South & The Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration on Film – Blu-Ray Review

The 1919 documentary South (sometimes also known as Endurance) is the account of Ernest Shackleton’s failed attempt to cross the Antarctic land-mass between 1914 and 1916. It was a huge near-disaster for Shackleton and his crew, and Australian filmmaker Frank Hurley was there to document it.

The film is more or less the first feature-length documentary without staged elements. The footage that Hurley could get under extremely severe conditions is tonally all over the place—after their lives have been saved and it’s clear they aren’t all going to die, there’s about ten minutes about how cute the penguins are, which is definitely of its time. The sequence where Hurley films their ship, Endurance, as they crew has to leave due to it being crushed in the ice is especially amazing.

Just the fact that there was actually a camera crew along so early in the history of cinema is fantastic. You can also tell that at a certain point Hurley had to just resort to taking photographs with a pocket camera. Obviously, it documents an extraordinary event in history, with amazing footage of this insane expedition in a ship that to be honest was probably not suitable for the expedition.

The bits about the crew surviving are fascinating, but there’s a nature documentary angle as well that would have showed their British audience the wonders of this unknown land. There is some great footage of the dogs as well, whose personalities just light up the screen. It’s not the definitive documentary on Shackleton by any stretch, but within the limitations of the time, it’s an important piece. The image quality is usually crystal clear which just adds to the stunning looks at the extraordinary story of the power of the leadership in extreme circumstances.

South has been a staple of the BFI archive for a long time. This new dual-format release includes all components on both Blu-Ray and DVD. Since the BFI can often dig through its own extensive archives, it comes packaged with contemporary film of Shackleton, including audio clips with the explorer speaking. There is also some Antarctic expedition footage that isn’t related to Shackleton. Extras also include two different scores by Neil Brand, who is one of the regular composers contributing to BFI silent film re-releases; a commentary on South by Luke McKernan; and an interview about Brand about the score.

★★★½

Ian Schultz

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