trapped in the ice and gradually destroyed. He created some of the most memorable images of the most forbidding landscape on earth and, incidentally, a record – although a frustratingly incomplete one – of the epic human ingenuity and bloody-mindedness that brought all 28 members of Shackleton’s mission out of the wilderness two years later.

Photographer Frank Hurley shooting under the bow of the trapped Endurance
Frank Hurley shooting under the bow of the trapped Endurance

But there’s no story here. The laughing, officer-class chaps in the picture (with their fabulous upper-class teeth) are never this close to the camera again. Nor are the other ranks below them for that matter. Shackleton is seen occasionally, usually shouting instructions from an ice hummock (we learn what an ice hummock is) or through a megaphone from the top of the main-mast. Early on, before the catastrophe, we see lots of charming footage of the crew caring for the 70 sled dogs kept on-board (I’ll leave you to figure out what happened to the dogs after everything had gone wrong) and there’s evidence of a tough work regime on the ship and on the ice.

Early in the film there’s an intertitle that basically gives the game away, though, telling us what we need to know about the recklessness of the upper-class adventurers who brought all this about. It accompanies some amazing footage of a huge pod of seals sailing, let’s face it, in the opposite direction. It says:

Intertitle reads: A phenomenal sight - migration of Crab-eater seals. They knew by instincer that an abnormal season was coming and flocked North to warmer waters before the sea froze over.

So we learn that, on the way in to the ice chaos of the Weddell Sea, these pig-headed Englishmen were actually warned by the locals and yet they carried on, on into the inescapable bay.

Later it’s mostly hard yakka on the ice as the crew try first to rescue their ship and then, as it breaks up and sinks, to rescue themselves. There’s footage of the crew’s increasingly desperate efforts to rescue what they need from the listing and sinking Endurance and they try out a kind of high-tech prototype skidoo but, an intertitle explains, ‘it proved entirely unsatisfactory’. The dogs tumble down to the ice on a tight-stretched sail like passengers escaping an airliner down one of those emergency slides.

So, in narrative terms, it’s kind of a mess, but the film is never less than absolutely engaging. It’s so beautifully filmed – Hurley was an instinctive image-maker and was using an up-to-date camera and the best lenses money could buy. He processed his 35mm film using the Paget process, which applies the various lovely tints we see throughout. God knows how he managed all this on board the Endurance (amazing shots exist of Hurley – on another Antarctic mission – washing his film during processing by trailing a frame in the freezing ocean!).

And he was brave – watch this clip showing the Endurance’s solid Norwegian-made bow cutting through the ice and think about how that shot was obtained, then wait for the end of the clip and you’ll see how. Lionel Greenstreet, First Officer of the Endurance, said: “Hurley is a warrior with his camera. He would go anywhere or do anything to get a picture.” Others called him ‘the mad photographer’ (he went on to be a famous war photographer and is known today for assembling composite images from multiple negatives to achieve the drama he was seeking).

The wildlife footage is good (and it must have been startling for audiences five or six decades before the first Attenborough epic) and would have made a delightful secondary storyline if the expedition had succeeded. As it is, the long sequence of penguins and sea lions at the end is a confusing distraction from the action we know had gone on but see nothing of.

The expedition’s escape from the ice is one of the great 20th Century adventure stories and it involved an 800-mile voyage across the Southern Ocean in a hastily adapted open lifeboat (these guys named everything – huts, piles of snow, desolate camps – so this boat was called the James Caird after one of the mission’s sponsors). Hurley had to stay behind with the main part of the crew on the wildy inhospitable Elephant Island (they named their hideout under a glacier Camp Wild), so we see nothing of what must have been one of the most remarkable journeys ever undertaken. As a result the film ends in anticlimax and we have to imagine the excitement and the privations of that voyage. Likewise the four separate attempts to rescue the men left behind and Shackleton’s canny begging and deal-making with the Chilean authorities to secure the ships to do it. But there’s something profound about this giant gulf in the story, something essentially emotionally correct – properly tragic – about missing out the trauma – frostbite, hunger, anger and fear – that must really be the heart of this story.

I wanted class-war on the ice, a story about the collision of the modern and the implacable wilderness, a parable of officer-class hubris and bloody-minded courage. I got none of this but the film is glorious anyway – and gives us a preview of a whole new genre of wildlife and habitat storytelling, of filmmakers and adventurers working together to make entertainment, that these days seems to eat up most of our Sunday evenings in front of the box.

  • South is not, you won’t be surprised to learn, the actual top-grossing film of 1919. That was a Lon Chaney organised crime drama called The Miracle Man, which looks like a blast but is now considered lost. South’s listed gross of  $46,865 would have made it a pretty big deal in Britain, though.
  • The astonishing 1999 restoration of South is on the BFI Player (so you can get it on Amazon Prime if you subscribe to the BFI Channel).
  • Ernest Shackleton was nothing if not an officer and a bit of a prig. After their extraordinary escape from the wilderness he withheld medals from four crew-members he labelled as insubordinate or workshy during the expedition, including one heroic figure who was central to the whole effort and accompanied Shackleton on the epic voyage to South Georgia, Harry McNish.
  • Here’s a list of all the top-grossing films since 1913 and here’s my Letterboxd list.
  • This is the top-grossing list from which I get South’s gross income.