South review – startling filmed record of Shackleton’s gruelling Antarctic odyssey

Frank Hurley’s 1919 silent footage turns Sir Ernest Shackleton’s gruelling expedition into a travelogue with cute penguins

Pioneering Australian photographer and film-maker Frank Hurley was the official witness to Sir Ernest Shackleton’s gruelling expedition attempting to cross the Antarctic landmass, which lasted three years from 1914 to 1917. For most of the time the crew were utterly cut off from news of the outside world and the expedition became an epic ordeal when, on the way there, their ship (aptly named Endurance) was crushed and sunk by pack ice. Shackleton and his men were forced to journey onwards in a lifeboat in the desolate cold, finally to South Georgia, then rescued and brought by a Chilean vessel to the harbour in Valparaíso where they were accorded a hero’s welcome.

This 1919 silent movie is Hurley’s filmed record of Shackleton’s voyage and what is startling about it is its weird tonal obtuseness: so often it feels like a home-movie travelogue in which the mood is bafflingly jaunty. Towards the end of the film, just at the point when their lives have been saved and disaster averted, the film spends about 10 minutes on the adorable behaviour of the penguins. This is at the moment when Shackleton’s victory was said to consist simply in his heroic survival, the expedition itself having, of course, been a failure, but the film simply sets aside the obvious poignant or tragic dimension.

Perhaps this merely reflects the insistent stiff-upper-lip optimism and breeziness that the crew (including Hurley) had internalised in order to survive. Certainly, the first world war, which was happening at the same time, and which Shackleton’s fierce self-sacrifice and terrifying hardship could be said to mimic, is not mentioned. Probably the most sensational part of the entire film comes at the very beginning with Hurley’s glorious close-up portraits of his leading players, most prominently Shackleton. The sheer vividness of these personalities scorches out of the screen.

• South is released on 28 January in cinemas.


Peter Bradshaw

The GuardianTramp

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