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 Endurance, writes 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.
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.