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The Film

Kenneth Branagh as Sir Ernest Shackleton

At a time when the world was slipping into its first global war, a British explorer plunged into a treacherous icy journey that he hoped would put him in the history books. Sir Ernest Shackleton wanted to be the first person to cross Antarctica, filled with natural dangers, including disappearing ice, fierce winds and sub-freezing temperatures.

Shackleton's experience that began in 1914 did land him a place in history -- not because he navigated the icy reaches of the South Pole, but, because he escaped them. Shackleton and his fearless crew found themselves stranded atop unpredictable ice floes off the coast of Antarctica, when their wooden-hulled Endurance sank after being paralyzed by invading freezing waters.

The crew's amazing story of survival has been the topic of books, documentaries and movies for nearly a century. Perhaps it is because all 28 crew members made it home alive. Perhaps it is because the crew faced the Weddell Sea's harsh snow, ice and freezing temperatures, then crossed some of South America's most rugged mountains during their escape from Antarctica.

Or, perhaps it is because the men tapped the elemental human will to overcome nature - and succeeded.

Shackleton's ill-fated adventure was most recently captured in the A&E original movie, Shackleton, premiered on A&E on April 7, 2002 at 8:00 p.m. (ET). While writer/director Charles Sturridge captures the super-human feats that make Shackleton's experience so awe inspiring, he was drawn to the film by something else.

"As I learned more about Shackleton, I discovered a much more complex human being than I had envisaged, or that I felt I had ever been brought out in what had previously been written about him," said Sturridge.

Sturridge also found it impossible to turn away from the project's challenges of filming on ice, in fog, freezing temperatures and other inhospitable elements. His commitment to the job meant that an entire crew and cast, including star Kenneth Branagh, had to spend five weeks in some of the worst weather imaginable. And, it meant the group had to face some of the same elements that Shackleton and his crew survived nearly 100 years ago.

Shackleton's 1914 British Trans Imperial Antarctic Expedition was not the explorer's first venture into the world's icy reaches. But, because of the weather-fueled hardships that he and his crew overcame, it has become his most legendary.

The expedition began in December 1914, when Shackleton and his 27-member crew set sail for Antarctica, hoping to be the first to cross the isolated continent. The group knew that the task would be daunting and even dangerous, but they had no idea that their journey would test their will to survive -- without ever reaching their destination.

The journey went terribly wrong when Shackleton's wooden ship, Endurance became sealed in the ever-changing ice pack of the Weddell Sea. Unable to break free from the shifting sheets of ice, Endurance drifted for 10 months before sinking, leaving the crew to face Antarctica's elements with three small life boats as their only means of transportation.

Recreating history

"Usually when you are working on a film about a dangerous environment, you do it in a safe environment and make it look dangerous," said Sturridge.

"For us, we were physically experiencing the same problems that Shackleton and his crew would have experienced. It was like shooting a war film and the enemy starts shooting back with real bullets," he explained.

Producer Selwyn Roberts knew that everyone who had tried to recreate Shackleton's 1914 expedition had failed.

"There are so many dangerous aspects to the story which we were going to have to recreate in the most authentic way possible. But, I knew we could do it. We just had to find somewhere cold with moving, unstable ice floes, high, treacherous mountains and as few polar bears as possible," said Roberts.

Antarctica itself was in darkness during the spring 2001 shooting dates, which is one reason that crew decided to make Greenland their filming location. The team decided that the country's eastern coast would provide exactly the same physical conditions that Shackleton would have faced in the Southern Hemisphere.

"From a viewer's point of view, it will be impossible to tell that we are not in the ice pack of the Antarctic, although we have had to add our own penguins! I was looking for somewhere in which I could find, in as compact an area as possible, the different physical environments Shackleton and his men had to overcome -- particularly sea ice, sea mountains and islands in a single area. Greenland had everything we needed -- except an infrastructure. So, we had to create it all, bringing in all of our supplies and living on a ship," Sturridge explained.

Everyone working on the film also had to learn how to act and stay safe in Greenland's dynamic elements.

The film crew was warned of a number of problems that could arise when filming on moving ice-flows. The extreme hazard was that the very ground they were standing upon could suddenly split and disintegrate, causing all those on it to fall into the sea below. A person can only survive for a couple of minutes in water as cold as Greenland's. Safety drills were held, 'survival suits' were issued, and every actor and technician was given basic lifesaving training.

