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'Endurance' follows in Shackleton's footsteps

Friday, December 14, 2001

By Ron Weiskind, Post-Gazette Movie Editor

Sir Ernest Shackleton knew that fierce hell that comes with failure in a great object. Indeed, one could say he pursued it with a vengeance.



NARRATOR: Liam Neeson.

DIRECTOR: George Butler.



In the first decade of the 20th century, the British explorer got within 97 miles of the South Pole but had to abandon the quest, allowing Norway's Roald Amundsen to claim the prize. In 1914, Shackleton set off on a mission to cross Antarctica on foot, a mission whose value was questioned by no less a personage than Winston Churchill.

"Endurance," a stirring documentary written by Shackleton scholar Caroline Alexander and directed by George Butler ("Pumping Iron"), chronicles that ill-fated voyage and demonstrates just how tenuous is the line between triumph and tragedy, courage and stupidity, folly and heroism. The movie is now showing at the Regent Square Theater.

Fate seemed determined to teach Shackleton a lesson for his attempt to compensate for his lost chance at the Pole. But it would also give him the opportunity to prove his family motto, "By endurance we conquer."

His ship, named Endurance after the motto, became trapped in ice just a day's sail from the Antarctic continent. It remained frozen in place for 10 months. That was just the beginning of the hardships facing Shackleton and his crew of 28 men.

What follows is an amazing tale of survival that serves as a testimony to the indefatigable human spirit and to the propensity for fools to rush in where angels fear to tread. The narration by Liam Neeson makes it clear early on that some of the men returned home. The suspense lies not just in how many of them make it, but also how in the farthest reaches of this Earth they manage to do so.

Butler utilizes some talking heads, chiefly the children and grandchildren of the crewmen. But he also makes extensive use of movie footage and still pictures taken by Frank Hurley, a member of the expedition.

When we see the men smiling for the camera in the boat, feeding and playing with their sled dogs, trying to dig Endurance out of the ice and setting up frail-looking tents on thinning ice floes, we no longer view them as abstract figures caught up in events that took place before our time. Rather, we are transported back over the intervening 85 years and recognize them as living, breathing human beings in extraordinary jeopardy.

Butler intersperses modern color footage of the region to show us its forbidding beauty, including flapping penguins and choppy blue seas and huge icebergs that seem carved into fantastic designs. Occasionally, he offers first-person perspective from the lead position in a rowboat and split-focus shots that merge into the kind of clarity that was crucial for Shackleton to achieve if he was to lead his men to safety.

By the time it's over, it's easy to believe that Providence took a hand in both the hardships and the outcome -- and that there are different kinds of glory, both equally fleeting.

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