We don’t need another hero.
We don’t need to know the way home.
— Tina Turner, “We don’t need another hero”
“Notice: Men wanted for hazardous journey. Small wages. Bitter cold. Long months of complete darkness. Constant danger. Safe return doubtful. Honour and recognition in case of success.” This ad was placed by British explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton in preparation for his 1914 bid to travel across Antarctica. The latest film to document his ill-fated expedition reveals that this grim proposition drew 5,000 applicants.
Such was the atmosphere, reveals The Endurance: Shackleton’s Legendary Antarctic Expedition, in pre-World War I England, where the cavalierly romantic narrative of “man,” poorly outfitted and poorly prepared, pitted against nature was at its peak. It was also a narrative nearing its end. With the horrors of world war just around the corner, Shackleton’s journey is described by the stoic voice of narrator Liam Neeson as “the last great journey in the heroic age of discovery.”
Through rare still photos and film clips (taken by the expedition’s photographer Frank Hurley), journal excerpts, and interviews with the grandchildren of the men who accompanied him, Endurance tells the story of Shackleton’s undaunted leadership in the face of overwhelming hardship.
Of course, there was plenty of hardship to go around during the trip. Shackleton, the film relates, had previously led two failed expeditions to reach the Antarctic pole. Since the South Pole was successfully reached by competing explorer Roald Amundsen, Shackleton’s third expedition was to be the first to cross Antarctica overland. The venture is soon stalled, however, when the ship Shackleton and crew are aboard (named The Endurance) becomes frozen in ice en route, just days from its destination. Months go by as the crew waits for a thaw to free them, eventually forcing them to eat their own sled dogs after the local seal and penguin populations are exhausted.
Instead of a thaw, however, the ice intensifies until The Endurance is crushed. The remainder of the film documents Shackleton’s leadership as he and the crew struggle to return to civilization. Forced to navigate a frozen stretch of ocean in three small lifeboats, the group is buffeted by blizzards, soaked by seawater, starved, and frozen. In addition to producing physical discomfort, these trials also take a psychological toll, as despair, frustration, even insanity threaten to dissolve the crew’s unity.
For the makers of The Endurance, this is Shackleton’s finest moment. The documentary repeatedly praises his efforts as a leader who swiftly and decisively quells any signs of mutiny while still managing to show enough humanity to pitch in with the men, bailing water, scrubbing decks, and donating his food rations in a display of camaraderie and unity. The explorer’s crowning achievement comes when every member of the crew is eventually returned to safety. Shackleton is credited with saving the lives of his men with his steadfast efforts.
He does manage some spectacular feats against dire odds, which is why the story of Shackleton’s expedition is so thoroughly tailor-made as dramatic spectacle. However, while it showcases the triumph of human will over daunting natural obstacles, the film may leave a post-World Wars audience to wonder about the whole point of the expedition in the first place. Winston Churchill himself is quoted briefly in Endurance, as feeling skeptical about the usefulness of the expedition to England as a whole. Historical perspective heightens this skepticism. Though Shackleton’s trip is remarkable as a survival story, he ultimately fails to achieve his original goal, one that in any event seems to serve no greater purpose than the self-aggrandizing desire to claim the distinction of crossing Antarctica first.
But Endurance brushes aside considerations of the value or merit, instead emphasizing his courage, going so far as to bemoan in its conclusion that the achievements of Shackleton and company were overshadowed by the horrific events of World War I. Rather than returning to a jubilant welcome, Shackleton was largely regarded in England as a non-participant in the War effort. The film’s disappointment at this chilly reception reflects a disconnect between the way the filmmakers view Shackleton’s accomplishments and the way his countrymen, in the midst of suffering through the traumatic paradigm shift of the Great War, viewed them. Endurance is an unabashed celebration of Shackleton’s abilities as a leader of men, presenting him as the last important figure before the darkness of World Wars, nuclear arms races, and weapons of mass destruction. The truth of the matter, as Shackleton’s homecoming reflects, is that even the most striking single figure is still subject to the movement of history, which often makes the heroes of today into the anachronisms of tomorrow.