Unpredictable changes in the ground beneath the crew weren't the only instabilities to battle.

"Very rapid weather change was a big problem, it would shift from eyeball scarring sunshine to thick fog in what seemed like minutes," explained Sturridge.

When the weather didn't cooperate, Sturridge and his crew put the magic of the movies to work.

"We had a number of pieces of equipment to aid us and the two most important were fog machines and huge fans (to create wind) which we used where we could, to create the weather we needed as opposed to the weather we had.

"But, planning was still very difficult in this environment and as Shackleton (Kenneth Branagh) had to literally be prepared to do any scene on any day, so in the end I relied a brilliantly flexible cast and crew to overcome the challenges."

"When it was windy, it was a nightmare; When you were wet, it was a nightmare," said Branagh.

He added, "and even after you had just seen the most amazing biblical sky, you knew you were still in this incredibly threatening, unearthly place in which you were never likely to find yourself as a tourist."

Wind and water weren't the only problems for the cast and crew. Some unwanted fog created a close call when Sturridge and director of photography Henry Braham were getting shots of icebergs from a helicopter.

Sturrige recalls, "We got a call on the radio to return fast as fog was closing in. As we headed back, we realized that the fog had beaten us and the ship was surrounded. We had no alternative but to head straight in."

He continued, "Everything was white. After a few minutes straining to see a sign, I remember mentioning that there was an enormous iceberg very close to where the ship was. At that moment, a wall of white ice loomed up a few feet in front of us, virtually indistinguishable from the white fog.

"The pilot pulled us vertically upwards and we missed this 300-foot block of ice by inches. There was no time to be frightened as at that moment we saw the faint outline of the ship and we came straight in to land."

And that was just one of the tense moments brought on by the weather and the area's climate. Sturridge recalls another one that he says Shackleton may also have had to deal with.

"I think our worst moment was after we had spent two days working on a huge ice flow measuring some 2 miles long and 1 mile wide. It was drifting south at a rate of about 12 miles a day. On the third day, as we were aboard ship having lunch, a huge fissure shot through it. Within minutes, it had split into four pieces and producer Selwyn Roberts had about two hours to manhandle all our equipment back onto the ship before the whole floe broke up into small pieces," Sturridge told

"I don't think its possible to understand the terror of living on a surface that is disintegrating beneath you until you have actually done it. You have no idea how frightening it is to be standing in the middle of this floating jigsaw, with two miles of freezing sea water beneath you," he said of the constant danger the ice floes posed.

Challenges on land and in the skies gave Sturridge and his crew a greater appreciation for the feat that Shackleton and his men accomplished in the early 1900s.

"We had modern warm weather gear. They had none," said Roberts.

He continued, "We had rescue boats and satellite communications, while they didn't even have a working radio. We had heated cabins at night, they only had small fires. We had hot food and drink whenever we needed it, they had to survive on a very restricted diet and maybe one or two hot drinks a day at the most. We found it tough living this life for five weeks. Shackleton's achievement of keeping his men alive in these conditions for two years is awe-inspiring."

Among the life-threatening hazards and the brutal weather that filmmakers faced, Sturridge found a beauty that he says is comparable to a very different climate, or even another world.

"Sea ice is so beautiful, like the desert. One day when we had been working in small boats among the floes as we wrapped it was nearly midnight, although still light. The sun and the moon were suspended above the horizon opposite each other like the cover of a sci-fi novel. And yet around us were thousands of tons of ice that with a change of wind direction could have crushed us like matchsticks."

Much like Shackleton's undaunted motivation, Sturridge says he absolutely was not deterred by nature's frigid force. He says would definitely take on another similar project -- for the beauty and challenge that the force of weather and earth provide

Coming soon to this page

To The Ends Of The Earth

Ernest H. Shackleton. 1874-1922

shackleton dvd set.jpg


The James Caird Society, established in l994 and a registered charity,
 is the only institution that exists to preserve
 the memory, honour the remarkable feats of discovery
 in the Antarctic and commend the
outstanding qualities of leadership
associated with the name of
especially during the ill-fated but
glorious Endurance expedition.

The Story of Shackletons
Last Expedition
Sir Ernest Shackleton C.V.O.

at Greenwich, UK

Endurance stuck in the ice

british antarctic survey banner.jpg

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