Directed by Charles Sturridge
"Men wanted for hazardous journey.
Small wages. Bitter cold. Long months
of complete darkness.
Constant danger. Safe return doubtful."
That was the help wanted ad Ernest Shackleton placed while in search of a crew for his 1914 expedition to Antarctica. It was an ad nearly 5,000 applicants (including three women) found irresistible.
Shackleton, a made-for-TV miniseries now on DVD, expertly tells the tale of Shackleton's mission in a gripping drama of adventure and the human spirit.
At a time when T.E. Lawrence was in the burning heat of Arabia and rising to the ranks of legend, Shackleton was in the frozen desert of Antarctica leading men in a more personal struggle of survival against the elements.
With a team of 27 men, 69 dogs, and one cat, Shackleton set off to cross the continent of Antarctica.
Their journey, however, became one seemingly insurmountable struggle after another. Early on, their ship, Endurance, became trapped in the ice floes and eventually collapsed under the stress of the shifting ice. The crew then had to survive a trek at sea in lifeboats to an abandoned island, with a portion of the crew going on to seek assistance from a whaling station on another island nearby. Even then, against all odds, they had to hike from one side of that island to the other to reach humanity.
Two years after their departure, Shackleton's team finally returned home. Miraculously, no human lives were lost and each man returned with an amazing story of survival to tell. They also returned to a world at war.
Kenneth Branagh (Hamlet) was director Charles Sturridge's (Longitude) first choice for the title role and he wears it well. Branagh deftly fills the shoes of the ambitious adventurer who must also work like a salesman to sell his scheme to investors. He's a family man, who's no good at domestic life, and the film also acknowledges the existence of Shackleton the playboy.
The film takes its time setting up the journey. After all, even getting the expedition financed and out of dry dock took considerable endurance. Built as an explorer and nothing else, at least in his own eyes, Shackleton is at peace when on an adventure. He's the sort of chap who was at his best when the world was falling apart.
Burberry Yard Sale
A savvy businessman, Shackleton sought out a talented photographer to document the voyage and thereby provide quality images to sell – and help fund the venture. To that end, Frank Hurley captured stunning images along the way and part of the movie's fun is in seeing Hurley's photographs recreated. Matt Day (Muriel's Wedding) offers a pitch perfect performance as the innovative photographer.
Adding depth to the production, segments dealing with those left behind in England help put the story in historical context. Back home, the country was embroiled in World War I and the families of the crew were running out of money as the expedition drifted far beyond its intended length and scope of compensation.
With solid production values, a fine cast (including the too seldom seen Nicholas Rowe (Young Sherlock Holmes)), and marvelous cinematography, Shackleton is an ambitious production that offers some truly magical moments that rival anything made for the big screen.
Beyond being a mere recounting of adventurous days gone by, Shackleton offers a prime display of true leadership and the power of motivation and will. It should be required viewing for all managers in corporate America.
Picture and Sound
On the technical front, the DVD is a fine presentation. The picture is crisp and retains the film's sometimes-faded look, providing a vintage, nostalgic edge. The only giveaway that Shackleton was made for TV is the 2.0 Dolby soundtrack; but even it serves its purpose, particularly with the rumbling noise of the Endurance as it makes its way across the waters.
The first two discs of the three-disc set present the complete miniseries in its original 1.85:1 format (A&e's cable presentation was a pan and scan edition, reducing some of the grandeur of the photography).
The third disc is a compilation of three documentaries.
The first is Breaking the Ice: The Making of Shackleton. This is one case in which the making of the film was itself an adventure and worthy of a documentary.
There's also the Biography episode on Shackleton, which features an interview with George Butler, who released his own documentary on Shackleton, The Endurance: Shackleton's Legendary Antarctic Expedition, in theatres last year. The episode is a good overview of the man's life, but its 45-minute length, naturally, leaves much untold.
The third documentary is the 90-minute Antarctica: A Frozen History, which recounts the early expeditions and takes the viewer up to Antarctica's modern-day scientific concerns.
Capping off the set is a very brief Kenneth Branagh biography and filmography.
Overall, the features do exactly what they should: They supplement the viewers' experience of the main production by offering insightful looks at the making of the production and the true-life source material.
• Originally published at MovieHabit.com.