the endurance(2001)
director: george butler
narrator: liam neeson

. It’s hard to imagine a better story than Ernest Shackleton’s failed 1914 expedition to the South Pole. Not surprisingly, it’s scheduled to be made into a feature, but until then, you couldn’t ask for a better adventure tale than George Butler’s austere, stunning documentary.

As narrated by Liam Neeson, Shackleton’s story goes from desperate to worse: trapped in an ice floe just a day from the Antarctic coastline, Shackleton’s ship -- aptly named Endurance -- and crew try to survive until the floe moves them out to sea. Ice crushes the ship and they’re forced to struggle over the jagged ice field. Huge cracks open in the ice directly under their tents. Food runs out and they’re forced to eat their sled dogs. Navigating over boiling waves, they have to row hundreds of miles to find tiny islands for shelter. 

Finally, Shackleton and five of his crew are forced to sail 800 miles to a whaling station. They land on the uninhabited side of the island, and have to cross a mountain range before they can even begin rescuing the rest of the men. Three months later, they find the remaining 22 crew still alive in the makeshift shelters where they’d been left. They return to Europe two years after leaving to find World War One raging; no one has time to offer them a hero’s welcome. Thirty men from Shackleton’s crew enlist to fight.

Using photos and film shot by the Frank Hurley, the expedition’s photographer, and newly shot, breathtakingly desolate footage of the Antarctic locales where Shackleton was stranded, Butler lets the landscapes do most of the work, supplemented by sparing interviews with experts and descendants of the crew. Feature-length documentaries are rare these days, and while The Endurance is unusually well-funded (money came from Morgan Stanley and, the upcoming feature will probably cost ten times as much to make in a soundstage outside London and a snowy field in Labrador.