'Shackleton': filming a feat of endurance

"By endurance we conquer," said Sir Ernest Shackleton as he named his ill-equipped ship "Endurance" and planned to sail it to the Antarctic in 1914.

As it happens, Sir Ernest's family motto proved powerful – he did indeed conquer death itself. He and his men suffered extreme deprivation, fatigue, hunger, cold, and injury in his famously failed venture to cross the Antarctic continent. But he also brought everyone home alive, and that feat of endurance is the real story.

The TV miniseries Shackleton (A&E, April 7, 8-10 p.m., concludes April 8, 9-11 p.m.) enlivens what two recent excellent documentaries, on PBS's "Nova" and in Imax theaters, could only outline.

In his second trip to the South Polar region (the explorer missed reaching the South Pole first by a mere 86 miles, turning back to save his men), he attempted to be the first to cross the Antarctic. His ship was first seized by heavy ice and finally ground up by it. The men escaped with their lives and meager supplies. They were forced to pull their lifeboats on sledges across the ice to open water, to shoot and eat their dogs (the most macabre moments of humor surround this devastating experience), and fend off madness from despair.

Shackleton got them all safely to Elephant Island, a rock with few natural resources, and then sailed with five others in a lifeboat 650 miles across wintry seas to South Georgia Island. Three of the men were too weak to travel further, so Shackleton and two others crossed a glacier to reach a whaling station. Within three months, he rescued the rest of his men. Exploring is a dirty job, but somebody has to do it.

Most of these men and the whalers they met near the Pole were social misfits who, in their own words, were "no use anywhere else." All are brave, loyal, intelligent, resourceful, and also, in their own way, loving – more than they are egotistical, selfish, or aggressive. These men followed their strengths instead of succumbing to their weaknesses. Their survival is a tribute to the human spirit.

The sense of history displayed by writer-director Charles Sturridge ("Longitude," "Brideshead Revisited," "Gulliver's Travels") is laced with a genuine understanding and affection for human nature. His research included interviewing the descendants of the men who trekked with Shackleton.

Of course, Mr. Sturridge read the men's diaries, along with all the other records and documents available. And the result is persuasive – we understand what makes Shackleton and his men tick, and their flaws only make their strengths that much more amazing.

Sturridge knew that British actor Kenneth Branagh, who bears an uncanny resemblance to the Polar explorer, would be perfect for the role. Mr. Branagh's emotional range, his ability to project intelligence, and his disciplined sensitivity to the spoken word breathe life into this enigmatic hero.

"When I first started thinking about it, I went to talk to [Branagh]," said Sturridge, reached recently by phone at his home outside London."By the end of lunch, he agreed to do it – which meant I had access to him the whole time I was writing the script.... It was a particularly close and productive relationship."

The rest of the casting was like selecting a team for an expedition, he says. Everyone was told about the hardships, such as filming in Greenland. "In the end, no actor said, 'I can't face that,' "Sturridge says.

Re-creating the Shackleton expedition included a lot of discomfort, cramped quarters aboard a ship designed for scientific exploration, and tricky situations on the ice.

"When you're digging [your own] boat out of an ice floe, the line between acting and real life is very thin," he says.

It was most difficult to shoot on sea ice. "It was like being on another planet. The ice constantly shifts, the landscape is constantly changing. But it is heart-stoppingly beautiful. There is near 24-hour daylight, but from 11 'til 2 in the morning, a dazzling twilight – the sky is pink, orange, red, blue – an astonishing place to be."

* * *

Another interesting, if somewhat ham-fisted, telefilm this week is Joyce Carol Oates's We Were the Mulvaneys (Lifetime, April 8, 9-11 p.m.). It's a cautionary tale about a family that responds to a crisis with moral cowardice, failing to love one another enough.

In 1974, Mom and Dad Mulvaney (Blythe Danner and Beau Bridges) have everything – a fine farm, two thriving businesses, and four healthy, happy teenage children. But when the daughter Marianne is date-raped by the son of a leading citizen in the small town, nobody does the right thing. The daughter is sent away, as if she were the guilty one, and her brothers steam in impotent rage at their father. They scatter to the winds.

The story does find its resolution in love, but only when each individual awakens to his or her responsibility for the family's disintegration. In the end, it's a gripping, meaningful story, if a tad sentimentalized.

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