South (1919)

SOUTH is screening at BFI Southbank and in selected cinemas from 28 January and out on Blu-ray/DVD on South and the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration on Film, released by the BFI on 28 February.

A black and white silent documentary with music showing unprecedented footage from one of the very first Antarctic expeditions during ‘the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration’. This is the story of the ship “Endurance’s” fateful mission led by the intrepid explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton, a colleague of “Scott of the Antarctica”,  and a man of similar standing in the field of Antarctic exploration, filmed by the ship’s very own cinematographer, Frank Hurley. 

On July 1914 a crew of 28 men left the UK shores to attempt to cross the yet unconquered seas of the great Antarctic Continent. On board were not only a cinematographer and a banjo player (a “vital mental tonic” for the sailors) but also an incredible 70 husky dogs required to pull sledges. The boat finds the going not unsurprisingly difficult through the ice floes before it finally gets stuck and despite their best efforts to free it the boat is eventually pushed up out of the sea like a toy ship by the shifting icecaps, and is marooned on the ice with the crew and dogs having to abandon ship.

Having to camp on the moving icebergs, remarkably the crew seem quite jovial throughout their predicament stuck in the polar regions with what must have been limited resources in freezing conditions. There were no signs of panic and no doubt this was down to a highly experienced crew led by Sir Ernest and supported not least by what must have been a formidable banjo player. In the process of filming seals were killed, allegedly for dog food, which may not placate any animal rights activists but survival here was clearly a priority at a time when the world’s view on such things was evidently different.

It’s a true story of great British exploration where even the ability to film in freezing conditions over two years is an incredible feat in itself (although they do manage to bring along a new petrol powered sledge invention. Crudely sponsored by Shell – a sponsorship scoop not to be missed even back then).

Commemorating the centenary since Sir Ernest’s death the documentary, despite its antiquated black and white imagery, is an incredible account of the expedition with some striking pictures of the old sailing boat, the frozen landscapes and wildlife. How different it is now to think this once impenetrable landscape is now rapidly disappearing before our eyes.

The wildlife is captured to such a degree that three quarters of the way through, the film becomes a fully dedicated natural world programme with the stars of the film switching from the husky dogs to the penguins. Compared to today’s Ultra High Definition cameras the footage may seem some what pedestrian without the thrills and spills of “The Blue Planet” style of series but that would take away from what is an invaluable piece of archiving, that still burns brightly with a sense of wonder and discovery. 

Film: South (1919)

Director: Frank Hurley

Genre: Documentary

Run time: 1hr 21min

Rated: U

Rating: 3/5

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