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  • Writer's pictureRitchard Allaway

20/10/21 - South

Recently I came across the film, 'South' from the British Film Institute, which documents the ill-fated failed voyage of Ernest Shackleton's attempt to cross Antartica. Filmed between 1914 to 1916 by Frank Hurley, the film is completely shot in black and white and produced as a silent movie. The edit's have some text projected onto the screen between cuts and an accompanying soundtrack is used to support the footage.

The film was a joy to watch, it really did showcase the 'mighty' Shackleton as the conqueror and saviour towards his crew. At many a times it was almost comical but the film did try to show that humorous side of mankind and I suppose it did make sense as it was used to keep spirits and morale high for the crew during such a difficult and fraught journey. It also communicated back to its audience a show of strength that man and Britain could not be not beaten by nature, a somewhat interesting thought as world leaders gather in Glasgow shortly to discuss how humanity is close to point of no return for saving the planet. What is also interesting that during this period of Shackleton's expedition, the great war was occurring throughout Europe so my thoughts are what did people make of Shackleton's expedition? Was it something to keep spirits high? A distraction from the catastrophic mass deaths happening every single second? A show of force and courage? I am not so sure as I have not read into the feedback of the time but it is a thought as least. I do understand that Shackleton did telegram the Admiralty 'offering the ships, stores and services to the country in the event of war breaking out. Within an hour after sending the telegram, Shackleton received a reply from the Admiralty with the single word "Proceed". Within two hours, another arrived from Winston Churchill in which he thanked them for their offer but desired that the expedition go on. That night, at midnight, war broke out.' (Cool Antartica 2001)

The film has been captured in a way that can only clearly reflect on film from the early 20th century. Very grainy, sped up at times, black and white and silent, it just stereotypes what we would expect a 1920's film to look like. The accompanying text is 'traditional' for its time and the background for the text is of images from Antartica, featuring ice, snow and penguins. The film moves from the rapturous send off the expedition received from Buenos Aires, Argentina, a hot and sunny climate to then a darker and much colder southern region of Earth. I believe the film captured the linear journey very well and it does it in a way that shows spirit, excitement, wonder and danger, something that would grip an audience and set their emotions about. Hurley clearly wanted to showcase the variety and ever changing factors the expedition came across throughout his filming.

The accompanying soundtrack was upbeat and jolly most of the time, but when the expedition hit (one of its many) hard times, the jolly nature of the music was toned down somewhat, but not replaced with morbid sounds but sounds that were almost triumphant. It was as if the music was trying to represent the human spirit and the brave fighting battle the crew put up against nature. Deeper, bassier tones are sounded out but ones that grew as the crew fought on and as they begin to triumph, the return to jolly times reappeared. That use of sound is interesting, just as I discussed in my most recent blog post about Thomas Koner. The sound is communicating a visual journey but is also communicating the internal workings on the expeditionary crew. Along with the crew sound also represents the visual output of Antartica. It portrays the ice packs and the huge icebergs, the movement of the ship and the movement of the crew and slay dogs as they navigate the continent. The music moves the audience alongside the visual journey in order to create a flowing tale of human heroism through a traumatic and challenging time.

I think what resonates here with me is the film is a genuine attempt to showcase humans endurance (also the name of the expedition ship), courage, willingness and spirit to conqueror and navigate the planet at any cost. It is somewhat a distorted representation of the journey the expedition crew actually endured but it is clearly understood why such distortion did occur. The meaning of the film back then is to show the mighty Shackleton as the leader and brave explorer from the United Kingdom, the isle of nations that was the power house of the world and in someways it works. Now though, for me, the film captures monuments of the southern icey wilderness, a wilderness that had been discovered but one that can not be beaten. The power nature holds over mankind is awe inspiring, almost Godlike. Although I am not a believer of a mightier power from above, there is a somewhat power holding back humanity, keeping us in our place, to make sure we don't take over our natural conditions..... for now.

The night time still of Endurance embedded in sea ice - 1915


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