In the Footsteps of Sir Ernest Shackleton
Shackleton's Antarctic journey of survival is eclipsed by his trip from oblivion to pop-culture phenomenon
Seattle- August 20, 2002
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The place itself is creepy as hell, a killing ground marked with the industrial detritus of a previous century: discarded steam boilers, whale oil tanks, rusting flensing sheds, old ship parts. Thousands of whales were killed here, and Stromness has all the karmic charm of a concentration camp. I could imagine the perfect bay filled with dead whales awaiting "processing." But in 1916, Stromness was civilization. And it is the very place where Ernest Shackleton, Tom Crean and Frank Worsley ended perhaps the most intense and drawn out fight for life ever documented. The Station Master's residence is still there, in decent repair, as is the door on which Shackleton knocked to ask of Mr. Sorle: "Do you know me? My name is Shackleton..."
Since our retracing of Shackleton's crossing of South Georgia Island 18 months ago, I've marveled at how Sir Ernest Shackleton has become a figure of popular culture to rival Michael Jackson. Caroline Alexander's 1998 book Endurance: Shackleton's Legendary Antarctic Expedition and its richly reproduced photographs by expedition photographer Frank Hurley, kicked off the contemporary fascination with Shackleton (much the way Jon Krakauer's Into Thin Air touched off an obsession with Everest). But what followed was truly unpredictable.
An exhibition at New York's Museum of Natural History opened the next year, curated by Alexander herself. It had Hurley's original prints and the actual boat, the James Caird, Shackleton had sailed across the stormiest waters on earth. The museum show was followed by two documentary films made for theaters, one of them shot in IMAX format. Other books began to appear as well, including South With Endurance (Simon & Schuster) a collection of Hurley's photographs, and two books aimed at a business audience that explored the Boss's gift of leadership, Leading at the Edge (Amacom) and Shackleton's Way (Viking).
Shackleton's own book, South, was re-released, and a new biography of Shackleton's trusted seaman, Tom Crean, appeared (Tom Crean, The Mountaineers). Recently, the final two salvos have been let loose: the NOVA program, "Shackleton's Voyage of Endurance," and the A&E miniseries "Shackleton." These programs in a way reflect the maturity of the current cycle of Shackleton mania.
While I was fully prepared to dislike the A&E drama, in which Kenneth Branagh played Shackleton, the work had a refreshing verisimilitude of time, and place. The New York Times called it "intelligent, and elegantly produced." Instead of fawning or sensational, the drama struck me as forthright and crisply told. I found Branagh's portrayal of the Boss plausible: like most successful men, he was deeply flawed. At worst, the Shackleton miniseries engendered an appreciation for what the men of Endurance faced; at best it was a credible taste of what happened.
Peter Potterfield, MountainZone.com Staff