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American Experience: The Greely Expedition

Adolphus Greely's men could have had no idea what was ahead of them when they first reached Ellesmere Island in the Arctic Circle in 1881.

American Experience: The Greely Expedition

Airtime: Monday, 9pm ET
Cast: Philip N. Cronenwett, Jim Lotz, Jerry Kobalenko, Michael Robinson, Michael Murphy (narrator)
Network: PBS
Director: Rob Rapley
Air date: 2011-01-31

Snow stretches as far you can see. A delicate piano soundtrack accompanies your view of a daunting white vista, intimating the fate that confronted Lieutenant Adolphus Greely and 24 men in 1881. As recounted by American Experience: The Greely Expedition, the crew reached Ellesmere Island in the Arctic Circle in August: here they intended to collect data for some two years, equipped with 350 tons of food and equipment, but no means of departure.

"Records show a registry of 25° below zero today," Sergeant David Brainard wrote in his journal on 15 October. "A beautiful or aurora borealis was observed this evening but did not remain long for us to look at. Sun is now gone for good behind the distant hills and this will not again show his face for five long months." Stoic as his description sounds, the program indicates the men's increasing tensions. It does so in familiar ways: actors read from crewmembers' journal entries or a somber narrator (here, Michael Murphy) lays out events, as the frame shows landscape images both abstract and intimate, or photos from the expedition revealed in the usual slow-zoom effect: yes, the grainy images suggest, these grim-faced men were hardly and fearful, loyal and angry. And they could have had no idea what was ahead of them when the U.S.S. Proteus dropped them off.

The mission started with noble goals, not only to gather scientific information, but also to reach "Farthest North," that is, to reach officially a point beyond where the British had already planted a flag (this, Murphy. As Michael Robinson of Hillyer College puts it, the research mission had to do with the period's growing "holistic sense of science," as "People begin to view the earth almost like an organism with a set of circulation systems," rather than a set of incidents and objects to be observed and collected. Even so, Murphy says, "Greely's mission was an orphan," its start held up by the army until the volunteers the commander had to choose from were a motley set of under-experienced cavalrymen.

The authorities assembled for The Greely Expedition explain what happened with a mix of enthusiasm and awe, as indeed, the saga soon turns horrifying. Some explanation seems obvious, as when arctic expert Jim Lotz notes the terrain was "vast in a very, very real sense," making you feel "that you were in touch with something infinite, something enormous, something beyond human ken, beyond human understanding." Other speakers, like "Northern adventure" photographer Jerry Kobalenko, underscore the psychic effects on individuals. When, during the extensive darkness at the base camp Fort Conger, the men grew restless, Greely threatened to shoot dissenters. Kobalenko asks, "What commander is thinking of the final solution that early in the game? That's just being an insecure commander."

What happens next is notorious -- for the shameful behavior by the U.S. government and military, which sent the men out and then, when the expected relief ship did not arrive, had no backup plan to recover them, and for the harrowing experience of Greely and his men. When a possible mutiny is squashed because Brainard won't participate, the crewmembers find themselves facing increasingly dire conditions and so, changing their outlooks. In part, The Greely Expedition asserts, this shift is a function of Greely's own improved attitude. Following what seems an emotional collapse (he literally hides away in his sleeping bag for hours on end), the lieutenant comes into himself, rationing food and providing organization.

The men leave Fort Conger, travel to a barren area they name Camp Clay, and hunker down. The ordeal goes on for years: when Greely, in 1884 he decides that one man, Private Henry, must be shot because he is stealing food, the rest of the men concur, at least according to journal entries. Other men die of starvation and cold, and still others survive. By the time Greely's wife Henrietta takes the case to the American press, and finally the military sends out a ship to find the men, only six are still alive. The camera pushes in on a photo of a tent opening, the frame growing darker and grainier as Murphy recounts a rescuer's unbelieving response to Greely's ravaged appearance: "Greely, is that you?"

Who Greely was -- or who he had become after years of dreadful conditions and literal abandonment by the government that had sent him out -- remains something of a mystery. The program recalls that a scandal broke out when the Greely expedition's cannibalism was revealed (bodies they had buried in snow showed flesh had been cut off), and moreover, that "He found the scandal more painful than anything he had endured at Camp Clay." As Kobalenko surmises, the expedition becomes "a morality play." For observers, this is likely true. You might guess, however, that for the men who suffered, the lessons are less than clear.


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