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In October 1914, the English explorer Ernest Shackleton recruited the photographer Frank Hurley to film his unprecedented voyage across Antarctica. But not long into the journey, Shackleton’s ship, the Endurance, became hopelessly trapped in ice. The desperate crew camped on rupturing ice floes; they sailed in lifeboats to barren Elephant Island; and finally, the captain and five others huddled in a 20-foot boat to seek help at the nearest whaling station, 850 miles away. When rescue arrived in May 1916, all 28 men had somehow survived.
A smaller miracle is that Hurley’s film did, too. The grueling, gorgeous, enormously moving South (weekends at the Screening Room, through November 26) is a compendium of ineffably touching grace notes (a penguin nervously edges away from an exhausted, amused crewman) and unparalleled terrible beauty—slowly crushed by accumulating ice, the Endurance finally sinks as the marooned crew watches, mystified, nearby. Hurley left his plates on board, but soon dived into the freezing waters to save his footage.
South was first shown in 1919 in London as an “illustrated lecture” and later as a feature with intertitles, which frame the ordeal as “a story of British heroism, valour and self-sacrifice in the name and cause of a country’s honour” (which might have come as a surprise to the Australian Hurley). South is thus a distant relative to the era’s colonialist exploration films and WW I propaganda reels. Unaware that a war had been raging half a world away, several of Shackleton’s crew enlisted upon their return to England; two died in battle within months of this survival saga’s close.