Hopkins Center to host screening of 'The Endurance'

by Christopher Q. McMullen-Laird | 10/26/01 5:00am

Discovering the Titanic was not enough for deep sea explorer Robert Ballard. He plans on searching the ocean floor of the ice covered Weddell Sea in search of another vessel in "The Endurance," a ship with a story.

"It's as good as the Iliad or the Odyssey," said filmmaker George Butler. It is the story of a failed expedition to Antarctica, led by Sir Ernest Shackleton, in hopes of capturing the last prize of the Heroic Age of Exploration: the crossing of the Antarctic on foot.

In August of 1914, the expedition left Plymouth, England four days after the first World War broke out. The crew would not set foot on solid ground for nearly two years, nor would the war be over when they returned from their 22-month rendezvous with the merciless polar seas.

Fortunately "for armchair explorers everywhere, they brought a movie camera!" as Todd Booth put it.

Indeed, photographer and cinematographer Frank Hurley was on board "The Endurance." He captured the ice-epic in countless still shots and on 80 minutes of 35mm film. Mr. Butler's revisited the unchanged continent, but this trip was bland compared to the 1914 expedition.

Mr. Butler, who pays a visit to Dartmouth tomorrow, is a very "hands on" filmmaker. There was no question in his mind that the filming would take place where the ship sank.

"We tried to reveal the story step by step. We allowed the story to tell itself," Mr. Butler said.

Narrated by Liam Neeson ("Schindler's List"), and based on Caroline Alexander's book, the 95 minute film takes the curious viewer to the ice desert where Shackleton's crew barely escaped death.

In January 1915, while the ship was sailing in the Weddel Sea, the weather took an unexpected downturn. The wind blew the loose ice together and trapped "The Endurance" within a frozen sea. The vessel was only one day's sail from the continent.

For the next 10 months the ice -- and the ship with it -- drifted northward.

"Those 10 months are very detailed in their diaries," Mrs. Alexander said. "[After reading their diaries] I really felt that I knew the men inside out -- the next act is who they became."

That next act began with a fatal blow on October 27, 1915. The ship was caught in a pressure crack and "suddenly the floe on the port side cracked and huge pieces of ice shot up from under the port bilge. Within a few seconds the ship heeled over until she had a list of thirty degrees to ports" Shackleton writes.

"They navigated by feel: F-E-E-L," Mr. Butler said of Shackleton's escape from Elephant Island in a life boat. After four attempts to rescue the 22 men who stayed on Elephant Island, Shackleton finally returned with all 28 crew members on Sept. 3, two months before the end of WWI.

Shackleton's leadership has made it to the top of corporate America today. Six CEOs gave John Mack, head of Morgan Stanley, Caroline Alexander's book about the sea odyssey for Christmas.

Morgan Stanley subsequently produced Mr. Butler's film that will show at the Hopkins Center tomorrow. Both Mr. Butler and Mrs. Alexander live in New Hampshire and will be available after the screening for a spotlight discussion.

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