Britain’s attempts to explore Antartica during the first part of the 20th century, included some of the more epic failures of human endeavor, and, luckily for us, some of the best recorded. Ernest Shackleton’s attempt to cross the continent from one side to another failed to even reach the continent he was trying to cross. Somehow, the entire crew survived nearly two years in isolation, most of the time sitting on floating pack ice. And they had a filmmaker with them.
Much of the appeal of early documentaries, such as this one, or the work of Robert Flaherty, is the ability to see things which simply can no longer be seen – or in some cases you wouldn’t want to see. In the midst of images of pack dogs and penguins (all adorable), you see images of ships majestically dying in the ice, or a behemoth whale being skinned by whalers. There is an impression of man’s smallness, that technology has since done its best to overcome.
The showing at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival included readings from Ernest Shackleton’s diary, read by Paul McGann. It added considerably to the experience, though the readings were sparse, and one wishes there was more of it. The most stunning bit was when Shakleton’s diary relates coming back to civilization after two years at sea, to discover that World War I, which had started before he left, was still ongoing. “All of Europe has gone mad,” the head of the whaling camp tells him.
This was the era of pointless and brutal endeavors.