Real Footage of Ernest Shackleton’s Endurance: Watch Clips from the First Documentary Feature Film Ever Made (1919)

Last week we fea­tured the recent dis­cov­ery of Ernest Shack­le­ton’s ship Endurance, which has spent more than a cen­tu­ry at the bot­tom of the Wed­dell Sea off Antarc­ti­ca. It sank there in 1915, after hav­ing been entrapped and slow­ly crushed by pack ice for the most of a year. That marked the end of what had start­ed as the 1914–1917 Impe­r­i­al Trans-Antarc­tic Expe­di­tion, but it cer­tain­ly was­n’t the end of the sto­ry. When it had become clear that there was no hope for Endurancewrites Rain Noe at Core77, “Shack­le­ton and five of the crew then sailed 800 miles in a lifeboat to Strom­ness, an inhab­it­ed island and whal­ing sta­tion in the South Atlantic, where they were able to orga­nize a res­cue par­ty. Shack­le­ton locat­ed and res­cued his crew four months lat­er.”

Today we can watch the Endurance’s demise on film, as shot by expe­di­tion pho­tog­ra­ph­er Frank Hur­ley. “How is it pos­si­ble that the film footage sur­vived this ordeal?” Noe writes. “After the crew aban­doned ship, food was the main thing to be car­ried away by the men, and Hur­ley had to decide which pho­to neg­a­tives and film reels to sal­vage.” Hur­ley him­self lat­er described this ago­niz­ing process, at the end of which “about 400 plates were jet­ti­soned and 120 retained. Lat­er I had to pre­serve them almost with my life; for a time came when we had to choose between heav­ing them over­board or throw­ing away our sur­plus food — and the food went over!”

Even rel­a­tive­ly ear­ly in the era of cin­e­ma, Hur­ley must have under­stood the pow­er of the image — as, it seems, did his cap­tain. The footage Hur­ley could sal­vage retained a strik­ing clar­i­ty, and it went into 1919’s South, which is now con­sid­ered to be the very first doc­u­men­tary fea­ture. “South was first exhib­it­ed by Ernest Shack­le­ton in 1919 to accom­pa­ny his lec­tures,” writes Ann Ogi­di at the BFI’s Screenon­line, “and it has some of the qual­i­ty of a lec­ture. Excerpts of the jour­ney are inter­spersed with sci­en­tif­ic and bio­log­i­cal obser­va­tions.” And “just when the dra­mat­ic ten­sion reach­es its height, there are almost 20 inex­plic­a­ble min­utes of nature footage, show­ing sea lions gam­bol­ing, pen­guins and oth­er birds.”

Crisply restored in the 1990s, South “is best thought of as that mul­ti-media doc­u­men­tary lec­ture that Shack­le­ton would have pre­sent­ed with stills, paint­ings, film and music woven togeth­er to spin the yarn, and for Hurley’s exquis­ite pho­tog­ra­phy that keeps alive the sto­ry of that group of extra­or­di­nary men.” So writes BFI cura­tor Bry­ony Dixon in a recent piece on the mirac­u­lous sur­vival of not just Shack­le­ton and his men, but of Hur­ley’s hand­i­work. And it was Hur­ley who then went right back out to the island of South Geor­gia to “take wildlife footage that the news­pa­per edi­tor Ernest Per­ris, who spon­sored the film, was con­vinced was need­ed to make the film inter­est­ing to the pub­lic.” Per­ris was dar­ing enough to fund the first doc­u­men­tary fea­ture, but also pre­scient in his con­cep­tion of the form — a con­cep­tion proven defin­i­tive­ly right, more than eighty years lat­er, by the box-office per­for­mance of March of the Pen­guins.

via Core77

Relat­ed con­tent:

See the Well-Pre­served Wreck­age of Ernest Shackleton’s Ship Endurance Found in Antarc­ti­ca

Hear Ernest Shack­le­ton Speak About His Antarc­tic Expe­di­tion in a Rare 1909 Record­ing

Google Street View Opens Up a Look at Shackleton’s Antarc­tic

The Titan­ic: Rare Footage of the Ship Before Dis­as­ter Strikes (1911–1912)

New­ly Dis­cov­ered Ship­wreck Proves Herodotus, the “Father of His­to­ry,” Cor­rect 2500 Years Lat­er

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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