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The Endurance (documentary)

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“The Endurance” tells a story of resiliance and courage so amazing, it’s hard to believe it’s all true. It’s only a matter of time before Hollywood gets its hands on it and makes it into something grand and spectacular, but whatever comes of that will face an uphill battle in competing with the simple brilliance of this documentary.

It is the story of Ernest Shackleton, an English explorer who barely missed being the discoverer of the South Pole, being beaten by Norwegian Roald Amundsen. In 1914, Shackleton set out instead to be the first to traverse the Antarctic continent, and to claim it for England. He found a crew of 27 men willing to endure “harsh journey, small wages, bitter cold,” as his newspaper advertisement put it.

The trip did not go as planned, to put it mildly. Their ship, The Endurance, was lodged in ice only a day from the continent. Shackleton — who excelled at commanding men and guiding their morale — had them wait several months for the thaw. Instead, the ice grew thicker, eventually crushing and sinking the boat. (“At 5 p.m., she went down,” Shackleton said in his diary. “I cannot write about it.”) The men then embarked on a journey that led to Shackleton and a select few crossing glaciers and mountains to reach a remote whaling village some 800 miles away. Shackleton’s new goal, now that crossing Antarctica was not possible, was to return home without a single life lost. His dedication to that goal is astounding.

It is all told with restraint and respect by director George Butler, with a script by Caroline Alexander and Joseph Dorman, adapted from Alexander’s well-known book. Liam Neeson narrates, and other actors provide the voices of the captain and crew as they read from the men’s diaries. Descendants are interviewed (they all say the men never talked about what happened), and there’s audio footage from radio interviews conducted with survivors well after the fact.

Most enthralling, however, are the actual film and photographs taken on the journey itself, by cameraman Frank Hurley. Hurley’s work was released as a silent documentary in 1919, and rereleased in 2000 under the title “South.” Much of it speaks for itself, though Neeson’s narration does not detract from anything. It is hard to imagine “The Endurance” being anywhere near the enthralling documentary it is without access to Hurley’s footage.

Shackleton was one of the last great explorers before the world became small and exploration became, to most people, unnecessary. His 2-year excursion coincided with much of World War I — a war that more or less ended the idea of there being any Earth left to conquer. Stories of bravery and fortitude like this one live on and are as exciting now as they were then.

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